"Orthorexia" is defined as an obsession with "healthy or righteous eating". The phrase was first created in 1997 by California doctor Steven Bratman, and refers to people who create severely limited diets in the name of healthy eating. It often begins with someone's simple and genuine desire to live a healthy lifestyle. The person may choose to stop eating red meat, but eventually cuts out all meat; then all processed foods, and will eventually eat only specific foods that are prepared in very specific ways.
Some psychologists have noticed a change in attitude towards people who have "quirky" eating habits, which may contribute to the rising trend of orthorexic-type diets. Systems like the Atkins Diet - which limits the intake of carbohydrates - have made out-of-the-ordinary dietary restrictions seem normal. And many bookstore shelves are replete with this type of material.
"Where 'that quirkiness used to reduce your status', says Deanne Jade, a psychologist and founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders in Britain, 'the attachment to strange eating systems and theories is now supported by a thriving industry and gives people a sense of status.'"1
For nearly a decade, orthorexia wasn't recognized as an eating disorder, and there's still some confusion as to whether or not it should be. Some medical experts believe it's actually another form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, citing the fact that "less intense" forms of orthorexic behavior aren't dangerous. Where orthorexia is similar is in its obsessive nature. It is based on an obsessive fixation on food, just as with anorexia or bulimia. The difference is that orthorexia fixates on defining the "right" foods, foods that can be safely eaten. A person with orthorexia will spend just as much time and energy thinking about food as someone with bulimia or anorexia. They may not think about calories, but they think about the overall "health benefits"; how the food was processed, prepared, etc. Because of this, opinions have begun shifting in the last few years and orthorexia is now believed to be its own condition, separate from obsessive-compulsive or other eating disorders.
Orthorexia in and of itself doesn't pose the same health threats as anorexia or bulimia, but doctors and psychiatrists are concerned that it could lead to one of the more series disorders. The severe restrictive nature of orthorexia could easily morph into anorexia. The limited diet also puts people at risk of being undernourished, which could cause them to binge, and later purge out of guilt - paving the way for bulimia. The character traits of people with anorexia and orthorexia are very similar as well (perfectionism, overly self-critical, etc.), which is also cause for concern.
The University of Rome conducted a study in 2004 to determine the disorder's prevalence. It surveyed 400 students and found that 28 of them (6.9 percent) exhibited orthorexic behavior. That's a higher percentage than anorexia and bulimia combined. They also found the condition to be more prevalent among men than women.
One of the main challenges with treating orthorexia is that many orthorexics don't think they need any help. They're very proud of their dietary choices, and don't think it's necessary for them to learn how to eat "normally" since they consider "normal" food to be harmful.
1 Source: The Sydney Morning Herald online, www.smh.com.au.