Dr. Steven Bratman has seen the quest for healthy eating take a sour turn from dietary vigilance to dangerous obsession.
Bratman's own extremes in dietary purity peaked in the 1970s when he was living on an organic farm in New York. He disdained to eat any vegetable that had been plucked from the ground more than 15 minutes earlier, and chewed each mouthful at least 50 times. He lectured friends on the evils of processed food and once feared a piece of pasteurized cheese would give him pneumonia.
"To be that obsessed with eating healthy food is to be really out of balance," he said in an interview from his home in Fort Collins.
Bratman coined a new term to define his illness, orthorexia nervosa. He described it as an eating disorder whose sufferers fixate on eating proper food. The term uses "ortho," which means straight, correct and true, and "nervosa" to indicate obsession.
Bratman, an expert on alternative medicine, has written several articles and a book on his theory. While the term is not recognized as a clinical diagnosis some officials in the field say he may have identified a dietary trend.
"He's on to something quite interesting," said Adam Drewnowski, director of the nutritional sciences program at University of Washington School of Public Health. He also is a member of the task force that established official criteria for eating disorders for the American Psychiatric Association.
Like anorexia nervosa and bulimia, the behavior of orthorexics is marked by obsession, Bratman said.
"Eventually orthorexia reaches a point at which the orthorexic devotes most of her life to planning, purchasing, preparing and eating meals," he wrote.
Transferring all value onto eating makes it a true disorder, he said, one that is broken only when the sufferer breaks free of obsession.
Tom Billings, a 48-year-old San Francisco computer consultant, believes he was orthorexic 30 years ago when he followed a diet of mostly raw fruits and vegetables.
Since "Health Food Junkies," Bratman has written other books about alternative medicine. But he doesn't fancy himself an eating disorder specialist. "I would just like somebody to read the book and take a look at themselves," he said.