Is Real Foodism Really to Blame for Orthorexia?

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Concerns about orthorexia are storming through the health diet world. Or should I say anti-diet world? Is it something you should be concerned about? If you are trying to improve your health by changing the food you eat, then I would say you should at least be aware of it. Especially if you have perfectionistic tendencies and a lot of willpower.

Orthorexia nervosa (also known as orthorexia) is a proposed eating disorder or mental disorder characterized by an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthful.It was introduced in 1997 by Steven Bratman, M.D., to be used as a parallel with other eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa. Orthorexia is not mentioned in the widely used DSM, but was coined by Bratman who claims that in rare cases, this focus may turn into a fixation so extreme that it can lead to severe malnutrition or even death. Even in less severe cases, the attempt to follow a diet that cannot provide adequate nourishment is said to lower self-esteem as the orthorexics blame themselves rather than their diets for their constant hunger and the resulting cravings for forbidden foods.” (Wikipedia)

This topic has been on my mind lately, ever since I was irked by an article I read that claims “All food is real food” and blames real foodists for causing orthorexia in people. I am an advocate of eating real foods (which I define as anything that comes from nature), but I am also an advocate of listening to one’s body and not tying in guilt and perfectionism with eating. But after reading the article, I felt villainized.

First off, I don’t think we can blame people for advocating “natural” foods, “real” foods, or “traditional” foods. Heck, I don’t think we should blame anyone for advocating eating anything (unless someone is just trying to make money and doesn’t care who they hurt). The problem is when we start referring to foods as “poisonous” and “harmful.” It’s true I believe that pesticides, MSG, and other food additives are harmful. And I’m not trusting of GMOs and other foods that require a chemistry lab to make. And I believe that our ancestors used their instincts and biofeedback to figure out that foods are more nutritious prepared certain ways (known as traditional food preparation). But you won’t hear me calling actual food poison, and I prefer to focus on improving one’s diet by adding nourishing foods, rather than restricting so-called “bad” foods. In this way, a person should not feel restricted by their diet, nor be made afraid of food. They certainly should not become malnourished. I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong here, and I suppose I have a problem with villainizing anyone who is only trying to help people eat better. It seems even a little hypocritical to me to villainize special diets and their advocates, when you have a problem with people villainizing food. Can’t we just educate each other without attacking one another?

Another problem I see with blaming real foodists for orthorexia is that real food isn’t at fault here (again, by real food I simply mean food that comes from nature). You see, this condition wouldn’t even exist (at least not in the numbers we see today) if it weren’t for the “displacing foods of modern commerce,” as Dr Weston A Price called it. The whole reason people have come up with all these different restrictive health diets is because of the effect this modern food has had on us. Eating too much devitalized and artificial food can cause a person to become malnourished and even overweight. People become tired of feeling sick, fatigued or fat, so instead of eating food in a “normal” way, they seek to improve their health by changing their diet.

One of the first promoters of these “special diets” is actually the USDA. The USDA used to tell people to eat a bunch of sugar. Then they told people to stop eating saturated fat. Then we were supposed to reduce all kinds of fat. We were told to eat lots of grain instead. I think it’s actually kind of okay to villainize the USDA because a lot of their recommendations seem to correlate with things not pertaining to health at all. Such as money. However, there are many followup groups who have been much more well-meaning.

Real food, natural food, traditional food–that’s what we humans used to all eat. We didn’t have to think too much about it. Just about everything we ate was nourishing. Most people got a good amount of exercise as part of their daily routine. They ate what was available and they ate till they were satisfied, and that was that. People didn’t have to start thinking so hard about food until industrial foods showed up, displacing more nourishing foods, and food and nutrition scientists starting giving out their special recommendations, which were all too often to avoid certain nourishing foods and instead eat more of the foods that weren’t so nourishing.

So now we have the push-back diets. We have calorie-restricted diets and food group-restricted diets. We have the diets that propose getting rid of the foods that caused this obsession with food in the first place–man-made, artificial, devitalized foods. And people who have had their health damaged by eating a typical American diet flock to these special diets in hope of improved health. The problem with these diets is not the diets themselves, but the attitude surrounding them. The idea that this is the magic diet that will cure you of what ails you, and that if you aren’t getting better, then you aren’t doing it well enough. This is how people become malnourished on vegan diets and even the nutrient-dense paleo and GAPS diets. People become so focused on eating only what’s on the diet, that they may miss their body’s biofeedback that is saying, “I don’t feel well!” “I’m hungry!” “I need meat!” “I need carbs!” “I need fat!” “I need more food!!!” or whatever it may be. It’s all too easy to become malnourished on a calorie-restricted diet, of course.

I don’t see anything in particular that is wrong with a traditional foods diet. First of all, before industrialized foods come on the market, people thrived on these foods. No food groups are restricted. You aren’t limited to a certain amount of calories or carbs or fat or protein or anything like that. But I can see people becoming too perfectionist about it. It does take time to learn and integrate the traditional food preparation techniques. And it’s totally not a normal thing in our society to always be soaking grains and nuts and seeds, and fermenting things and going to the trouble of sourcing the highest quality foods you can afford. It really can seem obsessive when nobody does that anymore. And it really can become obsessive if you are prone to perfectionism.

Many of us have learned to avoid certain foods because they make us feel sick. That is normal. But many are avoiding certain foods because they heard something bad about them and fear cancer or diabetes or some other disease. That’s not listening to biofeedback. That’s listening to fear. When you become afraid to eat too many foods, it becomes more and more difficult to eat. Eating should not be difficult, unless you have actual health issues that make it so. I can only imagine what the person with multiple food allergies thinks of the person who restricts themselves of their own free will and choice. Madness??

Honestly, I hate that we should even have to think about food so much. I hate that our food has become mutilated by science. I wish all the food was natural food. I wish we never lost the wisdom of our ancestors. I wish everyone could just eat food and enjoy it without having to worry what the consequences may be. It’s not normal to be obsessed with food or to avoid eating things that taste good. But keeping our health intact in this world of processed foods does take a little savvy. I think we just have to find a balance. We need to incorporate what nourishing foods we can into our diets, try to keep it reasonably balanced, listen to our bodies, and then just not freak out if you can’t do it all perfectly. Food is meant to be enjoyed and to nourish our bodies.

Not everyone who veers away from junk food is going to develop orthorexia. In fact, many people see not only improved physical health but improved mental health when they switch to real foods. Many people are even cured of orthorexia by doing this. I know that before I switched to real foods and then traditional foods, I was constantly trying to eat better, failing, feeling guilty, trying harder, feeling like crap and was definitely malnourished. Just incorporating more nourishing foods into my diet has cured all this.

But let me tell you something. I don’t soak peanuts and make my own peanut butter. The sourdough bread I eat is made from white flour and bought at the store. I eat white rice because it’s easier than soaking brown rice. I eat my mom’s chocolate fudge made with Jiffy marshmallow cream every Christmas. When I eat out, I eat food that has canola oil in it because that’s what is available. Since I’ve been pregnant, I’ve actually increased my cane sugar consumption because I need the calories and carbohydrates and I tolerate the sugar better than other high carbohydrate foods, and the convenient, ready-made store-bought foods don’t use maple syrup and raw honey, gosh darn it! Some of these things I eat because I enjoy them, some because I just don’t have the time to do every dang thing from scratch, some because I lack the experience to make it myself, some because I’m simply hungry and just need to eat. I don’t feel guilty, I don’t feel that I’m weak or that I should be doing better. I feel like I’m taking good care of myself by not trying to be perfect.

I’m not going to apologize for advocating real foods and teaching people about traditional foods. The whole point is to better nourish ourselves, and there is nothing wrong with that. But please, do be responsible for yourself and try to keep some balance in your eating habits and in life in general. Let food be a source of enjoyment in your life, and give yourself permission to eat what you want.

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7 thoughts on “Is Real Foodism Really to Blame for Orthorexia?

  1. I think it is so cool that you posted this just recently! I was googling orthorexia to find a picture that I thought really correlated with my blog post, that is how I stumbled across your post 🙂 . I really enjoyed this post. I was concerned in the weeks leading up to relasing my post that people would take it to the extreme and point fingers and say “see we SHOULDNT eat healthy, look it leads to detriment, all you healthy eating workout people should stop!” .

    I really am grateful you looked at so many aspects of this in your post. It was a wonderful read! Thank you 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment! Why is it that people tend to think in such extremes? There is certainly a way to do things without becoming neurotic. It’s quite possible to improve one’s diet and be moderate at the same time. 🙂

  2. Technically, all those processed foods are natural. The USDA approved a natural as an advertising term years ago. The definition of “natural” was agreed to mean that all ingredients in a given food were found on the planet Earth. That’s why there can be “all natural” Cheetos: there’s not a single asteroid or comet in them!

  3. Frankly I think that maybe the processed food industry is helping to make orthorexia a bigger deal than it really is. Since I have started to eat mostly whole unprocessed foods my mind is clearer and I feel better physically. I think that it is absurd for a person to feel guilty for eating better. I eat junk food occasionally. Most of the time when I am out If I can’t find something that I want to eat, I will drink water and find some nuts. Even though I am not over weight I am far from skinny. I should be able to eat what I want without being labeled with a mental disorder. Do they consider so called junk food junkies to have a mental condition ?

    1. I think the processed food industry is probably mostly responsible for orthorexia, and in more than one way. But the secondary cause, I think, is people getting over-zealous about special diets that they don’t actually need to be on. I think a person only has orthorexia when, in trying to eat “healthy” they end up doing more damage than good. I do think it’s an important disorder to recognize, but I find it pretty annoying that anyone would blame proponents of healthy eating. Although I do have a problem with people insisting their diet is the right diet, when clearly there are some people who are not doing well on it.

      But anyway, you are right. No one should feel guilty for trying to eat better, but neither should they feel guilty for eating junk. Junk food can be very alluring, especially when a person is nutritionally deprived. Or, simply hungry! And no, I don’t think a person has orthorexia because they refuse to eat foods they consider unacceptable. That’s just silly. I mean, we’re allowed to have standards!

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