When virtue of eating trumps pleasure


A recent Dear Abby column introduced to the world — at least the part of the world that still reads Dear Abby columns — the eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa.

The writer said that she has recently developed a healthy lifestyle, but she is worried that she is becoming obsessed with it. “It has become harder and harder to eat away from home,” she wrote. “I constantly plan what I’m going to eat next. I’m still happy, but too much of my time is being spent on this.”

It was the writer herself, who was identified as Obsessed in Boston, who brought up the diagnosis of orthorexia, calling it “a disorder similar to anorexia.” Basically, it is when a person’s quality of life suffers because of his or her obsessive efforts to eat healthfully.

Orthorexia nervosa is not recognized as a condition by the medical establishment; the term was coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997 in an article published in Yoga magazine (admittedly, not one of the primary medical journals). As sometimes happens in the world of medicine, he stumbled on the concept by examining his own experience.

Dr. Bratman readily admits he is not an eating disorder specialist. His interest in the field of orthorexia comes from a time, 35 years ago, when he lived and worked on an organic farm commune.

As often happens on communes (back where there were communes), his was divided into factions. The vegetarians fought the minority who also wanted meat. The vegans demanded nothing be made from milk or egg products. The “Hindu-influenced crowd,” as he put it his original essay, asked that none of their food be prepared with onions or garlic. And he had to cook for them all.

At the time, he said, he felt the self-righteous joy of knowing that he was eating only food that was healthy. He had achieved a kind of nirvana of culinary purity. Best of all, from his point of view, he got to lecture people who did not eat as healthfully as he did.

But after a few years of this, he came to notice that he had become obsessed. He was spending all of his time thinking about food. As he wrote in his 1997 essay, “I began to sense that the poetry of my life had diminished … The problem of my life’s meaning had been transferred inexorably to food, and I could not reclaim it.”

Obviously, he still has a bit of the commune in him. But you get the point.

Once he overcame the problem in himself, he began to notice it in others. Perhaps you, too, know people who refuse to eat so many things for reasons of health that they deny themselves the opportunity to dine socially with others.

Naturally, he had stirred up quite a lot of hatred with his theory (one section of his Web site, orthorexia.com, is devoted to hate mail). People accuse him of promoting unhealthy eating, of being dismissive of exercise, and, with a curious frequency, of supporting the chemical giant Monsanto’s policy of patenting genetically modified grain seed.

But he defends himself well, saying that he does, in fact, recommend healthful eating and exercise. The problem comes when people become obsessed by it, when they center their lives around the desire to avoid eating unhealthy things. It becomes a compulsion, he says, and he suspects it might be related to obsessive-compulsive disorder.

For all the hate mail, he receives an equal number of letters from people thanking him for identifying something that they or their loved ones have suffered from. Once there was a name for it and a description, people could recognize it in themselves and seek help for it from qualified professionals.

If you suspect you may suffer from orthorexia, Dr. Bratman has devised a 10-question quiz, including “Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?” and “Has the quality of your life decreased since the quality of your diet has increased?”

The quiz can easily be found on the Internet. If you fear you might have a problem, it might be worthwhile to seek it out.

Contact Daniel Neman at dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.