Late last month, Jordan Younger — the erstwhile Blonde Vegan — came out as orthorexic, and announced she was abandoning the dietary regimen that gave her blog its name. “It’s time to advocate a lifestyle that doesn’t involve restriction, labeling or putting ourselves into a box,” she wrote, describing the food fears she’d developed and the ways her health had suffered. “My body was trying to speak to me for many months and I did not listen.”
The term orthorexia was coined in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, the author of the book Health Food Junkies. While it isn’t in the DSM-5, the latest bible of mental disorders, orthorexia is recognized by the National Eating Disorders Association as a devotion to healthy or philosophy-driven eating that eventually becomes so obsessive it can be unhealthy.
But lots of people have weird food habits. So how do you spot an actual orthorexic?
1. They read labels. Obsessively.
An orthorexic will scan ingredient lists as if their life depends upon it. Should a natural peanut butter contain palm oil (which has been implicated in the deforestation of Indonesia and the destruction of endangered orangutan habitats), they will put it back on the shelf.
2. They skip the birthday cake.
Orthorexics will not make exceptions for special occasions. They see a colleague’s birthday party as a minefield of refined flours and white sugars and the cupcake-laden conference table as a veritable superfund site. If they have children, they sneak beet root into their kids’ gluten-free quinoa brownies.
3. They are anxious about travel.
In food-obsessed New York, L.A., and San Francisco, it’s easy to source vegetables with credentials and meals with arcane, cruelty-free ingredients. But in the hinterlands it’s another story. An orthorexic fears traveling to new places out of concern that designated safe foods will be unavailable.
4. They proselytize.
Whether they are raw-food acolytes or Paleo junkies, orthorexics talk incessantly about the upside to their restrictive lifestyles. Watch for Facebook posts like: “Day five of my juice fast and I’ve never felt so vibrant!” or “Eating like our prehistoric ancestors and my skin is just glowing. #nofilter #cleanliving.”
5. They train like superathletes.
Not all orthorexics are exercise fanatics, but when they are, they take things to an extreme. That means multiple workouts in a day, fueled by esoteric micro-meals and lengthy discussions of how best to rehydrate (sports drinks are off the list since they’re totally laden with awful food dyes, by the way).
6. They hate brunch.
Orthorexics show up at dinner parties after the meal has been served and say, “I’ve already eaten.” Social gatherings centered on meals rarely work for them, so instead an orthorexic will suggest meeting up for a SoulCycle session, her stainless-steel water bottle in tow.
7. They develop complicated rules.
If orthorexics cheat, they do so in a controlled manner, like designating Sundays as the one day of the week when they allow themselves to eat wheat, or consuming nothing but raw foods until after the sun sets.
8. They become pseudoscientists.
Orthorexics rarely read novels; instead, they immerse themselves in medical journals. Bringing up liver enzymes in casual conversation is fair game.
9. They denigrate others’ unhealthy habits.
Friday night is for documentaries about Monsanto, naturally. Friends who don’t react with the same levels of shock and indignation receive pity and even scorn.
10. They cut out “bad foods” until there are no “good” foods left.
Orthorexics often eschew whole categories of food in the name of the sublime pursuit of clean living: Bananas are way too high on the glycemic index, wheat literally rots in your gut, and even natural fructose is suspect. Eventually, there’s very little left to eat.