Crisis du Jour, Redux: Orthorexia

Sometimes on the Internet, it seems that everything old eventually becomes new again. One of the latest revivals is the concept of “orthorexia.” Google Trends shows a spike in searches for the term about once a year since 2008. The most recent seems to stem from a Mail Online article, which itself is an echo of an article they ran in February, preceded by similar articles in 2009, 2005 and 2003.

And just what is “orthorexia” anyway?

Invariably described as a “new eating disorder” (which it’s not; the concept was developed almost 15 years ago), orthorexia is defined as an obsession with “healthy eating.”

As typically happens in the wake of such an article, bloggers chime in – and yes, we’re aware of the irony here – which boosts interest even further. On one side, you get folks who, point-blank, accept the disorder as valid and cause for concern. On another, you get people mocking the concept or worrying that, taken seriously, it will deliver the message that healthy eating means eating whatever you feel like, without concern for how it may affect your health, physique and well-being.

The post that called our attention to this business is of the latter sort: Natural News’ response to a recent Yahoo Health article that takes the opposite tack: “New Eating Disorders: Are They for Real?” (Interestingly – and again – despite the word “new” in the title, the most recent source its author appears to cite is a Time article published in February 2010, with other sources dating back as far as 2001.)

In both cases, the writers seem to be glossing the problem of definition. The former equates “healthy eating” with “nutritionally sound eating,” and while this is hardly unreasonable, it’s not what the term “orthorexia” seems meant to describe. The former at least comes closer to that by viewing it in more behavioral terms.

Considering the kinds of examples given to illustrate orthorexia, it’s clear that the behaviors described are often not, in fact healthy, even if the individual doing them believes that they are. Habits like eating little but raw broccoli and cauliflower, or eating only foods of a certain color are extreme and nutritionally unsound. A sound, healthful diet is balanced and varied. So maybe a better question to ask is this: Is this behavior distinct enough to merit its own special label?

Probably not.

The rigidity makes “orthorexia” seem more a manifestation of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Extreme anxiety over food choices – irrational or excessive fear of choosing unhealthy foods – suggests less of an eating disorder, more of an anxiety disorder. And indeed, some psychological researchers argue similarly – that “orthorexia” is actually a combination of these more established disorders.

In fairness, the author of the Yahoo article acknowledges this, but it’s buried in a structure that positions “orthorexia” as a unique disorder, somehow worse than “adult picky eating,” which she also describes.

It seems we’d make more headway by asking what drives the kind of behavior “orthorexia” is meant to describe. What inner processes, beliefs, values, fears manifest in disordered eating? This point has been raised by at least one blogger:

We humans like to categorize and label things because it makes it easier for us to understand and talk about them and, ultimately, to make sense of the universe. While that may be convenient and even necessary in everyday communication, we need to recognize that many of our labels and categories are arbitrary. When we fall into the trap of thinking that our labels have a real existence independent of our use of them, then we reduce and minimize the depth and complexity of reality. Eating disorders are no exception. Of course, many sufferers of eating disorders experience similar types of emotional trauma, and resort to eating disorders as methods of coping with similar types of struggles. And it is important for doctors and mental health professionals to recognize that, in order to better understand and help their patients. But by lumping all people with particular eating habits into a group and saying they have a “disorder,” we tend to ignore the complex emotional and psychological fabric that led to those habits, and the uniqueness of each person’s experience of them.

Images by daniellehelm and Darren Tunincliff, via Flickr

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