An Unhealthy Fixation on Healthy Foods

eating disorder orthorexia profood

I just heard a report on the radio of a new (2 years) tentative eating disorder called orthorexia, an unhealthy obsession with only eating healthy foods. First of all, I'd just like to say, that sounds ridiculous. Second, I believe it.

Orthorexia can cause problems because sufferers frequently go hungry, choosing to starve rather than eat foods they deem unhealthy. Symptoms include trying out various (so called extreme) diets such as veganism, raw foodism, etc. as well as harboring the belief that processed and preserved foods are artificial. Additional warning signs include planning meals a day ahead of time, thinking about food for more than 3 hours a day, and diet making it difficult to spend time with family and friends.

While I can see the problems with taking a desire to eat healthy too far, I think listing it as a medical condition is a bit excessive. I have certainly met people who derived a sense of superiority from what they ate, or based their sense of self-esteem on their diet, but I think these are problems that are encountered in a wide range of behaviors. The problem probably has more to do with the character than the food. As far as the willingness to make sacrifices, that can also be taken too far. Nevertheless, I do feel that our society's food system is set up in such a way that healthy eaters will have to make some sacrifices. It is dangerous to label a willingness to make some sacrifices for the sake of health a mental disorder.

I see connections here to our society's general view on food as cheap and nutritive, rather than holistic. The idea of spending more than a quarter of one's paycheck on food is considered decadent, and a willingness to care about what you eat, rather than blindly trust food producers, is seen as paranoid. The concept that what you put in your body becomes your body is not one commonly advanced in American society either. Taken to extremes, I could see how these ideas would be seen as so out of the norm as to be labeled disorders. That said, I don't think that this view of food as one's source of physical and spiritual sustenance is so alien to human history as a whole. From what I gather from my research on traditional human groups, the Weston A. Price Foundation, and Europe (little tongue-in-cheek there), humans have throughout history placed much, much more importance and thought into the acquisition and preparation of their food than we do in modern America.

As far as starving oneself out of refusal to eat artificial or processed foods, I can understand that. Occasional, temporary, and short-term starvation is a natural state, something the body has evolved to deal with (assuming you've taken good care of it by eating healthy foods in the right ratios. I wouldn't do this after a carb binge...). On the other hand, I don't actually consider processed foods real food at all. Put me in a candy store now and all I see are colorful wrappers. What I'm looking at doesn't even register as something I can eat and derive nutritional benefit from. Starvation is more natural and healthier than putting random, known toxic chemicals in your body.

But the willingness to ingest chemicals has become accepted as normal, and to be unwilling is seen as obsessive, paranoid, and unhealthy. This reminds me of the story of a king who ruled his a village beneath his castle wisely and justly, and was much loved by all his subjects. One day, the village well as contaminated, and all the people went insane. It wasn't long before they started whispering amongst themselves that they suspected their king of insanity. After all, he was the only one behaving differently, and his laws seemed completely irrational after all. It got so bad that the king feared a revolution. One day, he went down to the village to try to meet with the villagers and set things right. He was tired after his trek from the castle, and stopped to get a drink from the well. The townsfolk were overjoyed to find that their king had regained his wits.

Insanity is defined by the societal norms. Eating and food norms in this country have been defined by the government and large food producers, not by cultural traditions or concern for human health. To base one's eating behavior on these criteria is seen therefore as suspect. Just a theory.

Despite all this, I know that it is possible to become so wrapped up in eating healthy that you begin to suffer socially and emotionally. There comes a point when the nutritional benefit gained by eating wholesome foods is counteracted by the stress caused by trying to swim against the current. If you are deft, you can manage well. Otherwise, it may be better to cut your losses. Everyone has priorities; for me, I eat healthily in order to promote my physical and spiritual health. When the need to eat healthy and sustainably becomes such a burden that it counteracts those goals, it defeats the purpose. Of course, there is a moral component to my eating choices as well, and that is where things get tricky. I am sometimes willing to sacrifice my health to take moral stands, as people with strong convictions have done throughout history. In that case, am I insane? I don't mean to compare the quality or significance of my struggle with that of the great pioneers of human rights, but would they be considered insane for putting themselves at such great risk, oftentimes accepting death, simply to make a moral point? Knowing the suffering caused by CAFOs and unethical farming practices and understanding the economic ties that associate my eating habits with them, am I insane for accepting temporary starvation to avoid giving implicit support to these operations?

I say, if you are aware of your actions, understand and accept the consequences, even if they go against the current of mainstream society, you are acting according to your values and therefore aren't suffering from an eating disorder. When you cannot control those impulses, then maybe it's time to back off a bit. I went through a period approaching the description of orthorexia, realized how messed up it was making me (and it wasn't winning me any converts to real foodism either), and went back to eating pretty normally until I got my head on straight.

Still, it is a little creepy. We could just label every socially deviant behavior a mental disorder and lock all our renegades up in mental institutes. Here's a conspiracy theory: The scientists that 'discovered' orthorexia were funded by the pharmaceutical companies and Monsanto...haha, just kidding. I hope...

food for thought (but don't think too hard)