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Orthorexia: Christian Beware

Orthorexia: Christian Beware

Over the past few years, Sarah has become completely obsessed with perfecting her diet. It’s all she thinks about, all she talks about, and it’s beginning to interrupt her relationships with her husband and her friends. She refuses to go to restaurants or social events unless she can call ahead to ask about food ingredients. Most of her day is spent planning, shopping for, and preparing pricey foods that meet her quality standards and that always exceed the very tight food budget she was given when her husband lost his job four months ago.

Mandi is a mature Christian. She’s heavily involved in church and helped start a local Christian moms’ group. A few of the moms in the group often talk about vegetable gardening and buying organic foods. “Why can’t they just buy regular food at the regular store and focus on more eternally significant things?” Mandi asks herself. She does occasionally wonder whether her chronic lethargy, her husband’s continual sicknesses, and her son’s food allergies might have anything to do with their highly processed diet; but she promptly dismisses these notions, not wanting to be distracted by earthly things, like some of her friends from the moms’ group are.  

Which of these two women concerns you more? To be honest, I’m worried about both of them.

Let’s look at Sarah first. She seems to suffer from the text-book definition of orthorexia. Essentially, orthorexia is an obsessive fixation on the quality of foods [“ortho” (correct, right) + “orexis” (appetite)]. This is in contrast to the more widespread eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, which are more focused on the quantity of food consumed.

The term “orthorexia” was coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, MD about 15 years ago, when he realized his own obsessive attention to food quality had begun to dominate his thoughts and conversations, interfering with his relationships with others. Orthorexia has become somewhat of a buzzword of late, though it has yet to be designated by the American Psychological Association as a diagnosable eating disorder.

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Warning Signs

Here are a few signs of what nutrition and mental health experts define as true orthorexia (sometimes called “orthorexia nervosa”):

  • Obsessive attention to the “purity” and “perfection” of foods, and significant anxiety related to eating if ingredients are substandard or not known.
  • Spending inordinate amounts of time/money planning, preparing, and consuming acceptable foods.
  • Social Isolation due to fear of consuming “impure” foods. 

Orthorexia and the Christian

Clearly, obsession, significant anxiety, poor stewardship of resources, and social isolation due to food don’t sound like marks of the “abundant life” Jesus offers and that we all seek. Fortunately, only a tiny sliver of the population is struggling with true orthorexia the way that Sarah, from the example above, likely is.

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While orthorexia is very real and we should guard against it, as well as hold out hope to those who suffer from it, we must also be careful not to make the mistake that Mandi seems to have made. The loose application of this trendy term should not excuse us from our God-given responsibility to nourish and care for the physical bodies He has entrusted to us.  

What Orthorexia is Not

The following are, in my opinion, responsible, God-honoring practices that can improve the quality of food we consume and feed to our families:

1. Learning about the relationship between highly processed, man-modified foods and human illnesses.

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2. Budgeting time and money responsibly so that clean, whole foods can replace packaged, chemically modified and fast foods when possible.

3. Appreciating the beauty of God’s creation in the many plants and animals he gave for food, and preferring these over other foods.

4. Recognizing that nourishing and caring for our physical bodies increases our ability to serve the Lord and others with fewer limitations (e.g., aches, pains, chronic illnesses and early death).

Now meet Charlotte.

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Charlotte has recently made efforts to rid her home of processed, chemical-laden food, and is trying to get back to the basics of growing, buying and eating more wholesome, “cleaner” alternatives. She’s not preachy about it, and doesn’t seem to be overly driven by anxiety or oozing self-righteousness. In fact, she seems to be more contented and aware of God’s role as her Provider than before. While she is more thoughtful about her food selections than ever, Charlotte wasn’t at all bothered that her friend served spaghetti sauce from a jar and store-bought garlic bread when she invited Charlotte’s family over to dinner last weekend – in fact, Charlotte sincerely enjoyed the dinner and the meaningful fellowship, and she told her friend so before leaving.

Charlotte seems to take seriously the role God has entrusted to her as a steward of her physical health. At the same time, she doesn’t allow her views to become a stumbling block to others, and is able to fellowship around food with a thankful heart and a gracious attitude.  

The Bottom Line

Overall, I believe our culture’s growing emphasis on food quality is a good thing. Frankly, I’m relieved that, for the first time in my lifetime, food and health trends are more reflective of the whole, clean foods that God created back in Genesis. Growing, purchasing and eating foods in forms that are as close to God’s original design as possible are all ways that we can enjoy and honor Him as the Creator and Sustainer of both food and our bodies.

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As with so many good things, however, if we take our desire to be healthy out from under the order and authority of God, we are likely to suffer both physical and spiritual consequences. Obsessive, anxious and isolating thoughts about food may be a sign that something has gone awry.

Resources for Help

To read more about nutrition according to God’s design, download our e-book, Nutrition By The Book, or follow the Back To The Book Nutrition Blogor Facebook and Twitter pages.

If you or someone you know is struggling with orthorexic tendencies, know that prayer, the truth of scripture, and Christian counseling are all good resources. The web site http://www.findingbalance.com also offers a wealth of information related to disordered eating, including orthorexia, from a Christian perspective.

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Health-Food Heresy: When Healthy Eating Becomes Your God 

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Dena Norton's headshotDena Norton is a registered dietitian who practiced clinically for six years before coming home in 2009 to start a family with her husband, Rick. They currently have two precious children. Recently, Dena published an e-book – Nutrition By The Book - and started Back To The Book Nutrition, an online business that aims to spread the message of enjoying and worshipping God through nutrition and health. Subscribe to her blog or join her on Facebook and Twitter.