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Do Raw Foodists Have an Eating Disorder like Orthorexia?

A few years ago, I did an interview with Dr. Steven Bratman, M.D., who wrote the book “Health Food Junkies,” which was his personal story of how he became so fixated with healthful eating that eventually his quality of life diminished.

The book also talked about some people that Steven met that became so obsessed with health foods that some of them got really sick or even died.

In my interview, Dr. Bratman confessed that the book did not become very popular, because the average person did not care about crazy health foodists, while the “health food junkies” that he talked about were not going to buy a book on the subject.

So the book is now out of print, but the term “orthorexia” that Bratman introduced in his book is now something you’ll hear once in a while.

Orthorexia comes from the Greek word “ortho” which means “right or correct”, and “orexia” which means “eating”, so it’s righteous eating; a fixation in eating. He defines orthorexia as an obsession with eating healthy food, and avoiding unhealthy food.

To Steven Bratman, “orthorexia” is a mental disorder similar but different to anorexia. “Orthorexia” is the specific obsession with food and bodily “purity,” not weight and appearance.

So while an anorexic person might starve herself just to look skinny, the orthorexic could decide to gorge on avocados, or go on a 6-month coconut water fast, depending on what they feel will most “purify” their bodies.

Is there such thing as “orthorexia” or an actual obsession with healthful eating?

When I interviewed Steven Bratman, he seemed convinced that there was very little evidence that eating junk food such as potato chips or even steak was actually bad for you.

It seemed to me that because he was so obsessed with food quality in the past, he took it to the other extreme by not caring at all about what he eats now.

However, I do think that some people can get a little too obsessed with food and the ideal of “purity” that they end up hurting themselves.

As I talked about in my new book Raw Food Controversies, I even met people that died due to their unhealthful obsession with purity.

I think that while some people go totally loco with this obsession with diet, many others go the other way and don’t care at all about what they eat much like the general public.

And we know what that brings: diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, not to mention that this poor diet is the main reason why most people feel so tired and terrible most of the time.

So it does make sense to care about what you eat and want to improve your health with raw foods, green smoothies and fasting, but it’s important to keep things in the right perspective.

To me, the biggest problem that I see with raw foodists and other “health foodists” is that they don’t have their priorities right.

Many people obsess about little details such as making sure everything they eat is absolutely 100% raw and organic and spend considerable time, money and energy in doing so, while at the same time undo all the benefits by making BIG mistakes such as eating too much fat or not exercising at all.

Some people are so obsessed with diet that they find it becomes their primary preoccupation: they can’t stop thinking about what they’re going to eat, and experience anxiety if they are in a situation where their dietary needs can’t be met so they spend most of their time eating at home alone out of fear.

Others always feel like their diet is not “good enough,” going from a fairly strict raw food diet to one that eliminates ALL fats, spices, and condiments and eventually many of these people do so much fasting, cleansing and detox that they end up depleting their bodies to the point of no return.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Healthful eating is healthful, as long as we keep things in perspective.

Steven Bratman wrote in his book: “When an orthorexic falls off the path, the only remedy is an act of penitence, which usually involves stricter diets or even fasting to cleanse away the traces of unhealthy foods.”

He also says: “Whereas the bulimics and anorexics focus on the quantity of food, the orthorexic fixates on its quality. All three – the bulimic, anorexic, and orthorexic – give to food a vastly excessive place in the scheme of life”.

How can you tell if you’re an orthorexic person?

Try it now, for fun!

Give yourself a point for each question. The more points you accumulate, the more “orthorexic” you are :

1. Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food? If you do, give yourself a point; if you spend more, give yourself two points.
2. Do you plan tomorrow’s food, today? So, do you think in advance “what am I going to eat tomorrow?”.
3. Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat, rather than the pleasure you get from eating it.
4. Have you found that as the quality of your diet increased, the quality of your life has diminished?
5. Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
6. Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed, to eat the foods you believe are right?
7. Do you feel a sense of self-esteem when you eat healthy food; do you look down on others who don’t?
8. Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
9. Does your diet socially isolate you?
10. When you are eating the way you are supposed, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?

When I look at the questionnaire above, I can honestly say that there was a point in my life where I would have answered “yes” to almost every single question.

I used to think about food all the time, to the point where it would be my main topic of conversation with EVERYONE. I tried all kinds of strict “detox” diets, hoping to finally experience the benefits promised to me by the raw food gurus, but nothing worked!

In fact, with time, I became sicker and sicker. In fact, I was so obsessed with this ideal of raw foodism, but at the same time filled with cravings and felt unsatisfied, that I was having dreams of eating cooked junk foods.

In one dream, I remember eating a giant chocolate cake, and waking up the next morning feeling so guilty, as if I had just killed somebody!

That is just not healthy!

Now, even though I do still think it’s important to have some measure of control over your diet and not fall for the “everything in moderation” including junk food trap, don’t be so obsessed about your diet that your decisions are driven by an ideal rather than good common sense. For example:

1) Don’t just eat anything and everything because it’s “raw”
2) Don’t refuse to eat something that’s not organic, IF the alternative food is less healthy. A commercial banana is still better than “organic” soy ice-cream or organic raw cheesecake. Organic fat or junkfood is still junk.
3) Don’t think that just because you value healthful living, that everyone else feels the same way and that you’re somehow better and more “enlightened” than them. This just alienates your friends and family.
4) Compare yourself with yourself, rather than with others such as raw food “gurus”.
5) Realize that it’s okay to give yourself goals, but sometimes fall off the wagon and pick yourself up again. It’s just part of the process.
6) Stay a bit flexible in your approach, and be open to new ideas. You will never learn anything new with a closed mind.
7) Treat others and yourself with dignity and respect. Food is only one aspect of your life!

What’s your own experience with “orthorexia?”

Get the new book “Raw Food Controversies” and learn all about the biggest mistakes raw foodists make with their health, and what to think of the latest raw food theories! Go to: http://www.fredericpatenaude.com/rawfoodcontroversies/

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.