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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 sick, 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, and 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 to, but different than, anorexia. “Orthorexia” is the specific obsession with food and bodily “purity,” not weight and appearance.

Someone who is struggling with anorexia is obsessed with their body image and restricts their food intake to an unhealthy degree. Those suffering from orthorexia fixate 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 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 idea 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 crazy with this diet obsession, many others go the other way and don’t care at all about what they eat.

And while it’s nice to eat whatever you feel like eating, much of the time it does result in health problems.

So it does make sense to care about what you eat and want to improve your health with a plant-based diet and the judicious use of fasting, but it’s important to keep things in the right perspective.

To me, the most significant problem that I see with vegans and other “health foodists” is their priorities.

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, funds, and energy in doing so.

Although they do end up undoing most if not all the benefits by making BIG mistakes, such as overeating fat or not exercising at all.

Some people are so obsessed with their 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 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.

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”.

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 the 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.

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 is more to living healthfully than just eating healthfully.

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


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.