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Dedication to Healthy Foods Considered an Eating Disorder
George Dvorsky   Oct 12, 2010   Sentient Developments  

It almost sounds like the headline from an Onion article.

But back in August of 2009, the Guardian published a piece about how a fixation with healthy eating can be a sign of a serious psychological disorder. Called orthorexia nervosa, this so-called ‘condition’ was first diagnosed by Californian Steven Bratmanin in 1997 and is described as a “fixation on righteous eating.”
According to Bratmanin:

Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.

This obsession about which foods are “good” and which are “bad” means orthorexics can end up malnourished, claim the researchers, but at the same time be overweight or look normal. They are solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure’.

The most susceptible are middle-class, well-educated people who regularly read about food “scares” and have the time and money to source what they believe to be purer alternatives.

I could go on but I’m going to stop right there; you get the picture.

Wow, I’m flabbergasted by this. While I admit it possible that a very small minority of health conscious people may actually be starving themselves on account of food paranoia, I have to think it’s exceptionally rare. But according to this article and the researchers cited, orthorexia nervosa is a pervasive problem. In fact, there is a quote in the article from Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, who said, “There is a fine line between people who think they are taking care of themselves by manipulating their diet and those who have orthorexia. I see people around me who have no idea they have this disorder. I see it in my practice and I see it among my friends and colleagues.”

image1Okay, so there’s an abundance of well-educated, informed, middle-class health nuts.

And their dedication to eating healthily is now considered an eating disorder.

Specifically, those people who have eliminated such things as sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods from their diets-not to mention pesticides, herbicides, and artificial additives.

These people have an eating disorder?

I hardly think so. These people are my heros for goodness sake. While I can understand why some people might consider them obsessives, I think of them as focused and disciplined. Eliminating those particular foods along with those extraneous toxins should be considered a good thing.

But therein lies the problem. These researchers, some of whom should know better (particularly the dietitians), are much like society in general: completely ignorant of what constitutes a healthy diet. By consequence, any deviation from the status quo-in this case an apparent radically restrictive diet-is considered not just deviant behavior, but something that’s actually pathological in nature.

Truth is, the vast majority of “food” out there is stuff we shouldn’t be eating in the first place; the core of the modern grocery store is a nothing more than a crap dispenser. By consequence, the world’s eating habits are insane. But some people are getting wise to it, adopting such diets as Paleo, Zone, and others. Yes, these diets can be quite restrictive in the types and quantities of foods involved, but that’s the reality of healthy (and dare I say ethical) eating.

As a result, for those unaccustomed or unfamiliar with what a truly healthy diet looks like, it may look rather spartan. If not completely bonkers.

The food industry is partly to blame. Hyper-processed and fast foods laden in sugar and salt are a staple of many diets. Ad campaigns fool consumers into thinking they’re eating healthily. Parents are regularly deceived into thinking that a bowl of super-sweetened cereal is an integral part of their children’s well-balanced diet-and just because it has a bit of fibre in it.

The government is also partly responsible with their ridiculously inaccurate food pyramid. This is a particularly nefarious and longstanding turd of misinformation (or deliberate disinformation?) that informs the food industry and a myriad of other institutions about what and how much they’re supposed to prepare and serve to the public.

Lastly, the general population is also to blame. Like the cigarette smoker, most people knowingly engage in habits that are bad for them, while many others insist on remaining ignorant.

So, here in the developed world where there are pandemics of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, metabolic syndrome and many, many other lifestyle related diseases, we are now being told that a dedication to prevention is a psychological disorder. What foolishness. This is irresponsible to the point of negligence.

The phrase ‘my body is a temple’ comes to mind. For many of us, our ongoing efforts to keep our minds and bodies healthy is an integral part of our daily lives. We know that proper habits will impact on our health both in the short and long term. By making careful food choices now and having the discipline to avoid unhealthy eating, we stand a much better chance of extending our healthy life-span and quality of life. There is nothing wrong with that.

In fact, if only more people had this so-called ‘orthorexia nervosa’ we’d all be in a much better place.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.



COMMENTS

I share your state of flabbergastation. This reminds me of the 50+ year old debate within psychiatry about the extent to which the nosology of psychiatry is value-neutral. I find myself somewhere between the extreme positions of realism (the medical model) and constructionism. Such conditions, it seems to me, are not merely discovered like scientists discover a new planet, or species of bacteria, or whatever, but they are also created to some extent. The case of “orthorexia nervosa” (which sounds very respectable indeed) reminds me of “drapetomania,” or “dysaethesia aethiopica,” both of which were, as I understand it, taken seriously for some time. Maybe someone should come up with a term to designate people who come up with dubious pathologies like “orthorexia nervosa.”

> “Okay, so there’s an abundance of well-educated, informed, middle-class health nuts. And their dedication to eating healthily is now considered an eating disorder.”

I’m confused. The article said “the Guardian published a piece about how a fixation with healthy eating can be a sign of a serious psychological disorder,” and “There is a fine line between people who think they are taking care of themselves by manipulating their diet and those who have orthorexia.” Who are you referring to when you refer to “health nuts”? If you mean that your use of the term “health nuts” refers only to those who truly have orthorexia, how is it that you say there’s an abundance of them, and at the same time say that you think it’s exceptionally rare?

> “While I admit it possible that a very small minority of health conscious people may actually be starving themselves on account of food paranoia, I have to think it’s exceptionally rare. But according to this article and the researchers cited, orthorexia nervosa is a pervasive problem.”

The article did a lousy job of quantifying just how pervasive the problem is, resorting to expressions such as, “I see people around me,” “I see it in my practice and I see it among my friends and colleagues,” “It’s everywhere,” and “orthorexics take up such a significant proportion of the Ednos group.”  Let’s avoid the vagueness of the magnitude of the problem as well as the guessing of “I have to think it’s exceptionally rare” and get down to real statistics.

 

What luck for food industry that men don’t think.

This reminds me of the conservative position on homosexuality. I.e. if openly practiced it is a mental illness. But it is OK if on the down low. I suppose people who wish to eat healthy could satisfy the nay sayers by being on the down low about it. If caught they could ask for forgiveness at their local McDonalds along with an order of fries.

*sigh*

Flabbergasted? Hardly. I’m more “flabbergasted” that YOU ARE FLABBERGASTED.

Obsessive fixation is the issue here. It’s not that they eat healthy food. IT’S THAT THEY ARE OBSESSED TO THE POINT OF DISRUPTION OF THEIR DAILY LIVES IN ORDER TO CATER TO THEIR OBSESSION.

I’ve run into these types, who will refuse to eat anything unless they “know” it’s pure. Who will take “Box lunches” to a friends house for dinner rather than eat their friends “unpure food”, who will throw a hissy fit if their “pure food” is even touched by “impure food.”

It’s an OCD disorder. Makes little difference what the food obsessed over is.

Sorry George, you’re ignoring the facts. OCD exists. And “Healthy food obsessives” are just as ill as any other eating disorder. They may just be a little less likely to DIE from it.

I’ve been on the Paleo diet for six months now and I can’t say enough about it. It’s pretty simple - stop eating breads and pasta and you’ll feel better. In that time I’ve seen a dramatic decline in my use of asthma inhalers and antacids. I stopped snoring. I lost a little weight and a lot of abdominal bloat. To quote Billy Joel, “You may be right, I may be crazy,” but from here, I’d be crazy to go back to eating the way I did. Knowing the results, I’d be crazy to go back.

I think of them as focused and disciplined

So do I.

But I still prefer a Big Mac with fries at McDonalds. Even better, some good Italian, French and Spanish slow food In England? Egg and bacon with fries and beans, or good old fish and chips. You Americans have the best spare ribs, I love them. Then, of course, a few cups of strong coffee and some cigarettes.

I’ve been ‘paleo’ for 6 months also, and I was absolutely gobsmacked at the difference it has made in my health and well-being.  The categorization of people suffering from “orthorexia nervosa” is extremely irksome to me because if I ever came close to such a disorder it was because of the US government and medical establishment’s guidelines, not due to my own healthy inclinations.  Their recommendations of meticulous calorie counting and elimination of most dietary fat intake made me obsessively count every gram of fat and every calorie I ate, as well as every single calorie I burned during exercise.  Add online software to track every thing you put into your mouth, and devices to record every step you take, and you quickly become a nervous wreck.  But this is how we are told to stay healthy.

On a paleo-style diet, I don’t count calories, and I don’t worry about how much exercise I get (though I do exercise regularly).  The high-fat diet keeps me sated and feeling great.  I never worry about how much I’m eating or whether what I’m eating is healthy, because all I allow myself to eat are fresh meat, seafood, and vegetables.  That may seem excessively eliminative and unbalanced, but only in relation to the insane nutritional recommendations most people are indoctrinated with.

I was raised vegan until about the age of 7 or 8.
Then my parents began to include small amounts of poultry, fish, and non-fat milk.

While I was vegan, I never got sick, never visited the doctor, never been to a hospital.

It was a great way to build my immune system, but I do get sick on occasion now (still very rarely, maybe once a year at the most).

I now eat meat, though since I got a ‘primer’ on good nutrition at an early age, I have avoided excessive amounts of it, and remain thin and healthy. I try to eat a large variety of things, meats, vegetables, dairy, fruits. All of it.

As far as it being an “obsession”, all I can say, is that if faced with no other choice, would they choose starvation? If someone can afford to eat that way, then I don’t see it as a form of neuroticism if they choose to. Unless we’re talking about survival here. If there was nothing else available, and they starved instead (and I’m not talking about fasting, either), then I might consider it a neurotic problem. But then, I haven’t met too many people who are actually capable of starving themselves.

This is really about the push to categorize all human behavior as “neurotic” by the big pharma and insurance giants. Reminds me of “Pre-menstrual Dysphoric Disorder”, and the repackaged prosac they tried to prescribe for it.

Everything’s a “disorder” these days, so they can sell more drugs, and leach more money from health insurance.

Everything’s a “disorder” these days, so they can sell more drugs, and leach more money from health insurance.

Very well said.

I would add that the overall objective seems building a nanny-police-state of sheeple who do what they are told without complaining.

I am worried by the current obsession that people should avoid all personal risks and be protected from life. If this continues we will have a next generation of imbeciles unwilling and unable to get out of bed in the morning. The ideal nanny-police-state.

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