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I’m going to ask you two questions and I want you to be honest. Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it? Does your diet socially isolate you? If you answered yes to both questions you could be orthorexic.
Orthorexia is a term coined by Colorado physician Dr. Steven Bratman and described in his book “Health Food Junkies,” (orthorexia.com). Orthorexia is a condition whereby the individual has an obsession with “healthy” eating. What is deemed “healthy” fluctuates from person to person. Orthorexics vary on their underlying theory of what constitutes healthy food. They may be driven by the principles of veganism, the raw food movement, the macrobiotic diet, organic food or whatever other spurious health craze is currently sweeping our food neurotic culture.
Depending on the orthorexic’s orientation, almost any food can be vilified. The list of prohibited foods extends well beyond the usually identified “bad guys” such as fat, salt or sugar. Any food that is processed, adulterated, contains any unnatural substances or possible pesticide residue, or that is deemed impure in any way can be blacklisted. In extreme cases, even foods considered healthy by most, are excluded because of idiosyncratic beliefs or psychosomatic reactions to them. The orthorexic can develop food sensitivities or “allergies” to almost any comestible, depending on the particular twists and turns in the labyrinth of their psyche. Dr. Bratman notes the case of one woman who curtailed certain foods that she felt were influencing her asthma. But then, her restrictive dietary lockstep took on a life of its own as she identified more or more foods that she noticed a “sensitivity” to. These included undisputedly healthy items such as tomatoes, broccoli, apples, oranges and peaches.
The Orthorexic is literally obsessed with their food choices and the concept of “right” foods. An inordinate amount of time every day is spent contemplating what and how they will eat or what they need to avoid. Every meal and every social function that involves food is agonized over. The orthorexic is likely to bring their own food to parties or social gatherings. Usually their food restrictions progress into another defining characteristic of the condition: social isolation.
Food is a major vehicle by which people socialize and cultivate various life goals. Virtually all of life’s celebrations, tribulations and social dealings are accompanied by food and drink. We go out to lunch or dinner with friends or business associates. We get together with family for a meal. Churches, schools, and civic organizations sponsor bake sales and special feasts. Weddings, funerals, parties, bar mitzvahs, baby showers, retirement ceremonies, etc., will all serve some kind of food. For the orthorexic these are tortuous affairs. They are either affronted by objectionable food, tempted by foods they can’t have, bring their own food and then have to answer questions why, or abandon eating altogether. Eventually it just becomes easier to eschew social gatherings. The sad part, to be expanded upon later, is the orthorexic misses the whole point of life. Opportunities to have fun, make friends, find romantic partners, or even bolster existing relationships are compromised for the sake of organic soybeans.
Unlike anorexia and bulimia, the orthorexic is not fixated with being thin per se. They are motivated by a desire for health and more specifically pureness. They feel “clean” and in balance when they are eating the foods they believe to be inviolate. Of course they don’t realize that down deep inside is an emotional imbalance causing their zealous need to feel in balance via their food. In what I find an amusing irony Dr. Bratman states: “Many of the most unbalanced people I have ever met are those who have devoted themselves to healthy eating.”
Because the orthorexic has a normal body that craves food, and because troubling emotions, (some of their own creation), lead us to eat out of comfort, the orthorexic is in a perpetual struggle with their yearnings. They often cycle through periods of abstinence and ultra-pure eating only to acquiesce to their desires and consume something forbidden. They then chastise themselves, feel guilty, and seek repentance by returning to the sanctuary of their strict dietary regime.
Another aspect of orthorexia, (and virtually all forms of fanaticism for that matter), is a haughty self-righteousness commingling with a proclivity to condemn others for their poor eating habits. Their “pure” eating gives rise to an air of moral superiority. Their diet is viewed as natural, as right, as an exemplar of virtuousness. Indeed, our culture has fostered such sanctimony with phrases such as “eating right,” commercials whereby someone is smacked for not eating vegetables, and the incessant endeavors of countless groups to legislate food choices. The orthorexic is quick to jump on this bandwagon and has no compunction about pontificating to and proselytizing others about their dietary perspectives.
The orthorexic’s obfuscation of the principles of nutrition can lead to physical problems. As stated orthorexia is not about shedding pounds, but dangerous weight loss and in rare instances death can occur from malnutrition. But for most, the real tragedy is the loss of what is truly meaningful in life. While their friends are having fun, enjoying each other’s company, or furthering their family ties, the orthorexic is gnawing on carrot sticks, (organic ones of course). While others are networking, promoting their careers, finding mates, and gleaning social support, the orthorexic is alienating people with their absence, or their preaching if present. While others embrace life the orthorexic embraces their monomania.
There was a chef I used to know whose restaurant I frequented. I loved his hearty fare, especially paired with my beloved red wine. We developed an initial friendship from the conversations I had with him whenever I patronized his establishment. A number of times I suggested that the two of us and our wives go out for dinner. Finally after offering that prospect a number of times he abruptly stated: “My wife’s a vegetarian and doesn’t drink.” Now of course one doesn’t have to drink or eat meat to go out to dinner but it was clear from his reaction that this was not a venue she was amenable to. I liked this chef as a person and I relished the thought of having a friend who shared my passions. Our relationship never evolved after that and obviously other factors could have been at play. Nevertheless I still can’t help but wonder how much his wife’s dietary restrictions played a role in their social strictures as a couple. For all we know, the four of us could have become great friends and added to each other’s lives.
Obsessions about food, or anything for that matter, accomplish two destructive goals: First and foremost they impede individuals from getting what they really need from life. Fundamental human strivings are subverted or complicated by devotion to the overarching dictates of the dietary madness. Secondly, obsessions undermine potentially good times as the individual ruminates about his demons and thus is not emotionally available to enjoy or promote life. In the case of the orthorexic, how vexingly ironic that the pursuit of pureness can produce such a tainted existence.