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So Healthy It’s Sick

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 healthy eating that he wound up hurting himself.

The book also talked about some people that Steven met that became so obsessed with health foods that some of them got severely sock, and some 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 equates to righteous eating; a fixation in eating what is subjectively deemed “proper”.

Bateman defines orthorexia as an obsession with eating healthy food and avoiding unhealthy food, to the point it becomes physically or mentally unhealthy.

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 someone who is struggling from anorexia has the obsession with their own body image and restricts their food intake to an unhealthy degree as a result, those suffering from orthorexia are fixated on food and bodily purity.

The anorexic person may skip meals or skimp on amounts of food to avoid weight gain, while the orthorexic would obsess over the quality of or pesticide residues on their food and how “clean” it is.

But is there such thing as “orthorexia”, or an actual obsession with healthful eating?

When I interviewed Dr. 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 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 crazy with this diet obsession, many others go the other way and don’t care at all about what they eat, much like the general public.

And while it’s nice not to have to really pay any mind to the food we eat, much of the time it does result at the very least people not feeling their best, and at worst, developing anything from a long list of other maladies stricken by the average eater.

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 straight.

Many people obsess about little details, such as making sure everything they eat is absolutely 100% raw and organic and spend considerable amounts of time, money, and energy in doing so. Although they do end up undoing most if not 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 focus: 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.

Alas, they end up spending most of their time in isolation out of fear of having to eat or be put in a situation where there are unpure foods present.

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.

Dr. 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” may be:

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 more and more strict with yourself?

6.) Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the foods you now 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. I was so obsessed with this ideal of raw foodism, but at the same time filled with cravings and felt unsatisfied. I was even having dreams of eating various 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 any which way you slice it.

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 trap”, you don’t need to let it control you and your entire being. There really is more to living healthfully than just eating healthfully.

Here are a few guidelines I’d like to give everyone to help him or her avoid any mental or physical struggles with their food or bodily purity:

1.) Don’t just eat anything and everything , “because it’s raw”.

2.) Don’t absolutely refuse to eat something that’s not organic especially if the alternative truly is far less healthy. A commercial banana is still better than “organic” soy ice-cream or organic raw cheesecake. Organic and vegan pies, pastries, and other delicacies are still foods that need to be reserved for special occasions, or at least not eaten everyday.

3.) Don’t think that just because you value healthful living that everyone else feels the same way. Or that you are somehow better or more enlightened because of your newfound pursuits in dietary purity. You didn’t reach this level of dietary goodness your whole life until now, there’s no need to alienate your friends and family by being “holier than thou”.

4.) Compare yourself with yourself, rather than with others such as raw food “gurus” and anybody else who claims to be an expert on any topic and extolls their virtues and wisdom from (soap) boxes on high.

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. And if you never learn anything new, you’re never going to grow.

7.) Treat others and yourself with dignity and respect. Food is only one aspect of your life!

What have been some of your experiences with orthorexia, food purity, and the mind-body relationship?


PS: If you’re interested in my book Raw Food Controversies, you can get it on sale this week only at a 40% discount using coupon code: 0930EZINE
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.