These selections from the comments sections tell stories about othorexia. Some are particularly insightful, while others are just plain heartbreaking. You may see reflections of yourself.
Alexa writes: I recently came across your article and I believe that my sister is suffering from orthorexia. She is a hard core vegan who never strays from healthy eating and never misses a workout, even if she is injured. She has a lot of anxiety and she is constantly thinking about her next meal. She is pretty much the exact person that you described above. My mom and I are very concerned and we are just wondering if you can suggest somewhere that we can get help for her, or guide us in the right direction. We are kind of at a loss for what to do, or even what to say to her. Do you treat people for this?
My reply: I want to start out by saying that being a hard core vegan in itself doesn’t equate to orthorexia. It’s only orthorexia if it is diminishing her life in some way. If she enjoys it, and if she is eating adequate nutrition so that her health isn’t being harmed, my thought would be not to worry about it. It’s only if the interest in diet has become an unhealthy obsession, and is causing some kind of harm that the term orthorexia applies. I would suggest as a first step that you show her the essay, and see if it resonates for her.
Alexa replies: Oh I agree with you completely! I am also a vegan, and it is something that my sister and I have bonded over. However, her journey to eat healthier started about a year ago when she made a decision to start maintaing a healthier diet and exercising. She then decided that she wanted to become a vegan, which is fine, but since then she has lost an unnecessary 15 pounds and I find that she is restricting her diet more and more each day, cutting out carbs and other things because she thinks they will make her fat. She has a lot of digestive issues, and I think she is very hard on herself. I had her read this essay, as well as the questions on the ‘What is Orthorexia’ page, and she answered yes to all of them. She knows she has a problem, and she wants to make things right. She is only 15, so I am hopeful that she can turn her life around, but we just don’t know where to take her, or what to do.
My reply: OK, yes, you have now definitely illustrated the difference between being vegan and being orthorexic: If nothing else, it’s the fact that she knows she has a problem, and also that she is escalating the restrictions.
Dave writes: You go along in your life, and you have anxiety about your health. You feel that at any moment the finger of God can come down and strike you dead. Your sword and shield against this fear is: I can eat healthy food; this will protect me. This becomes obviously exaggerated; you think that the cheese you eat today will give you a heart attack tomorrow, that the fast you go on tomorrow will save you from coming down with colon cancer next week.
But really, the sword and shield is not that pure food protects you from ill health; rather, you use the idea that food protects you from ill health to shield you from all anxiety.
Helene writes: My 30 y.o. son was muscular, trim and fit being 6 feet tall and 200 lbs. He always ate a healthy, balanced diet until about a year ago when he gradually became obsessed with food purity. His diet became more and more restrictive. He couldn’t eat at restaurants or at other people’s houses. If invited somewhere, he brought his own food. Only organic foods, specific combination regimens, not this, not that, etc… He spent hours everyday shopping, chopping, preparing, making mega messes in the kitchen and thinking about food. That’s all he talked about. He lost most of his friends over this compulsive, purist behavior and he gradually became more and more isolated.
He didn’t feel depressed and thought he was doing very well. He was proud of his will-power to maintain this extremely stringent regimen. He made remonstrances to us. Even when we were health conscious, it was never enough. If, for some reason, he felt like he had strayed from his diet, he compensated the next day by not eating, to detox. At times, he was very hungry and succombed to binge eating (all organic and healthy). He felt he was loosing control and became terrified of eating too much. He lost the sense of eating when hungry. He couldn’t keep up with all the time spent in the kitchen making his own sauerkraut, fermented veggies, spouted grains and beans, kefir, etc… It became easier to not eat and he started skipping more and more meals, especially at work. He got to the point where he wasn’t hungry anymore.
He rapidly lost weight. He lost all his muscles and became severely emaciated. Literally just skin and bones, he looked like a Holocaust survivor, all the while believing he was doing great and was healthy. He didn’t see himself as too thin. He had trouble moving, walking, lifting his arms. He fell asleep at the wheel several times. He went down to 109 lbs. His speech slowed as well as his mental functioning. His hands turned blue. His nails got deformed. His legs swelled. He was dying.
A few weeks ago, we finally found an eating disorder specialist who mentioned the name orthorexia. We read an article about it on-line and found this web-site. It fit to a T. It was very hopeful to finally see that he is not the only one experiencing this disorder. There is even a name for it (now) which is somehow reassuring because it means that someone recognizes that this conditions exists and there might be a way out of it.
My son is now working at recovering from it. He’s too weak to work. It is very difficult to break his obsessions and convince him to eat a wider variety of food. I hope he has not suffered permanent damage to his organs, particularly his heart. He so wanted to be healthy. This disease kills.
In our family, we believe in eating healthy and we do well with it. For him, it got out of hands. He got trapped in an obsession with food purity and almost died. Yes, it is ironic and weird. But it’s real.
Alyssa writes: Thank you for writing this. I suffer from Anorexia and Bulimia. When I’m doing well with my recovery from those, I find myself replacing them with Orthorexia. This article helped me see that I’m merely replacing one set of eating disorders with another. Now that I can recognize that, perhaps I can find a healthy, happy medium in which (despite being a life-long vegetarian) I can eat in a more moderate mentally healthy way.
M. writes: I just wanted you to know that your book was of great help to me a few years ago. I had slowly slid into Raw-veganism and, for me, it was unhealthy because I was obsessed. It’s quite a rabbit hole to fall into, if, like me, you have a perfectionistic/addictive personality. I came across your book when I was just contemplating leaving the Raw-Vegan lifestyle. There’s so much shame and (probably unintentional) manipulation in that lifestyle, if one is plugged into message boards or local groups. I felt enormous guilt and anguish at the thought of transistioning back to more balanced eating, and that is when I found your book. It was like “The Emporer’s New Clothes” and I felt such relief to know that, yeah, I had been crazy and that now I could eat whatever food and be ok. More importantly, I eventually overcame the obsession with food itself. By the way, I totally relate to the episode you wrote about the avocado at it’s peak stage of ripeness and your urgency to eat it. So true, lol! To haters: eat whatever you like, even vegan raw. As long as you don’t obsess over your diet, judge others morally on their diet and are able to comfortably eat foods not on your diet (rather than starve), you are perfectly fine and don’t fit the orthorexia criteria. No one is saying your ideology is wrong. It’s the people like me, who become obsessed who are/were sick who can be labeled, so just chill out.
Renee writes: I have not read your book but I’m very interested in this topic. One of the problems, as I see it, is that people recovering from anorexia/bulimia often have digestive problems. So when they seek out advice on how to heal their guts, and their doctors throw up their hands, the alternative health community is quick to respond by instructing them to cut out entire food groups and eat in a hyper-restrictive, hyper-vigilant way – which just fuels the fears and obsessions around food.
At least that’s what happened to me. I spent years and thousands of dollars seeking help formy digestive problems after anorexia, and I got nowhere. I just got more freaked out about food, more broke, more underweight and more sick. So my point is that people with anorexia/bulimia are more succeptible to orthorexia and that health practicioners should be cautious, when dealing with eating-disordered clients, to focus more on whether they are eating enough (which no one did with me, even though I was patently underweight), rather than convince them that they are hurting themselves by eating a normal North American diet, as I was let to believe.
TH writes: I have been trying to find a way to contact you since finding your article online describing orthorexia. My brother is in serious danger of losing his life due this disorder; values he holds in the extreme, apparently to the death in his case. He has been hospitalized for almost two months and unfortunately there is no sensitivity to his condition and the treatment to date seems almost as bad or worse than his condition. We are in Los Angeles. I would greatly appreciate a chance to speak with you and am seeking the benefit of your experience as I try to help him
Emily writes, “Wow. When I first heard of orthorexia last year, I realized that I had gone through it myself. I’m now in a place where I feel able to eat just about anything, though I choose healthy, home-cooked foods most of the time because I like them. I do not feel deprived. As a food therapist and health counselor, I still struggle to keep my diet suggestions simple: add in whole, organic, fresh foods (you’ll find that they quickly and effortlessly start to replace some of the “bad” food in your diet without having to use willpower), and focus on the other areas of your life (career, relationships, spirituality) where you are starving and need non-food sustenance.
Food is a powerful substance–as powerful as any drug or spiritual experience. Orthorexics suffer, I believe, from the same thing as fast-food addicts, overeaters, and anyone who puts their focus on the tangible: lack of purpose. We all need purpose in our lives: and purpose is found in our careers, relationships, and spiritual disciplines. We need exercise that isn’t only for the sake of effort or weight loss, but also for clearing our heads, enjoying our bodies and what they can do, and celebrating nature. When we are unhappy or focused too much on any one of these areas, we become imbalanced, and what we eat is almost always affected.”
GRP writes: “I have recently come out of a long and loving relationship with a wonderful young woman who suffers from this exact condition combined with OCD and an exercise compulsion. The amount of unrelenting, crippling stress and anxiety it placed on her, and to a degree myself as I tried to support and understand her, over the 4 1/2 years we were together is impossible for me to encapsulate in a few sentences. It is incredibly distressing to see someone go through this as they strive to do the best for themselves in such a self destructive way. Up until now every health professional has misunderstood her. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed that some people have dismissed the notion of Orthorexia, (very rudely in some cases here). I can assure them it is real and the cause of misery. Dr Bratman should be supported in his endeavours to help sufferers and I applaud his efforts.”
D1Xcrunner writes: “I know this ‘healthy eating disorder’ is going to get a bad rap in a largely-overweight community, but as a national-caliber athlete, I can testify to how this is a disorder in itself. It’s not that the people are eating healthy, but that they are so mentally worried about eating “healthily” that they physically display symptoms of malnutrition. Maybe it’s because a “eat healthy or don’t eat at all” mentality gets developed.