Anxiety and Orthorexia

People who want to eat healthy food don’t become orthorexic unless there is something deeper going on. Often, that deeper something is best described as anxiety.

The most obvious anxiety related to orthorexia is fear of illness. You want to believe that if you are very careful with what you eat, you will be safe from every health problem that scares you, whether its cancer, bloating, blemished skin or depression. But it goes further than that. Whether you are conscious of it or not, somewhere along the line you began to use food as a primary strategy to fend off every kind of anxiety. When you are stressed about relationships, your job, the purpose of life or what your friends think of you; when it is guilt, shame, love or loss that has put you off balance, the magic cure is to eat pure food.

Deep down, you know perfectly well this is a lie you tell yourself in order to cope. While food is important for health, the slice of pizza you eat today is NOT going to give you cancer tomorrow, nor will eating the best diet in the world immunize you against illness. Furthermore, diet cannot give you love, friendship, meaning or happiness. Food, in the end, is just stuff you put in your mouth.  

One residential treatment program for orthorexia I recently heard about uses a clever strategy to help people understand how they use food to fend off all forms of anxiety. In this program, the food is served by a chef closely advised by dietitians. The rules of the game are that the chef may not under any circumstances reveal whether the food served in a given meal is organic or not, whether it has preservatives, contains GMOs, etc. In point of fact, the food served in the program is mostly organic and chemical-free, but not 100% of the time, and there is no way for the people who eat the food to know when they are consuming substances that their theory of eating would forbid. (People in the program also keep a journal of how they feel, and it turns out that they do NOT guess correctly when they have eaten “impure” food.)

As you might imagine, for a person with orthorexia this is extremely anxiety-provoking. Not only does it stimulate food-related worries, it removes the possibility of using food purity as a coping mechanism against other forms of worry. And that is the real point: The experience forces participants to begin to develop a range of ways to cope with daily stress, rather than abusing food purity as the answer to every problem. 

You might object that it is truly rational to be concerned about food additives, whether vegetables are organic, and etc. Wouldn’t any sane person would want to eat healthy food? Perhaps yes. But no matter what dietary rule you believe to be correct, it simply can’t be necessary from a health-related perspective to follow it without exception. The quantity of pesticides contained in a single serving of non-organic food is dwarfed by the quantity of chemicals taken in simply by living and breathing in the modern world. You focus on food because it’s something you can control. And that’s perfectly sensible — but only to a point. Past that point further purification of your diet won’t make you healthier; it will only make you more obsessive.

A mostly “pure” diet is good enough. Aiming for 100% is only an excuse not to come to terms with the elephant in the room: Life, in all its messy glory.

— Steven Bratman, MD, MPH

To contact me, leave a comment, or find me on Twitter @StevenBratman

On Purity

Eating clean grabs at you because it stirs the quest for purity. That’s what’s behind the cleanse, the detox, the quest for total avoidance of imperfect food. Orthorexia flows from the same impulse that drove the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages: cleansing from sin.

In dietary purity, one seeks to be physically holy, and holier than others. Just as the monk self-flagellated for sexual desire, the food purist self-punishes for wanting coffee, meat or sugar. “I have befouled myself with non-organic chips, I am unclean. ” Total commitment to a pure food diet is a vow of food chastity, a war against the lower desires of the flesh.

But the search for absolute purity is a rejection of the natural self.  It is as much a war against the body as the crusades of any puritanical religion.

James HIllman, the great Jungian, distinguished between soul and spirit. Spirit is the sky, the air, pure light, vast emptiness, the high you get while fasting. The soul is deeply felt passion, character and joy. To become pure spirit is to become an angel; to become soulful requires embracing the intestinal, sweaty, impure physical reality of human being.

It is a greater, and more difficult thing to be a whole human being than an angel.

Eat healthy food but sometimes give in to desire.

Don’t try to be perfect. Try to be whole.

–Steven Bratman, MD, MPH

To contact me, leave a comment, or find me on Twitter @StevenBratman



What is Orthorexia?

Orthorexia nervosa, as I defined it in 1996, indicates an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. The term is derived utilizing the Greek “orthos,” which means “right,” or “correct,” and is intended as a parallel with anorexia nervosa. I originally invented the word as a kind of “tease therapy” for my overly diet-obsessed patients. Over time, however, I came to understand that the term identifies a genuine eating disorder.

Please note that I do not, and have never claimed that vegetarianism, veganism, or any other nutritionally sound approach to eating healthy food is in itself a disorder. That would be absurd! Nor do I think that people who pay close attention to labels on the foods they mean to purchase are demonstrating a psychological problem (as some web articles on orthorexia would appear to imply.) Finally, I entirely agree that the problem of addiction to junk food is immensely more prevalent than obsession with healthy food.

Nonetheless, it is possible to have an unhealthy obsession with healthy food.

Anorexia is the parallel. Obesity is by far the biggest lifestyle-related health issue today, and every reasonably health-conscious person does what is necessary to achieve and maintain a normal BMI. Still, for various psychological reasons some people go overboard and become anorexic. Similarly, any reasonably health conscious person would wish to minimize intake of preservatives, pesticides, antibiotics and all the other garbage that pollutes our food supply. However, some people who are devoted to healthy eating go overboard and develop an eating disorder in relation to that focus, just as some people in their quest to avoid obesity become anorexic.

For people with orthorexia, eating healthily has become an extreme, obsessive, psychologically limiting and sometimes physically dangerous disorder, related to but quite distinct from anorexia. Often, orthorexia seems to have elements of OCD, as does anorexia. Some people with orthorexia may in fact additionally have anorexia, either overtly or covertly (using pure food as a socially acceptable way of reducing weight.) But orthorexia is usually not very much like typical OCD or typical anorexia. It has an aspirational, idealistic, spiritual component which allows it to become deeply rooted in a person’s identity. It is most often only a psychological problem in which food concerns become so dominant that other dimensions of life suffer neglect. In rare cases, however, it can be much more severe, even resulting in death via malnutrition.

The primary feature distinguishing orthorexia from anorexia is that while a person with anorexia focuses on weight, a person with orthorexia obsesses about purity. People with anorexia possess a distorted body image in which they see themselves as fat regardless of how thin they really are, whereas those with orthorexia constantly struggle against feelings of being unclean or polluted by what they have eaten, no matter how carefully they monitor their diet. Both conditions involve control, but whereas an anorexic seeks continually to reduce weight, an orthorexic feels compelled to achieve ever great heights of dietary perfection; to feel entirely clean, pure and transparent. Sometimes people recovering from anorexia “graduate” to orthorexia, keeping their disordered eating habits and moving the focus from weight to purity.

Orthorexia is not yet a DSM diagnosis, and I am not sure that it should be. There is a tendency in the modern world to pathologize an increasing number of human behaviors and I have no desire to contribute to this trend. On the other hand, naming has power. I have heard people say, “I want to eat healthfully, but I don’t want to be orthorexic.” Perhaps this is the best possible use of the word.

Do you have orthorexia? Ask yourselves these questions: Do you turn to healthy food as a primary source of happiness and meaning, even spirituality? Does your diet make you feel better than other people? Does it interfere with relationships or work, friends or family? Do you use pure foods as a sword and shield to ward off anxiety, not just about health problems but about everything that makes you insecure? Do foods help you feel in control more than really makes sense? Do you have to carry your diet to further and further extremes to provide the same kick? If you stray even minimally from your chosen diet, do you feel a compulsive need to cleanse? Has your interest in healthy food expanded past reasonable boundaries to become a kind of brain parasite, controlling your life rather than furthering your goals?

Food, no matter how pure, cannot fill the space in your soul that longs for love and spiritual experience. If you are trying to use it for this purpose, you may have gone astray on your journey.

Perhaps the resources on this site may be helpful, including my occasional blog posts. You might consider reading my book, Health Food Junkies. But most of all, if you feel your condition has become too much for you to manage on your own, visit an eating disorder specialist who understands orthorexia.


Steven Bratman, MD

To contact me, leave a comment, or find me on Twitter @StevenBratman