In December of 2003, I received the news that Kate Finn died of orthorexia.
Kate contacted me prior to the publication of Health Food Junkies and influenced my writing of it. Later, she gave media interviews about orthorexia, and posted an article discussing her recovery. Sadly, this recovery was not as complete as she hoped, and she later died of heart failure brought on by orthorexia-induced starvation.
In her article, Kate tells of the time when doctors diagnosed her with anorexia. She resisted the diagnosis and their recommended treatment because it just didn’t seem to fit. She wasn’t afraid of being fat. She didn’t want to be thin. She just wanted to eat healthy food. In her mind, she was sick, and therefore needed to cleanse. As a result, she brought her weight down so low it killed her.
Most often, orthorexia merely creates psychological distress and impairs various life dimensions, but does not present a physical danger. However, emaciation is common among followers of certain health food diets, such raw foodism, and this can at times reach the extremes seen in anorexia nervosa. Such “anorexic orthorexia” is just as dangerous as anorexia. However, the underlying motivation is different. While an anorexic primarily wants to lose weight, an orthorexic primarily wants to feel pure. Eating disorder specialists unfamiliar with orthorexia may fail to understand this distinction, leading to a disconnect between patient and provider.
Whatever the motivation, there’s nothing healthy and natural about starving yourself to death! If you’re obsessed with healthy diet, and yet people tell you that you are seriously underweight, please take Kate’s story to heart. You may not be anorexic in the ordinary sense, and yet what you have may kill you.
If you feel any of this applies to you, please seek help from an eating disorders specialist who is familiar with the concept of orthorexia. Fortunately, since the time of Kate’s death, the concept of orthorexia has become much better known, and many providers and eating disorder treatment programs have learned to work with it.
Steven Bratman, MD, MPH