Obsession with 'Pure' Food Leads to Eating Disorder

Orthorexics' fixation on healthy foods leads to malnutrition and weight loss.

March 22, 2010, 6:55 PM

March 23, 2010— -- Can too much of a good thing actually be harmful?

When it comes to eating healthy foods, the answer may be yes.

We are all encouraged to follow a healthy diet, but some people take it too far, limiting their diets to food that they consider to be pure to the exclusion of everything else. Some of them end up with orthorexia, a severe eating disorder.

Kristie Rutzel, a Richmond, Va., woman in her mid-20s, said she nearly died because of her obsession with healthy food.

Rutzel became a vegetarian, and then a vegan, she said. Then she adopted a raw food diet.

"I stayed away from restaurants," she told "Good Morning America." "It took me, maybe two or three hours for me to figure out what my next meal was going to be."

She said she started out at 120 pounds, and dropped 60 pounds because of her rigid diet.

It was so serious that doctors told her parents that she was going to die, and advised them to prepare for her funeral, she said.

Orthorexia is an obsessive-compulsive disorder that creates severe phobias about eating impure, unhealthy food.

Most experts still think orthorexia is part of anorexia nervosa, an eating disorder whose sufferers obsess about the amount of food they eat and their body weight, rather than an independent disorder.

But Rutzel said her fear wasn't about gaining weight. It was about wanting to avoid eating anything that was impure.

There are no hard data on the incidence of orthorexia.

"We do know what we're seeing in the clinic," said Cynthia Bulik, director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "We are seeing more people really worrying about what's in their food."

But doctors are not sure why people are experiencing these concerns, she said.

"One of the things we think is that there might be an anxiety component to this, so people may feel that this is a way to control their anxiety," Bulik said.

Dr. Marie Savard, an ABC News medical contributor, said people who have orthorexia have a distortion of thinking about what constitutes good health and an unhealthy obsession with eating only healthy foods. That can lead to severe weight loss and emaciation.

Rigid Dietary Focus May Rob Body of Nutrients, Doctor Says

Savard said most experts believe orthorexia is a serious eating disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but limiting one's diet to certain foods can be dangerous, she said.

For example, one of the common tendencies is to eliminate meat from a diet. Savard said meats have the full balance of amino acids, which contain the building blocks for muscle and tissues in the body. Those are very hard to come by on a strict vegetable diet, she noted.

Click HERE for more tips about how to eat healthy.

Similarly, eliminating fats can be harmful. The body needs fatty acids to keep the brain and nerves healthy. Those fats come from cold water fish and nuts. Those who cut out fats from their diets won't get those essential nutrients, she said.

Excessive worrying or stress about eating certain foods is a warning sign of orthorexia, Savard said.

Other symptoms include eating the same foods prepared in the same way, increased time spent on food shopping and reading food labels, social isolation, weight loss or emaciation, and withdrawing from friends to eat -- usually at home or away from others.

Someone who is suffering from orthorexia will need to be helped.

Loved ones may emphasize moderation, balance and eating for nourishment and enjoyment.

Savard also encouraged referrals to an expert, such as a dietitian, a family doctor or therapist, in cases that appear to be severe.

Woman Felt Imprisoned by Condition

Rutzel, who hit upon the diagnosis of her condition online, said she felt as though she was in a mental prison.

"I think my lowest points were when … I was afraid to hang out with people, or afraid to have Christmas with my family," she said. "I mean, these times are supposed to be joyous times. The shame and stress made me just shut myself in my room."

Her doctors didn't seem to understand, she said.

She gained weight at the hospital, but the medical professionals there couldn't seem to deal with the issues that came with her orthorexia, such as her fear of certain foods and certain diseases, she said.

Treatments for anorexia didn't work for her. Rutzel said she had an epiphany when she was at her worst, took charge of her own recovery and forced herself back to a normal existence.

"It was just step by step. Just challenging myself, saying 'I used to eat this, I used to love it. Why not do it again?'"

Today, Rutzel said her fears are gone and she'll indulge in -- almost -- anything.

Click here to return to the "Good Morning America" Web site.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events