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an extreme obsession with eating healthy foods
'This extreme phobia about food isn't about weight loss but about adhering to as pure a diet as possible, and its new name is "orthorexia nervosa".'
'Orthorexics believe, "My body is a temple, I must eat only high-quality food".'The Observer September 2001
Issues surrounding healthy eating have developed major significance in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As food choices widen, so do the concerns about genetically-modified products, additives and the processing of foods.
for many orthorexics, drinks must be pure – the idea of drinking simple tap water is completely abhorrent and only organic rain water will suffice
At the pinnacle of such healthy eating concerns, a brand new eating disorder has been identified: orthorexia. Orthorexia describes a constraining desire to eat the healthiest food possible, usually food in its purest form, which has not been contaminated by additives or cooking processes. The term orthorexic can be used adjectivally, or as a countable noun to refer to individuals suffering from the condition. For many orthorexics, drinks must be equally pure – the idea of drinking simple tap water is completely abhorrent and only organic rain water will suffice! Orthorexia is also associated with an extreme obsession with cleanliness of cooking environments and sterilisation of cooking utensils.
The term has been the subject of fervent debate in the medical world, some arguing that orthorexia is not valid as a bona fide eating disorder since, unlike other identified psychological conditions, it does not always begin with an attitude of low self-esteem. However, even in the virtual world there is substantial evidence for 'food phobia', as websites such as www.beyondveg.com provide recipes and dietary information to fuel the needs of the orthorexic.
The term orthorexia was coined in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman, a Californian practitioner in alternative medicine. Bratman claims to have identified the onset of the condition within himself when he was an organic farmer in a New York commune during the 1970s. It was here that he finally decided that his preoccupation with food was unnatural and that it was healthier to enjoy a pizza with friends than to dine alone on bean sprouts! To assist others to reach the same conclusion, Bratman has set up a website www.orthorexia.com. He has also created an 'orthorexia self-test' for food phobes.
The word orthorexia is modelled on the term for the well-known eating disorder anorexia, where orexis is the Greek word for 'appetite', and the prefix an- indicates 'without'. In place of an-, Bratman has substituted ortho-, from the Greek orthos meaning 'correct or right'.
This article was first published on 3rd January 2004.