A vegetarian man that managed an organic farm became so obsessed with what he was putting in his body that he would not eat vegetables that had been picked more than 15 minutes earlier.
He chewed each mouthful of food 50 times, left his stomach half empty at the end of each meal and always ate in a quiet place, which often meant he ate alone.
Diet and exercise are important, but often people obsess so much about what they are putting in and doing to their bodies that they miss out on social experiences and neglect moderation in their quests for healthy lifestyles.
The man mentioned above is Dr. Steven Bratman, the first physician to diagnose orthorexia nervosa because he suffered from the disease himself.
According to his book, “Health Food Junkies,” Bratman coined the term using the Greek word “ortho,” meaning straight, correct and true, and the word “orexia” relating to eating and appetites.
In his book, Bratman said a healthy diet is important and can help reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease and major illnesses later in life. However, he warned that in the process of adding extra years to their lives, people can make their lives meaningless.
“Focus becomes obsession, self-discipline becomes self-punishment, and effort itself can turn into an addiction,” Bratman said. “The quest for healthy food can become a disease in its own right, as bad in a way as the diseases it is meant to forestall or cure. Life is too short to spend it all thinking about how to live longer.”
Lora Brown, an associate professor in the department of nutrition, dietetics and food science, said people who suffer from orthorexia obsessively plan what they will eat for each meal, and this behavior could exile them in social situations. She said people who do not go many places because they stay at home and plan what they are going to eat cut themselves off from valuable experiences of interacting.
“If people eliminate pizza from their diet, they will not die,” Brown said. “But, they will miss out on social occasions and interactions. They will miss out on some aspect of daily life.”
She gave the example of people who create a rule for themselves that they have to eat breakfast everyday. Brown said this is a good rule, but if it means they cannot function on days they might miss breakfast, it is a problem.
Brown said maintaining a healthy diet is important, but knowing it is okay to eat a cookie without inflicting a self-punishment is also important.
Related to orthorexia nervosa is exercise bulimia, which is a subset of bulimia nervosa. People who suffer from exercise bulimia treat exercise as a form of purging for what they have eaten throughout the day.
According to a publication by Suzanne Eberle for the National Eating Disorders Association, there are several signs that people may be exercising too much or for the wrong reasons. Some of these signs include having intrusive thoughts about exercise that interfere with people’s ability to focus, turning down social activities to not miss a scheduled workout, exercising as a punishment for eating “bad” foods and never being satisfied with physical achievements.
“While the benefits of exercise are numerous and well-known, it can be harmful to do too much of a good thing,” Eberle said.
Carly LeBaron, a marriage and family therapy intern with the Women’s Services office on campus, said exercise bulimia can be seen in both men and women.
“In women, it’s often seen as calorie burning, whereas in men it is seen as muscle building,” LeBaron said. “This is because society puts pressures on women to be skinnier, and men to be bulkier.”
LeBaron said she believes BYU has a heavy achievement-oriented culture, and a constant strive for perfectionism can put pressure on students to look a certain way.
“There are a lot of high-achievers at BYU,” she said. “Students strive for perfection not just in academics, but in eating habits, exercise and even dating. They try to do these things to the extreme, but their efforts become too much.”
Shannon Mason, a public health major from Kaysville, said she thinks exercise and eating right is important for physical, mental and emotional health, but it is important to stay balanced and to do these things in moderation.
“I think that sometimes when people see results, it’s easy for them to think, ‘this is great and I want to keep going,'” Mason said. “But, these people become so obsessed with exercise that they’re going overboard, and they’re not even happy with the exercise itself. They just need to remember to enjoy the experience and to enjoy life.”