Chicago Tribune: We should all be orthorexics

11th April 2008

Chicago Tribune: We should all be orthorexics

Every so often the media makes a big deal of certain eating disorders which have been commonplace for decades. Several months ago, diabulimia was the topic du jour, then it was drunkorexia and now it seems to be orthorexia. According to the blog EWHAED, 20/20 has expressed interest in doing a segment on it, and it made the print news last week in the Chicago Tribune.

Tribune writer Julie Deardorff starts off innocuously enough, characterizing orthorexia as “an emerging eating disorder marked by extreme devotion to healthy food.” She goes on to describe the obsessiveness of the disorder, noting how those with orthorexia obsessively check labels, avoid junk food, plan menus and shun foods with artificial ingredients.

Orthorexia certainly sounds like no picnic, but according to Deardorff, it’s society who has the problem, not orthorectics:

This is a problem?

Frankly, most of us could learn a thing or two from orthorexics, who used to be dismissed as “health-food nuts” but now apparently need to be rehabilitated into society.

According to the highly deluded Deardorff, orthorexia is but a term coined by people who “feel guilty that they aren’t eating better and need a name to call people who try harder.”

Yes, really. I don’t think I could make this ridiculousness up. She goes on:

I’m sure there really are people whose lives are consumed by the thought of “healthy” food and who need serious help. But according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders, this problem already has a name: anorexia.

Uhh… newsflash to Ms. Deardorff: Anorexia isn’t about healthy food or even food at all. During my disorder, I cared not an iota for my health or in eating healthy foods; I only cared about becoming thinner. And my desire to become thinner wasn’t even really about wanting to become thinner. I, like so many others, used weight as a diversion from and coping mechanism for larger issues in my life.

Deardorff then ends on a note that sounds dangerously close to the rhetoric oft repeated by pro-anorectics who insist anorexia to be a “healthy” lifestyle choice:

It’s really OK to like green beans better than french fries, to avoid chemical-laden drinks such as Ensure (which contains more than 40 artificial ingredients) and to wonder why ketchup and peanut butter have added high-fructose corn syrup. As a friend who borders on “orthorexia” told me, “It’s normal society that is off-target, not I.”

Right. It’s not the person whose extreme diet interferes with her ability to function who has the problem; it’s everyone else who has the problem.

There is nothing wrong with healthy eating – I also avoid and shun most of the chemicals and preservatives blacklisted by Deardorff. The problem comes when our healthy eating interferes with our ability to function. You should not be mortally afraid to eat something that isn’t on your mental list of healthy foods. Your healthy diet should not be detrimentally affecting your physical or mental health. Your life should not be ruled by the availability or lack thereof of healthy foods. You should not obsess about what it is you eat or how healthy or unhealthy it is.

Healthy eating is great – except for when it leads to unhealthy relationships with food. This is the line that separates healthy eating from orthorexia, Ms. Deardorff, and it is what killed Kate Finn in 2003.

I would hope Deardorff is simply ignorant in her knowledge and understanding of eating disorders and not in a state of personal denial whereupon she transfers her own unhealthy disorder onto the rest of society. But she is nonetheless normalizing an abnormal, serious and even life-threatening eating disorder under the umbrella of “healthy eating” when such a diet is anything but healthy or aspirational.

Shame on you Chicago Tribune for publishing such a medically irresponsible and potentially harmful story. And shame on you Julie Deardorff for your shoddy journalism, your medical recklessness and extreme insensitivity to those people for whom orthorexia has robbed them of a normal, healthy and satisfying life.

If you’d like to send your thoughts on to Ms. Deardorff, her e-mail address is or send a letter to the editor here.

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This entry was posted on Friday, April 11th, 2008 at 12:26 pm and is filed under Eating Disorders, Health, Nutrition & Fitness. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 23 responses to “Chicago Tribune: We should all be orthorexics”

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  1. 1 On April 11th, 2008, Kyla said:

    this is outrageous/ridiculous/appalling/I can’t find enough words. I’m in shock that such a thing would be published. I would rant, but it seems you’ve summed it all up perfectly. I’m behind you 110%.

  2. 2 On April 11th, 2008, Julia said:

    The line between “healthy eating” and dieting/obsession about food is so narrow, isn’t it? Every time I tell myself I ought to eat something good for me rather than something I really feel like eating, I worry I’m going to start sliding down the slope into full-on restriction again.
    Agreed, shame on the Tribune for normalizing disordered eating. It’s awful the way it’s considered noble until it crosses the line into one of the publicly-accepted “real” eating disorders.

  3. 3 On April 11th, 2008, littlem said:

    I can’t believe the Trib printed that.

    Sic Kate on Deardoff; she needs ain in-print hometown beatdown.

  4. 4 On April 11th, 2008, Bree said:

    I used to work with someone who at first I thought was a health nut but the symptoms describe her to a T. She also exercised obsessively, working out every night for three to four hours, and also on weekends.

    So, if anorexia and orthorexia kills, why is it that fat people are the ones constantly getting death sentences and being publicly blamed for all of society’s problems? Oh yeah, it’s articles like this and awful mindsets like Julie Deardoff.

  5. 5 On April 11th, 2008, Jackie said:

    Again, not surprised.

  6. 6 On April 11th, 2008, Fauve said:

    I read the book, Orthorexia. I loved how the author described his change from being obsessively health-food oriented to learning to ease up a bit, with health food. I think it’s so interesting how easy the extremes of eating seem to be – to err strongly on one side or the other. Too much/too little. Or eating massive amounts of junk/no junk food allowed. With our food so compromised in so many ways, I can see why people might become extremely fearful of what they eat. But, why blame this on the rest of us? It’s not my fault if someone becomes orthorexic and I didn’t make them that way, nor do I envy them. Life is too short to become *that* consumed (pun intended) by what you eat. Of course, I am also obsessed by how *bad* I eat and am trying to eat better. It’s so hard that, indeed, I sometimes wish I had inclinations more to err on the side of excessive healthy food, rather than the opposite. Still, that journalist is playing blame the victim. I think many people just cannot imagine that anyone could eat *too* healthy!

  7. 7 On April 11th, 2008, Kate Harding said:

    Sic Kate on Deardoff; she needs ain in-print hometown beatdown.

    On it.

  8. 8 On April 11th, 2008, Cindy said:

    Intuitive eating sounds better each day.

  9. 9 On April 11th, 2008, Devi said:

    It sounds more like an off-shoot of OCD rather than a distinct disorder.

  10. 10 On April 11th, 2008, Devi said:

    Oh, also feel guilty that they aren’t eating better and need a name to call people who try harder there’s a difference between doing something because it’s healthy and doing something because it’s a compulsion. Washing your hands is good, washing them so often that they crack and bleed is not.

  11. 11 On April 11th, 2008, Andrea Wren said:

    Nothing but a complete lack of understanding for what orthorexia is, as well as what other eating disorders are, is shown by Julie Deardorff in the article. I can only imagine that, if she does have any concept of what she is talking about, then she is trying for the controversy angle – in a careless way – in order to provoke some reactions.

    I’m a freelance journalist with a specialist interest in eating disorders, dieting, and the damage diets do (but before I was enlightened I did used to write for magazines like WeightWatchers), and I blog on my own issues with food and my journey after ditching the diet. I have been on the verge of being a ‘healthy eating nut’ in the past, and I’ve finally learned that actually, what constitutes ‘healthy eating’ just depends on what is in vogue at the time – so who can I really trust, but myself?

  12. 12 On April 11th, 2008, Emily said:

    I’m curious, what is your opinion about food restrictions like keeping halal, or kosher? They aren’t medical (for controlling diabetes, or high cholesterol, etc) but at the same time involve thinking about everything you eat, and where it’s from, how it was cooked, etc. Does that fall into this same category, and if not, what makes it different in your view?
    (I can’t find a way to write that so it can’t be read as confrontational. I really don’t mean it that way, I’m genuinely curious about what you think.)

  13. 13 On April 11th, 2008, Twistie said:

    Why am I suddenly flashing on the wildly OTT Lifetime Original Movie Death of a Cheerleader? In it, mousy wannabe Kellie Martin guts annoying cheerleader Tori Spelling when she realizes she’ll never be the popular girl. In the big courtroom scene at the end, it’s proved to the world’s satisfaction that everyone in the world is to blame for the tragedy including the victim. Everyone, that is, except Kellie Martin who actually wielded the knife.

    How dare some of us not obssess over the healthiness of every single bite that enters our mouths? It’s our fault that some people take it too far, because clearly there is so much anxiety about healthy food in the world and if some of us refuse to shoulder our burdens, others will take on too much because it has to go somewhere! Bad me! If I hadn’t bought some Ben & Jerry’s yesterday, some poor soul wouldn’t be suffering right now from an over-intense obssession with bean sprouts and whether or not to cook their tomatoes!

    This is such a painfully ludocris angle that I can’t help but ridicule it.

    My fondness for ice cream is not making anyone else sick. Disordered eating – even for health reasons – is the danger here.

    We need to recognize EDs so that the people who suffer from them can get some damn help. Trying to prove that it’s healthy only harms the ones already in danger.

    Whether or not I choose to eat some of that ice cream tonight is not going to either help or harm someone suffering from an ED.

    I’m appalled that load of codswallop got published in an otherwise reputable newspaper.

  14. 14 On April 11th, 2008, Lois Waller said:

    It is shocking that eating disorders of all kinds are still so very much misunderstood. Anorexia has been publicly discussed for, what, 25 years now (circa the death of Karen Carpenter–and perhaps a bit before then)? And it’s been documented for centuries.

    Perhaps my shock is naive, but really. Surrending one’s joy and hope and life to a pathological obsession with food and need for control is NOT NORMAL OR HEALTHY OR GOOD. It is disordered and painful. It is not admirable or virtuous, and fat people or an abundant society are not to blame.

    I can’t wait to read Kate’s response.

  15. 15 On April 11th, 2008, Lois Waller said:


    “We need to recognize EDs so that the people who suffer from them can get some damn help. Trying to prove that it’s healthy only harms the ones already in danger.”

    Exactly. And it’s unfortunate that the lines being “healthy” and “disordered” are so fucking blurred. I remember when my anorexic behaviors started, and I thought I was just being good and doing what I was supposed to do. It took amenorrhea and sobbing over a buttered pretzel to realize that my behavior was destructive and not sound.

  16. 16 On April 12th, 2008, Rachel said:

    Emily: I’m vegetarian primarily because of my spiritual beliefs. When I go to a restaurant and order a dish that may be iffy, vegetable soup for instance, I do have to ask if the broth is a beef-based broth or veggie-based broth. But I think it’s a far different case. In this instance, I am critiquing my food choices based on a rationally-made spiritual belief. Those with orthorexia are making their food decisions based on a psychiatric disorder. It’s the same thing as asking what the difference is between a Jewish person making kosher food choices and a bulimic planning her next binge. The former is an informed, educated decision not likely to negatively affect one’s mental or physical health; the latter is not.

  17. 17 On April 12th, 2008, Rachel said:

    Sic Kate on Deardoff; she needs ain in-print hometown beatdown.

    You don’t have to be a Chicago resident to send a letter to the editor – that might get printed. I sent one and I encourage everyone else to, also.

  18. 18 On April 13th, 2008, wriggs said:

    This is nothing new of course, as you know a lot of people treat anorexia as if it is a lifestyle choice and are very bitter about their ‘failure’ to become anorexic rather than understanding how lucky (genetically) they are.

    I myself came close to experiencing this, sorry I can’t call it an eating disorder, I think labelling every stupid or undesirable set of behaviours a disease is infra dig, it didn’t come close to making me slim or healthy as the problem was what I thought, not what I ate, cognito ergo sum.

  19. 19 On April 17th, 2008, Fat Girl said:

    I think this shows a lack of understanding for the true nature of the disorder is what this author is suffering from. It’s hard to understand that too much of a “good” thing can also be a bad thing, and that there can be disordered thinking around things that are perceived as “good.”

    I agree with the above poster- I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing to label every way of disordered thinking so distinctly, but that could be because of the way I behave- if I notice something I perceive as being wrong with me, it tends to exacerbate it. But I can also see why they have labels- it’s hard to get people to take you seriously (especially insurance companies *cough*) when there’s not a distinct disorder or something (With definitions) to help.

  20. 20 On April 17th, 2008, Emily said:

    As someone who is orthorexic (this developed after I was already anorexic, but has persisted even after I regained the weight), I would like to propose that Julie Deardorff may be half right. On the one hand, this disorder does prevent quite a bit of “normal” functioning. For example, I often avoid eating out with others and don’t participate in food events at work. I don’t eat any refined carbohydrates, so if I’m in a restaurant that only has white rice, I just skip the rice altogether. I don’t see how this is very different from a vegetarian not eating a soup in a restaurant that is made from meat stock. Rachel describes vegetarianism as a “rationally-made spiritual belief” and I would similarly characterizing not eating white rice (and the like) as a “rationally-made health decision.” At the same time, however, I know that what I have is a disorder, because I’m not sure what I would do if my options were to either eat white rice or starve to death. I’m sure many vegetarians would starve to death rather than eat meat. So that is where Julie Deardorff is wrong — it is a disorder that interferes with a person’s day-to-day functioning and can lead to death. It is also different from anorexia because anorexia is about eating fewer calories, whereas orthorexia is about making the calories count nutritionally. But where she might be half right is that our society makes it very difficult to eat in a healthy way unless you do prepare all of your own food. So many restaurants don’t offer whole grains, for example, and it can be downright difficult to get fruits and veggies while traveling. Think about it this way: if more food were made without sugar or high fructose corn syrup, or if brown rice were as easy to find in a restaurant as white rice or potatoes, you would not have to go out of your way (and therefore look crazy to others) to eat healthy foods, nor would you be faced with a choice between eating something “bad” or not eating at all because there would be “good” options along with the bad. What is characterized as crazy is that which differs from the majority of society.

  21. 21 On April 17th, 2008, Rachel said:

    Emily – I think we have to ask ourselves, in distinguishing orthorexia from a concern with health, can one stop the behaviors? As you stated, if someone would rather starve than eat a “bad” or “off-limit” food, I think it indicates a disorder, not merely a concern with one’s health. If planning one’s meals requires hours and hours of planning, it’s a disorder. If you won’t go to public outings, restaurants or avoid eating with others because of the lack of availability of a narrow group of foods one has defined as healthy, it’s a disorder. If your mental or physical health is negatively affected by your healthy diet, it’s a disorder.

    I do think that as a culture Americans eat very unhealthily – and the reasons for that are varied and diverse. But to dismiss an certifiable eating disorder as casually as Deardorff has is appalling. It’s not so different from promoting anorexia as the health ideal simply because of the so-called obesity epidemic.

  22. 22 On May 26th, 2008, Lala said:

    I think that we should all eat healthy and exercise. There should always be a good balance in life, one extreme or another is never healthy in my opinion. Thank you for posting this article.

  23. 23 On September 10th, 2009, Anyone heard of the term “omnirexia”? » said:

    [...] most of which are syndicated Ask Amy columns.  I suppose Amy could have been mistaken and meant orthorexia, an as-yet unofficial disorder characterized by an extreme obsession with eating only healthy or [...]

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