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Last Updated: Tuesday, 29 March 2005, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
'I am an orthorexic'
By David McCandless

Vegetables graphic
An obsession with healthy eating could be dangerous, doctors have warned. So what's it like suffering from orthorexia?

My family have accused me of having it. My friends suspect me too. After a brief resistance and some research, I'm ready to concede: "My name is David and I am mildly orthorexic."

Orthorexia nervosa is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Unlike the related anorexia, sufferers are concerned not with quantity but with quality. It's not about feeling fat, but about feeling pure.

Orthorexics exhibit an over-enthusiasm for pure eating and healthy food. In moderation, of course, this can be beneficial. In extremis, however, malnutrition, extreme weight loss and even death can result.

I'm not dying, but do I have it?

Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
Dr Steven Bratman MD
I mean who else can identify the nutritional value of a product at 20 paces? Who else keeps a log book of the calorific breakdown of all their meals?

Who else painstakingly coasts the shelves for produce that is organic, no added sugar, low in saturated fats, high in essential fatty acids, locally produced, packaged in biodegradable cellulose, with a big fat fair-trade cherry on top?

Me.

Orthorexia is a modern condition, as yet unrecognised by the medical profession. Studies are underway to see if it should be acknowledged. Dr Steven Bratman MD coined the term from the Greek "ortho" meaning accurate and has tracked a cluster of giveaway symptoms.

"Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?" he asks on his website. "Does your diet socially isolate you?"

Sunlight diet

Excessive planning of menus in advance is also a symptom. So is experiencing guilt and self-loathing should the smallest particle of chocolate ever pass your lips.

So too is escalation. Orthorexics start small. Giving up caffeine here, a bit of tofu there. Before you know it, they've got a picture of the nutritionist, Gillian McKeith, in their wallet and they're up a mountain, living off sunlight.

I'm not at this end of the spectrum yet - although the sunlight diet is tempting, if only for budgetary reasons. But I do have some of these symptoms. And one in particular: self-righteousness.

Farmers' market in Notting Hill, London
Orthorexics prefer market stalls to checkouts
"Because it requires considerable willpower to adopt a diet that differs radically from the food habits of childhood and the surrounding culture," says Dr Bratman, "few accomplish the change gracefully. Most must resort to an iron self-discipline bolstered by a hefty dose of superiority over those who eat junk food."

Recently I was smugly able to ignore the Sudan 1 scare as I smugly don't eat processed food. I also, perhaps a little proudly, don't eat meat, nor non-organic produce.

Dr Bratman admits that after a year of his own extreme dieting he "regarded the wretched, debauched souls downing their chocolate chip cookies and French fries as mere animals reduced to satisfying gustatory lusts".

So why do I do this? Aside from puritanism, I obsess about my diet mostly because I enjoy it.

Better taste

There's something quintessentially hunter-gatherer about sourcing the best ingredients and foraging for healthy morsels among jungles of junk.

Searching for good food locally has proved time-consuming, but you do have friendly chats with grocers who take pride in their work, rather than clipped questions about reward cards with the teenage automatons who staff the supermarkets.

My skin has never looked better
And as you start to become more inquisitive about what you eat, you make a startling discovery: good food tastes better.

My friends say my obsession is unhealthy, but how can it be? This anal, obsessive, over-researched, ultra-intellectualised honing of my diet will, I hope, allow me to live to 140 years of age, in perpetual youth and vigour, corpus mentis until multiple organ failure or an unnoticed bus does me in.

It's also about control. Headlines such as "Obesity epidemic", "Food scare" and "cancer-causing" show that in a seemingly out-of-control world, food has become yet another thing to bookmark under "fear". I can't control my life, but I can control what I eat.

Besides, orthorexia only becomes dangerous when it's taken to extremes and you become seriously underweight.

The test for any diet is of course its efficacy and I can happily report my skin has never looked better.

Broadcasting beliefs

My energy levels have pleasantly plateaued, I'm shedding weight and - without going into too much detail - my visits to the bathroom are machine-like in their swiftness and efficiency.

Problem is, I've done so much simultaneously that I can't tell what's working and what's not.

I've cut out sugar. I've dumped dairy. I've stopped caffeine, which is a natural pesticide. Plants produce it to kill predator insects. The whole Western world is powered by insecticide.

Sorry, self-righteousness rising again.

Yes, while anorexics and bulimics shamefully hide their habits, orthorexics can barely restrain from broadcasting theirs.

Thinking, talking and evangelizing about your diet for more than an hour a day to glassy-eyed friends is a sure sign of an unhealthy health food obsession. As is, perhaps, writing this article.




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