The Dark Side of Healthy Eating: Diagnosing 'Orthorexia' Eating Disorders
When people find out that I write about food, they frequently assume that I'm either about to pronounce judgment on what they eat, or that I'm about to dispense dietary wisdom. In fact I'm a bit of a dietary antinomian.
This isn't to say that I don't harbor my share of concerns about the state of agriculture, food, and eating in this country. I do. I'm concerned that diet-related disease and obesity disproportionately affect people who are poor. Government subsidies that make fast food cheaper than fresh produce also concern me, as does the blatant disregard for the life of God's creatures that's happening on factory farms. I don't like seeing cereal marketed to children that's 25 percent sugar by weight, or girls as young as three and four worrying about the 'childhood obesity epidemic.'
But I'm equally concerned when I see how easily the devotion to 'healthy' and 'righteous' eating can take a pernicious turn and become legalistic, judgmental, isolating and even crippling. Not long ago, I met a woman who was deeply concerned about her granddaughter. "She doesn't eat anything any more! It's not that she wants to be thin, she just thinks so many different things are unhealthy. She doesn't eat grains. She doesn't eat anything that comes from an animal. She tries to eat only things that are raw. She wouldn't even eat this," she said, gesturing to the home-cooked meal we were sharing.
The grandmother was putting her finger on a key aspect of food and eating as well as one of the dangers of dietary legalism: food is communal and community-forming, and restricted diets of all sorts tend to isolate and damage people. Dr. Stephen Bratman explores this dynamic. The author of Health Food Junkie, he coined the term "orthorexia nervosa" (from the Greek ortho, "correct,'" and orexis, "appetite") in 1997. In an essay, Bratman talks about his time as a cook in a commune. Some members were vegans, some vegetarians, some macrobiotic eaters, some who wouldn't eat anything from the onion family of vegetables and some who were raw foodists. All could marshal "experts" to support their dietary doctrines. And it was really, really hard for them to eat together.
Ultimately, Bratman realized that the irony was that the pursuit of ideal health through diet was making him (and others) profoundly unhealthy. He writes:
The need to obtain food free of meat, fat and artificial chemicals put nearly all social forms of eating out of reach. Furthermore, intrusive thoughts of sprouts came between me and good conversation. Perhaps most dismaying of all, I began to sense that the poetry of my life had diminished. All I could think about was food.