When eating healthy becomes an eating disorder

Every time I open the newpaper or my blog reader or the door to Whole Foods, I feel bombarded. It's not just by study after conflicting study about what's healthy and what's not and it's not by labels that are still confusing and organics that aren't really healthy or fat-free foods that are loaded with sugar. I also feel weighed down by the many ways in which we can be categorized as eating disorders.

Don't get me wrong: I understand all to well the dangers of eating disorders to individuals, women and our society as a whole. I am a firm believer that all women have disordered thinking about our bodies to some degree, and it has been my experience that those hit hardest are the ones who protest the loudest about being totally, blissfully, uneffectedly, unquestionably happy with every bit of their bodies. The day I realized that each and every one of my seven college roommates had an active eating disorder, I knew this was big and bad and very ugly.

As we give more voice to eating disorder issues (which is good) and we hear more stories (which is also very important) and we know more about the brain and the body (clearly, critical), we are also opening up the conversation to include an overwhelming number of new disorders. Sure, some of them are perfect media-created, grabby sound-byte categorizations and some are reflective of new understandings, medical investigation and changes in our behavior and culture.

But I also wonder: Is everything an -exia these days?

Take for example an emerging eating disorder called "orthorexia," stemming from an obsession with healthy eating. Orthorexia, as described by the author of the book Health Food Junkies, is a "fixation on righteous eating," often zealous vegans, vegetarians or raw foodists. As described, orthorexics are obsessive label-checkers who may choose to make their own meals rather than dine out, opt out of foods with trans fats or high fructose corn syrup or even eat in isolation.

As I read this, I thought of a few people I know who are incredibly focused on what they eat, what's in their food and on all things organic. These people, though, are all people who have overlapping addictions that range from exercise compulsion to other forms of eating disorders. Giving that same kind of focus -- even too much energy, time and other resources -- to healthy eating is just another outlet for medically-recognized disorders they have or had. That makes sense to me.

When I read Chicago Tribune columnist Julie Deardorff's take on orthorexia, my questions and concerns were clarified:

Today's "normal" diet consists primarily of highly processed, non-nutritive, industrially produced food. That's because the best decisions for the food conglomerates often are the worst ones for our health.

Nourishing yourself healthfully, then, is not the default; it's the exception. And it often requires a conscientious approach that, in a culture where Diet Coke is considered a health food, [orthorexia] might be called "extreme."

She goes on to take the decisive stance that people who are consumed by the details of healthy living to the point of needing intervention and help are defined by leading eating disorder organizations as anorexic. Deardorff says bluntly:

Orthorexia, more often than not, is a non-medical term popularized by people who feel guilty that they aren't eating better and need a name to call people who try harder.

That's hard-core. I appreciate that she calls out the issue many people have with others who are trying to eat sound and healthy meals and get, to be equally as blunt, a lot of crap for it (don't we all have that grandmother or co-worker or spouse who thinks we are totally wackadoodle for choosing ketchup without high fructose corn syrup or skipping a second roll from the basket...I'm certainly raising my hand!).

Is there room for more chapters in the big book of eating disorders? I think so.

I just want to be sure there are lots of doctors involved in coining the terms, doing the research, making the diagnoses, treating the patients and spreading the good word -- not just those writing best-selling books.

I'd also like to know if there is a natural cap on these things, if all these -exias will one day cover us all and if I need to be concerned that my own skinny vanilla latte obsession will one day appear as Javarexia or Foamilimia, outing me as a big old caffeine compulsive.

[photo credit: Imagesource / Getty Images]