February 1 marks the start of Eating Disorder Awareness week in Canada and this year’s theme is “eating disorders can and do affect anyone.” The National Eating Disorder Information Centre is emphasizing that talking has the potential to save lives. “Because we know that through open, supportive dialogue, we can help break the shame, stigma and silence that affects nearly 1 million Canadians who are living with a diagnosed eating disorder, and the millions of others who are struggling with unhealthy food and weight preoccupation.” Reaching out for help can be the first and most important step to recovery. 

In my practice, I have seen disordered eating and weight preoccupation take all shapes and sizes. It can manifest itself in a variety of unhealthy behaviours, including food restriction, bingeing, or excessive exercise. In the past couple of years I’ve noticed a significant increase in the disorder known as ‘orthorexia,’ or the obsessive desire for healthful, or ‘clean’ foods.  It can often start from an honest attempt to eat more healthily, perhaps to eat vegan, gluten-free, or consume fewer processed foods, but quickly becomes an obsession where the diet becomes more and more restrictive, and guilt and compensatory behaviours result from any deviance from these safe foods.  It can go undiagnosed for quite a while because friends and family think that such behaviours are well-intentioned and well-informed, perhaps even commending the individual for their self-control and determination. But, like any other eating disorder, it wreaks havoc on the person’s emotional and physical well-being.  Nutritional and psychological intervention is crucial.

Orthorexia was first defined by Steven Bratman, MD in 1996. He used the term to describe his patients who were overly obsessed with healthy food.  Here is a self-test, coined the Bratman Test for Orthorexia. The more questions you respond “yes” to, the more likely you are dealing with orthorexia.

  • Do you wish that occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality?
  • Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time living and loving?
  • Does it seem beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else – one single meal – and not try to control what is served?
  • Are you constantly looking for ways foods are unhealthy for you?
  • Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
  • Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
  • Do you feel in control when you stick to the “correct” diet?
  • Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat? 

To learn more about orthorexia, check out Dr Bratman’s site .  To learn more about eating disorders in general and find help in your local community, check out the National Eating Disorder Information Centre and their service provider directory.  As Dr Bratman says: “Food, no matter how pure, cannot fill the space in your soul that longs for love and spiritual experience. If you are trying to use it for this purpose, you may have gone astray on your journey.”

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If you are in Kelowna or the greater Okanagan and would like to get more individualized guidance from a dietitian, contact us today!