Orthorexia nervosa, as I originally defined it, indicates an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. The term is derived from the Greek “ortho,” which means “right,” or “correct,” and is intended as a parallel with anorexia nervosa.
I realize this sounds like an oxymoron. How can focusing on healthy food be bad for you? The apparent contradiction has led to a great deal of challenge of the concept.
But the emphasis is intended to be on “unhealthy obsession.” One can have an unhealthy obsession with something that is otherwise healthy. Think of exercise addiction, or workaholism. I never intended the expression to apply to anything other than extreme cases of over-focus, particularly where the person themselves would rather lighten up and stop thinking about it so much.
Subsequent to the publication of my book Health Food Junkies, I was made aware of a rare, darker form of orthorexia, in which the fixation can lead to death. There are some, now, who use “orthorexia” alone to indicate the milder obsession and “orthorexia nervosa” to refer to the dangerous type.
At times (but not at all times) orthorexia seems to have elements of OCD. It may also have elements of standard anorexia. But it is often not very much like typical OCD or typical anorexia. In any case, I am not an eating disorder specialist, and I do not claim that orthorexia nervosa is or should be a DSM diagnosis. I leave that to others.
If you recognize yourself in any of this, perhaps the resources on this site may be helpful. The (extremely non-best-selling) book Health Food Junkies may also be of use.
Steven Bratman, MD
Addendum: If you are a young woman with orthorexia, or concerned about one, I strongly recommend that you check out The Blonde Vegan. The author of this hugely successful blog is publicly going through a process of discovering and recovering from her own orthorexia. I think she is doing important work.