It may be possible to take a healthy diet too far. A growing number of health and nutrition experts believe some people take the notion of eating well to risky extremes. There’s a name for it: “orthorexia nervosa,” or “orthorexia” for short.

It’s not an official diagnosis. But the basic idea is that it includes eating habits that reject a variety of foods for not being “pure” enough. Eventually, people with orthorexia begin to avoid whole meals that don’t meet their standards or that they don’t make themselves.

Some experts think there are similarities between the constant worry about food seen in orthorexia as in eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia nervosa. All are about food and control.

What ‘Orthorexia Nervosa’ Means

Steven Bratman, MD, MPH, a California physician, coined the term in 1996. It means “fixation on righteous eating.” Since then, many medical professionals have accepted the concept.

If you have orthorexia, you might:

  • Bury yourself in food research. It’s one thing to spend a few minutes scanning a product label or surfing the web for more information on ingredients. But with orthorexia you may spend hours thinking about food and planning meals.
  • Refuse to eat a broad range of foods. It’s normal to pass on some foods because you don’t like the way they taste or the way they make you feel. But with orthorexia you might decide to drop whole categories of foods from your diet — grains, for example, or any foods with preservatives, or all foods that just don’t seem “healthy,” or all of the above.
  • Fear losing control. You feel that you’re doing the right thing by eating healthy. But you may also be afraid that eating even one meal you didn’t prepare — including dinner at a restaurant — can be disastrous.
  • Be overly critical of your friends’ food choices. At the same time, you may have no rational explanation for your own.
  • Find yourself in a vicious circle. Your preoccupation with food causes you to bounce between self-love and guilt as you change and restrict your diet.

In extreme cases, you might cut out so many food choices that you become malnourished.

How to Get Help

As with bulimia and anorexia, your doctor or nutritionist may be able to help with orthorexia. Because of the emotional aspects of the condition, they may ask you to see a mental health professional.

The key is to recognize that your fixation on food may be bad for you. You’ll need to train yourself to think differently about it. If you do, you’ll be on your way to eating right for real.