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Can a healthy eating obsession become an eating disorder?

For some, an obsession with healthy eating can lead to an eating disorder.
For some, an obsession with healthy eating can lead to an eating disorder.
Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

What happens when a desire for healthy eating becomes an obsession with finding the "perfect diet"? Is it possible to be so concerned about the quality of your food that it can lead to an eating disorder?

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the answer is yes. The disorder is called Orthorexia Nervosa, which describes a "fixation on righteous eating." It describes a condition of being almost obsessive-compulsive in eliminating any possible health risks from your diet, to the point that you begin to suffer from nutrient deficiencies.

It starts with good intentions. For instance, you may decide that you only will eat organic produce. Then you narrow it down even more by only eating organic produce that is grown locally. Then you become concerned with GMO cross pollination, so you eliminate any foods that have a GMO equivalent. Eventually you can narrow your diet down enough that you begin to be malnourished because of the lack of variety in your diet.

That's only one example. Other forms have people working to eliminate all preservatives, all sugars, all fats, all salt, etc.

The human body needs to be fed quite a variety of foods in order to get all of the nutrients you need to live a healthy life. When those foods are eliminated from the diet, you are depriving your system what it needs to function properly.

The term was coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997, and wrote a book about in in 2001, "Health Food Junkies".

Currently orthorexia is not officially recognized as a mental disorder, so there are no official records of how many people are affected by this disorder. People suffering usually aren't treated until the disorder progresses to a recognized disorder, such as anorexia. However,clinicians are starting to report more cases, and there is a move to get it officially recognized.