The first time I heard the term “orthorexia”, I Googled “what is orthorexia?” and found very little information aside from a short Wikipedia article. That was probably 4-6 months ago. Just last month, I decided to try to pinpoint the origins of my stomach problems by keeping a photo food journal. The ridiculousness that this effort created inside my own head had me Googling “orthorexia” again. This time, I got significantly more results, from reputable sources such as the National Eating Disorders Association and The Mayo Clinic. It sounds like this disorder is starting to be recognized as valid in the health and medical community.
Some of the definitions of this disorder I agree with, and some I don’t.
We DO need to be careful about what we eat.
The facts are, a huge portion of our food supply is undeniably contaminated by genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), pesticides, lead, and antibiotics fed to animals whose meat, eggs, and dairy we consume. So it is actually important to be aware of the risks and make wise choices, such as eating organic vegetables that are in the EWG Dirty Dozen and trying to stick to organic milk products. The risk can be reduced by a great deal just by taking these simple steps and attempting to eat foods that are as close to nature’s original product as possible. So when articles like the one from The Mayo Clinic claim that people who attempt to avoid toxins at all actually have a mental disorder…I’m sorry, but that is just not true.
But then it starts to get complicated.
A large portion of the population is gluten intolerant. There are nut allergies. Have you heard that dairy is only for baby cows? I have. Over and over. But how “natural” is it for us to take a coconut and smash it up, process it, and call it “milk”? Soy is almost always a GMO product, so we need to avoid that, too. And unless you know how that cow, pig, or chicken lived its life you probably shouldn’t eat it either, because it could be full of antibiotics and GMO corn. Fruits and vegetables might be nearly impossible to buy organic at an affordable price in the winter months, but how else are you going to make your green smoothies? And what about the carbon footprint of those organic berries you buy in December? Should you even be supporting that kind of waste? You can stick to nuts and seeds, but how were they sourced? Are they ecologically responsible, fair-trade, and did you buy them in plastic containers that might have leeched chemicals into them?
The body needs nutrients, but there are reasons we “shouldn’t” eat nearly every item in our fridge or pantry.
When you start to get (too) informed about how and what kind of foods you “can” and “can’t” eat, it starts to consume the mind. Or, at least it does for me.
Here are some signs of orthorexia, according to the National Eating Disorder Association:
- Do you wish that occasionally you could just eat and not worry about food quality?
- Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time living and loving?
- Does it seem beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by someone else – one single meal – and not try to control what is served?
- Are you constantly looking for ways foods are unhealthy for you?
- Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
- Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
- Do you feel in control when you stick to the “correct” diet?
- Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?
The best way to illustrate what goes on in the mind of someone who is at least borderline orthorexic is for me to give you a little window into my thought process when I think about whether to eat a peanut butter sandwich.
What goes on in the mind of an orthorexic person when considering a peanut butter sandwich.
The bread – It’s a carb. Carbs are bad (fitness instructor part of my brain). If it’s processed, it contains GMO oils and who knows where the grains came from. Fortunately, I make my own bread so I know where all the ingredients came from and there is no refined sugar. Still, it has gluten. I’m not gluten intolerant, but all the crunchy people tell me gluten is bad. How many times have I had gluten today? At this point I start considering putting peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla, but I hate corn tortillas and flour tortillas have all the same problems.
Peanut butter – If my only option was a traditional brand like Jif, I’d rather starve, honestly. It’s so full of hydrogenated oils, added sugar, and even high fructose corn syrup that I wouldn’t put it into my mouth. My peanut butter here at home is just plain peanuts, smashed up. No oil, no sugar, nothing added. Still, I’ll be thinking in my head about how many times I’ve had peanut butter today. If I’ve had any peanuts at all, I might talk myself into almond butter instead, even though I don’t like the way it tastes, because my naturopath told me that eating the same thing too often causes food intolerances. There are no peanut allergies on either side of my family, but still. Paranoia.
Jelly – Honestly, jelly has a lot of sugar in it so sometimes I just go straight to honey because honey is a more natural form of sugar. Jelly is usually made from a berry, and berries are in the EWG Dirty Dozen, so I won’t eat them unless they’re organic. If my only option for jelly was conventional jelly with all the high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, and non-organic fruit, I’d refuse to eat it. That’s not even a food, I’d say to myself. The jelly we buy is actually jam and it’s organic, but it does have added sugar, so often I just choose local honey.
Is that normal? Do I have orthorexia?
I am not sure if I would say it is full blown, but I definitely have a tendency toward it.
I’m no stranger to addictions, as I consider myself to be in lifelong recovery from several of them. Addictions don’t go away. Addiction is the state that your mind returns to if you don’t deal with the other things in your life in a healthy way. My #1 addition is CONTROL. And orthorexia, like anorexia or bulimia, is about control. Attempting to control my own health, and on a larger scale, my life. The only way to deny the power of the addiction is to release control. According to the 12 Steps, we release it to our Higher Power. In my case, God.
Ongoing maintenance for an addiction, once you have gone through the 12 Steps (which I have, for other things), is to make sure you avoid triggers. For an alcoholic, not going into bars is a good idea. A lot of times, people with anorexia/bulimia need to stop weighing themselves, at least for a time. For me, I can’t do food logs. It’s a horrible idea because it causes me to judge myself and to open myself to judgement from others who don’t have the same caloric or nutritional needs as me.
Everyone’s body is different. It’s OK for me not to eat like you do. It’s OK that you don’t eat like I do. I believe these things in my heart. In my mind, it doesn’t always work.