Oklahoman review: Dietitian's book on 'orthorexia' suggests obsession with limiting food choices could be a mental disorder
"Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Bad" by Renee McGregor (Penguin Random House, 224 pages, in stores)
Reading Renee McGregor's book during the holidays will make you feel a lot better if you hit the pumpkin pie a little too hard last week.
After all, she makes the case that following the diet rules too closely is at least as bad as the occasional caloric splurge.
McGregor is a dietitian, and her book, "Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Bad," outlines what she considers an underdiagnosed eating disorder. The term comes from the Greek words for “correct” and “appetite,” and it refers to a person who is obsessed with following self-imposed dietary restrictions.
People who have orthorexia aren't necessarily focused on losing weight, but may want to improve their looks in other ways or treat a health condition. Ultimately, though, the condition becomes less about the food itself than about using the rules to gain a sense of control or self-esteem, she said.
Orthorexia isn't a recognized eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the bible of psychiatry, but McGregor lays out the case that it could be, based on her observations of nutritional deficiencies, social isolation and other problems in people obsessed with “clean eating.”
She also argues that orthorexia may be on the rise as people have easier access to stories (complete with perfectly curated selfies) from lifestyle bloggers that promise fulfillment if you're willing to give up gluten, sugar or dairy.
I think McGregor may be on to something, but I struggled to decide who this book was meant to reach. The idea that our culture could encourage unhealthy relationships with food is interesting and merits deep exploration, but it only gets the introduction and one chapter.
The remaining three chapters seemed like the start of a self-help book, with overviews of the nutritional perils of various diets and hints about “escaping” orthorexia. There's not enough here to say it would be useful to a person trying to work through a complex problem, though, and the nutritional information is a bit clunky for American readers because of McGregor's British tendency to weigh food servings in grams.
To McGregor's credit, however, she doesn't oversell what she can offer. Essentially, she lays out warning signs (increasing strict food rules, avoiding social events that include food, etc.) and advises people who see the signs in themselves and others to seek out help from a dietitian or mental health professional.
She also resists the understandable impulse to gin up fears of a new mental health epidemic to make the book more exciting, which is laudable and in keeping with its emphasis on moderation in diet and all aspects of life.
While the book may not offer you any deep insights, it could be a comfort if you need something to reassure you that the second piece of pie you had isn't a moral failure, and that our search for perfection in diet might be the most unhealthy thing of all.
— Meg Wingerter, The Oklahoman