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Orthorexia: Good Diets Gone Bad

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"She began working on food allergies and discovered that if she eliminated milk, wheat, and other foods, she didn't have as much asthma -- which was a good thing," Bratman says. "Except that after awhile, she was eating only five or six foods."

In the process, he says, she'd sent her life into a downward spiral. "When I looked at her, I saw a person who was no longer on medication. And true, she had no side effects from the medication." However, she was socially isolated, spent a large chunk of time thinking about food, and felt extremely guilty when giving in to temptation.

"Are those not side effects?" Bratman asks. "I would call them horrific side effects. By avoiding food allergies, she increased her side effects enormously."

Various articles written on orthorexia have brought him calls from all over the country. "That demonstrated to me that this was much bigger than I thought. Orthorexia support groups were starting to develop. People were writing and saying I had changed their lives by pointing out that they were obsessed and they didn't even know it," he says.

So what constitutes orthorexia?

  • Are you spending more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food?
  • Are you planning tomorrow's menu today?
  • Is the virtue you feel about what you eat more important than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
  • Has the quality of your life decreased as the quality of your diet increased?
  • Have you become stricter with yourself?
  • Does your self-esteem get a boost from eating healthy? Do you look down on others who don't eat this way?
  • Do you skip foods you once enjoyed in order to eat the "right" foods?
  • Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing you from friends and family.
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
  • When you eat the way you're supposed to, do you feel in total control?

If you answered yes to two or three of these questions, you may have a mild case of orthorexia. Four or more means that you need to relax more when it comes to food. If all these items apply to you, you have become obsessed with food. So where do you go from there?

Treatment involves "loosening the grip," Bratman tells WebMD. "I begin by agreeing that the diet is important, but also saying, 'Isn't it also important in life to have some spontaneity, some enjoyment?'"

For most people, he says, making the change is a big step. "It doesn't happen in just one session. Once people recognize it, it's still very hard to change. It's been so long since they've eaten spontaneously. They don't know where to start. It's very tricky."

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