Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Purity Month | Orthorexia Nervosa

"I'm as pure as the driven slush." -- Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968), American actress

[February was named after the Latin term februum, meaning purification. Februa, or Februatio, was the Roman festival of ritual purification based on washing or cleaning, held on February 15 (full moon) in the old lunar Roman calendar. From purification rituals throughout history to the importance of pure substances in science and technology, from the issues surrounding ecosystem purity to the growing interest in pure foods, the concept of purity in its various forms is the focus this month on 13.7 Billion Years. Have a suggestion? Send an email to]

The silver screen star Tallulah Bankhead was a notorious party girl, known for being able to drink an entire bottle of bourbon in under half an hour. She once told a friend that she had been advised by her doctor to fight off every urge to drink by eating an apple.

Suffice it to say, Bankhead was not suffering from "orthorexia nervosa," a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, author of the book Health Food Junkies. He describes the condition as "an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food." The term comes from the Greek word ortho, meaning right or correct, and the Latin word nervosa, meaning nervous, and was meant to parallel the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.

"I realize this sounds like an oxymoron," said Bratman on "How can focusing on healthy food be bad for you?"

"The apparent contradiction has led to a great deal of challenge of the concept. But the emphasis is intended to be on 'unhealthy obsession.' One can have an unhealthy obsession with something that is otherwise healthy. Think of exercise addiction, or workaholism. I never intended the expression to apply to anything other than extreme cases of over-focus...At times (but not at all times) orthorexia seems to have elements of OCD. It may also have elements of standard anorexia. But it is often not very much like typical OCD or typical anorexia."

Bratman is also careful to note that he has "never claimed that vegetarianism, veganism, or any other approach to eating healthy food is inherently an eating disorder" and that he "agree[s] that the problem of addiction to junk food is immensely more serious than excessive obsession with healthy food."

"I am definitely seeing significantly more orthorexics than just a few years ago," said Ursula Philpot, chair of the British Dietetic Association's mental health group, in The Guardian. "Other eating disorders focus on quantity of food but orthorexics can be overweight or look normal. They are solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly 'pure'."

It remains to be seen if orthorexia nervosa will be officially accepted by the medical community. For that, it would have to be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But most physicians would probably agree that a few more apples wouldn't have been a bad thing for Bankhead, whose last coherent words were "codeine...bourbon."

There's no doubt that she knew how to have fun. "If I had to live my life again," she once said, "I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner." Somewhere between orthorexia nervosa and Bankhead's bon vivant lifestyle isn't a bad place to be. Perhaps that state might be called "isorropia aequus," from the Greek word isorropia, meaning "balance," and the Latin word aequus, meaning calm. Now doesn't that glass of organic bourbon taste good?

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