When eating healthy becomes dangerous

SEATTLE -- New diets and exercise plans are constantly popping up in the media and our daily conversations, but when does health go from a common consideration to an unhealthy obsession? A local doctor said awareness is growing locally around orthorexia, an obsession to consume only healthy foods that can leave sufferers far from well.

The National Eating Disorders Association describes orthorexia as a "fixation on righteous eating." While a person may start out with an innocent attempt to eat healthy foods, the condition develops as they become fixated on food quality and purity.

Dr. Neeru Bakshi at The Moore Center - Washington's longest-established eating disorders clinic - said awareness around this condition has increased in recent years, especially in the Northwest.

"It's in the air out here," Bakshi said. "We have that focus on what people consider pure, clean, sustainable and organic."

Orthorexia is not an officially recognized mental disorder, though it has been gaining national attention since public figures like MSNBC personality Mike Brzezinski announced she suffers from the condition.

California's Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term orthorexia to describe his own struggles with food and eating in 1997.

"I pursued wellness through healthy eating for years, but gradually I began to sense that something was going wrong," Bratman writes on his website. "My ability to carry on normal conversations was hindered by intrusive thoughts of food. The need to obtain meals free of meat, fat, and artificial chemicals had put nearly all social forms of eating beyond my reach. I was lonely and obsessed."

Even though orthorexics are obsessed with eating healthfully, their food choices can become so restrictive their bodies suffer. Bakshi said patients who don't consume enough fat can develop vitamin deficiencies. Highly restrictive diets can also affect the way the heart functions and muscle metabolism.

Orthorexics can also lose the ability to eat intuitively - to know when they are hungry, how much they need, and when they are full.

Bakshi said restricting diet can affect a person's relationships and lead to social isolation. Healthy eating becomes concerning when a person is not willing to go to restaurants or does not let other people prepare their food.

"Food is a very social thing," Bakshi said. "If we restrict ourselves from social occasions of food, we miss out on the interaction that we thrive on as humans."

People can become orthorexic because they are afraid of poor health, desire control, want to be thin, search for spirituality through food or use food to create their identity, the National Eating Disorder Association reports. Some also desire to improve their self-esteem, which can become tied to their diet. Orthorexics sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake, according to the association.

So when is a person just health conscious and when do they have a problem? Bakshi said it is important to consider a person's reaction when they fail to stick with a diet plan. Also, observe how their diet affects their social life. The National Eating Disorder Association website has a list of questions to help people assess whether they could have orthorexia.

"If you notice someone's behavior is shifting it's good to have a discussion about it" Bakshi said. "Talk about your concerns in a non-judgmental way."

To keep your healthy eating from becoming problem, Bakshi said dieters should strive for a sense of balance in life and recognize the importance of accepting themselves.

For anyone who thinks they may have orthorexia, she said it is important to talk to someone you trust about your concerns.

"When we keep things secret that's where eating disorders really grow and fester," Bakshi said. "Let people know you're struggling."