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Orthorexia: Good Diets Gone Bad

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WebMD Health News

Nov. 17, 2000 -- Her parents are health food nuts, says the 32-year-old North Carolina woman, who asks that her name not be used. "I can't remember a time when they weren't. It just got worse over the years ... much worse since they retired."

When she was a child, her parents first phased sugar from the family's diet. "Then they progressed into herbal remedies and supplements ... major pill popping ... then a vegan diet," she tells WebMD. "They tried every extreme trend that came along in the '80s."

Growing up, she says, "I can remember always being hungry because there was no fat in the house. ... My middle sister ended up with anorexia. Another sister goes to Overeater's Anonymous."

When she read an article in Cosmopolitan magazine-- about a disorder called orthorexia -- her parents' pattern became crystal-clear. It was healthy eating gone out of control.

"The whole issue is obsession," says Steven Bratman, MD, who in 1997 coined the word orthorexia from the Greek ortho, meaning straight and correct, he tells WebMD. "This is about the obsession with eating to improve your health."

Bratman is author of Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating, scheduled to be released after New Year's Day 2001. He went through his own bout with the disorder while living in a commune in the '70s. He then moved on to medical school at the University of California-Davis and practiced for 13 years as an alternative medicine physician in California. He is author of two other books -- Alternative Medicine Sourcebook and The Natural Pharmacist -- and is medical director of The Natural Pharmacist, an alternative medicine information web site.

The obsession doesn't necessarily lie just between the mouth and the other end. An out-of-control healthy eater feels a sense of spirituality, he says. "You're doing a good, virtuous thing. You also feel that because it's difficult to do, it must be virtuous. The more extreme you are, the more virtuous you feel," Bratman says.

In his practice, Bratman tells WebMD, he has seen many patients with this condition. "I saw two or three people a day who would ask how they could be stricter in their eating."

Very often, Bratman says, the food preoccupation stems from a problem like asthma. "Among those who believe in natural medicine, the progressive view is to avoid medicine, which supposedly has side effects, and instead focus on what you eat. But everyone misses the fact that if you get obsessed with what you eat, it actually has a lot of side effects -- mainly, the obsession itself."

One patient's story was all too typical: Even though the patient's asthma medication had very minor side effects, "she thought it was evil to use the drug, that she should treat the asthma naturally," he tells WebMD.

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