On the dangerous side of obsessive clean eating is ‘orthorexia nervosa’, which an estimated 6.5 per cent of Australians suffer from. People with orthorexia – which is not clinically classified as an eating disorder – tend to spend an unusual amount of time thinking about and planning meals, feel anxious or guilty about unhealthy eating, and eliminate more and more foods from their diet.
Derived from the Greek word ‘orthos’ (meaning ‘right’ or ‘proper’), the term was developed in the late-1990s by American alternative medicine physician Dr Steven Bratman, who subsequently authored the book Health Food Junkies: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating.
According to Dr. Bratman, orthorexia develops as an “extreme, obsessive, psychologically limiting and sometimes dangerous” compulsion towards healthy eating. He first observed it in the late 1970s while living in a commune in upstate New York. Here, he lived with people who believed that vegetables needed to be dipped in bleach before cooking to rid them of impurities. Or refused to eat ‘deadly’ nightshade foods, like tomatoes and eggplants.
“Many of the most unbalanced people I have ever met are those [who] have devoted themselves to healthy eating,” Dr Bratman later wrote. “They classify foods as ‘pure’ or ‘unpure’, or ‘clean’ or ‘un-clean’,” says Dr Ng. “A very black and white way of seeing food.”
Naturally, the knock-on of prolonged orthorexia can be dire: “All the usual health consequences like organ failure [and] malnourishment,” says Dr Ng. Plus, “Your body basically starts to eat itself from the inside out.” In its extreme, orthorexia can even be fatal.