Is Health the New Sickness?

June 11, 2010 at 11:17 am 2 comments

Do you plan tomorrow’s food today? Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it? Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food?

You’d think answering yes to these questions would be a good thing, a sign that you’re on the right track but no — answering yes to these questions and more like them are signs that you suffer from the newest mental disorder to gain traction, orthorexia nervosa, which literally means “correct eating.” That’s right, there is now an eating disorder label for correct eating. It was inevitable. When obesity and consumption of toxic foods becomes the norm, eating correctly becomes a sickness.

While it’s not an official DSM diagnosis, it is a new label to throw into the ever growing lexicon of western pseudoscience. This one was created by a Dr. Steven Bratman in the nineties. I’m not downplaying the self destructive habits and behaviors some of us adopt but that doesn’t make them disorders, just things we shouldn’t be doing to ourselves and eating healthful foods isn’t one of them.

Whole Living had a fairly balanced take on the idea but still offered it far too much credence, saying, “Orthorexia is an eating disorder…” (emphasis mine). The article comes off as a disclaimer — as if they have to absolve themselves from contributing to a newly created disorder by promoting…health, of all things. It seems like we collectively have this sense that if a doctor somewhere calls something a disorder, we’re remiss in not warning people of its dangers without even questioning the legitimacy of the label.

That healthy eating can be pushed to extremes goes without saying. We all want to eat diets that are as natural as possible. But when that goal becomes a religion or an obsession, our efforts at finding health go very much awry: As sufferers of orthorexia can attest, fixation on dietary “righteousness” is the very opposite of healthy.

At the same time, we have to be cautious about throwing labels around, especially labels as inexact as this one. What does it mean to fixate on healthy eating?

That’s a good question considering some of the healthiest and happiest people in the word would suggest we accept no less. God help us when eating KFC’s Double Down becomes a sign of recovery.

Where does a passion for healthy food and fitness end, and psychological disturbance begin?

The answer exists, but I think it’s as hazy as the question itself. The key to eating healthily while avoiding rigidity lies in a reasonable mindset.

The article goes on to say that it’s not necessarily what you do but why you do it that may be where the problem lies and that seems very reasonable. There was a far more bizarre article in WRCB’s Eye on Health which took the trademarks of diligent and healthful eating and framed them as obsessive symptoms while repeatedly referring to orthorexia like a title behind a person’s name.

Jill Brown, Registered Dietitian says “It is a twist of an eating disorder that where a patient is so fixated on eating pure or eating clean.”

Peggy Moe, Orthorexic says “It kind of snowballed into everything that I ate had to be organic and pure and non processed…”

Jill Brown, Registered Dietitian says “It takes over and it interferes with relationships and they obsess about it. There’s a certain righteousness that goes along with it. Judgmental. They judge how others eat.”

I find it odd that Brown, in an article calling into question other people’s food choices, points a finger at “orthorexics” for judging how others eat.

Peggy Moe, Orthorexic says “I would always say, ‘You shouldn’t feed your kids any of this. You should eat organic…”

Peggy Moe, Orthorexic says “I had to drive forty minutes to the nearest grocery store that had all organic foods and I had to keep it on supply so whenever I was at someone else’s house I brought my own food.”

There’s definitely a problem here but the problem is — she’s right. Sure you can do almost anything to an unhealthy extent. For example, some would rather not eat at all than eat some of our toxic but accepted foods. Is that a choice we should  ever have to make? It shouldn’t be so hard to find organic, healthy foods on your local grocer’s shelves and they shouldn’t be priced out of the range of affordability to so many people but that’s the current situation. The major players in the food industry all stand to make a lot of money by keeping our standards low. We have antibiotics and hormones in our milk, pesticides on our produce, chemically modified fats and sweeteners that aren’t even technically food. Somehow if you acknowledge this refuse what they’re offering, you’re just not normal.

There’s a clear problem with measuring wellness by adherence to a social norm and while it’s not limited to food, this is another example of labeling the ones who won’t just go along. Currently, it’s normal to ignore all of the very unhealthy things we’ve accepted into our foods and order your family’s dinner from McDonalds at the Wal Mart cash register. Like everything it’s normal because a lot of people do it — but as Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

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2 Comments

  • 1. Marcy  |  June 12, 2010 at 5:13 pm

    Juat a new name for a form of OCD.

  • 2. Susannah  |  November 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Great writing, and just goes to show how ludicrous this practice of coming up with names for / creating “illnesses” out of various human behaviors has become


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