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Orthorexia: The Compulsion to Eat Healthy Foods

orthorexiaAny who’s seen Food Inc. (or checked out the list of ingredients in a favorite sugary cereal) knows how important it is to be aware of where your food comes from and what’s in it.

But this does not mean that one should confine herself to raw broccoli and cauliflower–which is exactly what Kristie Rutzel started doing in high school and college, obsessed with a need to avoid anything considered unwholesome.

Rutzel started by following the food pyramid exactly. Then she gave up processed foods. Then she refused anything that was not 100 percent organic. By the time she started her raw food diet, she weighed 68 pounds at 5’4”.

Based on Rutzel’s story, TIME is asking the question: can healthy eating be a disorder? Rutzel–and the Eating Disorders Coalition–believe it is.  They have been pushing to have orthorexia, as the condition is known, included in the new edition of the DSM-V; that way, treatment could be covered by insurance. And those who suffer from it would be less likely to hear things from their doctors like, “Try to eat healthy”–which is what Rutzel’s doctor told her when she sought help for anemia and osteopenia, caused by her restrictive diet.

But despite the efforts of the Eating Disorders Coalition, orthorexia is not listed in the draft edition of the new DSM, and will most likely not make it into the final. Psychiatrists say there’s simply not enough research on the classification to include it as a separate diagnosis. “We don’t want people to be mislabeled and not get the care they need because they’re actually on the slippery slope to anorexia,” said Cynthia Bulik, the director of the eating disorders clinic at UNC Chapel Hill.

It’s true that the description of orthorexia does sound very similar to anorexia. According to TIME:

Women may be more prone to this kind of restrictive consumption than men, keeping running tabs of verboten foods and micromanaging food prep. Many opt to go hungry rather than eat anything less than wholesome.

Yet a diagnosis may be necessary to get both doctors and compulsive healthy eaters to take the problem seriously, since it’s hard to believe–in our health-obsessed society–that healthy eating could be a bad thing. If this is indeed “a slippery slope to anorexia,” that seems all the more reason to have it recognized as a disorder.

Perhaps the best argument for classifying orthorexia as a disorder is the way it affects kids. I have a family friend who put her son on a raw food diet when he was only three. It was heartbreaking to watch him munch forlornly on his carrot sticks at birthday parties, while the other kids ate cake and ice cream. If the mother had been forcing her son to eat five pieces of cake and then vomit them up, no one would have doubted the need to intervene.

Do you or any you know suffer from orthorexia? Do you believe it warrants a classification distinct from anorexia?

Photo: Corbis, via Time

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