How ironic that I should be starting this blog while the public debate on orthorexia, the “health food eating disorder”, is reaching a fever pitch in the traditional media and on the web.
Here are the facts: in 1997, Californian MD Steven Bratman first coined the term “orthorexia nervosa”, obviously derived from “anorexia nervosa”, as “an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food”.
“The emphasis is intended to be on ‘unhealthy obsession’. One can have an unhealthy obsession with something that is otherwise healthy, he insisted on his blog earlier this month. Think of exercise addiction, or workaholism. I never intended the expression to apply to anything other than extreme cases of over-focus, he added in defense of his much-debated theory, particularly where the person themselves would rather lighten up and stop thinking about it so much.” He goes on to mention the cases of individuals whose obsession with “pure foods” led to starvation and death.
The good doctor should know what he is talking about. As a cook and organic farmer at a large commune in upstate New York in the 1970s, he was a keen believer in the medicinal virtue of fresh, unprocessed food grown locally. To the point that he embarked on a journey to become a physician and alternative medicine practitioner. His long-held specialty: dietary therapy. Until he started denouncing the excess and abuses linked to some people’s obsession with healthy food, that is– see his controversial book Health Food Junkies.
The issue is that despite his well-intentioned warning, Steven Bratman seemingly opened the door to what many people are now denouncing as a smear campaign in the mainstream media against conscious eating. They, too, have a point. A Google search on “orthorexia disorder” brings back over 30,000 results, including many news articles published in the past couple of years. In a typically alarmist tone, these warn against such symptoms as the refusal to consume refined sugar, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, corn or dairy. “Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out”, wrote the very serious British paper “The Observer” last August, in an article that reads like a spoof piece from “The Onion“. As for vegans and raw foodists, they’re obviously addicts in serious need of rescue.
Time to take a deep breath.
Now. I hope that we can all agree on one point: the stuff we put in our bodies day in day out, be it food, water or air, is bound to have an impact on our health. Yes?
In fact, our forefathers were no strangers to this obvious fact. “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” said the famous Greek doctor Hippocrates back in the 5th century BC.
What did he mean by that? Back then, water and air pollution obviously wasn’t a big concern. I would assert that chemical pesticides, synthetic additives in processed food and genetically modified organisms were not an issue either. However, Hippocrates was privy to the relationship between the human body and Nature. And, to be more accurate, to the unique fit of each body in the food chain.
And so it is that being responsible for our health naturally implies paying attention to these relationships that are unique for everyone. Some of us thrive on milk, while others have learned to stay away from it because of various side effects, from sluggishness to severe allergies. I am more energetic when I eat raw vegetables; my husband feels at his best when he’s been able to indulge on a huge serving of a scrumptious vegetable stew or lamb tajine.
In summary: pay attention to how food makes YOU feel and choose what’s right for YOU.
For some of us, other considerations come into play, such as :
- favoring natural food (that is to say, free of synthetic additives. Tip: if the list of ingredients contains words you don’t understand, better leave the product on the shelf)
- selecting produce that isn’t contaminated with chemicals (that is, fertilizers- and pesticides-free)
- choosing food whose production doesn’t damage our environment (including soil, water and air), lest we threaten our ability to keep producing food long-term.
When do these legitimate concerns become a pathology?
Like with anything else in life, it’s about choosing what supports us and keeps us healthy on all levels (physical, emotional, psychological). Balance is where it’s at. Which is a far cry from anxiety and obsessive compulsive behavior.
So here is my litmus test. Does this food give me joy? Does it give me pleasure? Do I relish the experience of searching for it, buying it, preparing it, serving it? If the answer is a resounding “yes” to all of the above, then I know that I’m no orthorexic. Just happy to be alive, sticking to the guns Nature gave me.