There was an article online today that caught my attention for a few moments; it was entitled “New Eating Disorders: Are They For Real?” I’m what you would probably call intellectually curious, and having worked for a while in clinical settings, I’m also extra-curious about new medical or psycho-social findings. (J. has often mocked me good-naturedly for my inability to resist the temptation to watch televised documentaries about conjoined twins, strange maladies, medical mysteries, and the like.) Obviously I found it impossible to stop myself from clicking over and reading the article to see what these new disorders were all about.
The two disorders that were highlighted in the article were something called Adult Selective Eating, of which I’d never heard; and Orthorexia, which I’ve read a bit about before. I should say right from the start that I believe fully in the possibility that both of these things are real, serious, psychologically based disorders. While many of the comments following the article made reference to “grown-up spoiled brats” and seemed to eye-rollingly discard the possibility of either of these disorders being worth a moment’s consideration, I’m not in that camp. It seems to me that ANYTHING, when taken to its severe extremes, can become dangerous; this theory proves true in many areas of life, not just in the eating realm. I can certainly see how being a severely restricted eater, while worrisome in children, might end up becoming a life-threatening compulsion in adulthood. I can also see how true orthorexia — obsessive fixation on healthy eating, to the point where it restricts one’s diet and impacts daily functioning — could become as emotionally crippling as any other obsessive-compulsive disorder, left unmanaged. I don’t question the legitimacy of these “new” disorders.
The problem I’m having with the article stems from this quote: “Those affected (by orthorexia) may start by eliminating processed foods, anything with artificial colorings or flavorings as well as foods that have come into contact with pesticides. Beyond that, orthorexics may also shun caffeine, alcohol, sugar, salt, wheat and dairy foods. Some limit themselves to raw foods.”
Um. We’ve eliminated most, if not all, processed foods, and we’re working hard on reducing or eliminating entirely artificial colorings and pesticide exposures. We know many people who don’t take in caffeine or alcohol, and many others who eliminate items like sugar, salt, wheat, and dairy from their diets. Some do almost ALL of these things out of concern for their health or the health of their families; and while I may not agree that it’s all necessary for good health and well-being, I certainly don’t consider any of these people DISORDERED.
Again, let me be clear: It’s not that I think orthorexia doesn’t exist. But, dear article, to borrow a phrase from one of my favorite movies: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
My parents once had an acquaintance who was extremely thin, almost painfully so. They, and many other people they knew, would refer to her behind closed doors as being anorexic. Maybe she was; I don’t know. I’ve thought, though, that she might have been orthorexic, in the true sense of the word. She ate, publicly, but would only eat very specific foods which she seemed to choose for their “healthful” properties. Skinless chicken or turkey, cooked with no butter or oil. Broccoli and other green vegetables, again cooked with no added fats, or eaten raw. She seemed obsessed with whether or not she thought the food was good for her, and clearly, it impacted her life rather severely.
To me, any article or news piece that draws a parallel between that type of behavior and the type of grassroots movement that has grown up around the conscious eating effort is both misguided and somewhat inflammatory. Oh, certainly the author doesn’t mean to inflame anyone; there’s no ill will intended, as far as I can tell. But there is already so much of a divide between the “eating classes” in our society that I’m very aware of any potential to increase the Us vs. Them mentality. Let’s face it: this conscious eating business is often the province of the “haves,” rather than the “have nots,” simply because of our agricultural, commercial, and economic systems; and as far as the public discourse, it’s becoming, to my chagrin, a symbol of so-called “liberal elitism” to be a farmer’s market-shopping, food-dye avoiding, GMO-hating eater.
It shouldn’t be this way. In my mind, wanting the best possible quality in our food supply to nourish our bodies and our childrens’ bodies is not the province of any particular socio-economic class, political affiliation, religious community, or any other “type” of people. Yet, as with any movement towards real, sweeping change, this one has incited deep passions in many people; and as accusations of “Nanny States” and “socialism” and other, uglier sentiments swirl around those of us who follow Pollan, Bittman, Nestle, et al, I can’t help but think that we need more unified and civil discourse, not more reasons to point fingers at one another in scorn and mistrust.
It’s no more a “disorder” to eliminate processed foods and artificial colors than it is to feed yourself or your kids on a steady diet of fast food, Lunchables, neon yogurt tubes, and Twinkies; yet we may choose to pathologize one of these lifestyle choices while vaguely and confusingly muttering about “moderation” in the other. We haven’t got a clue how to talk about these things clearly and with a tone of civility, so we fall back on the old human pattern of vilifying that which we simply don’t understand. And when we do so, we run the risk of not only stalling our own movement towards change; we also dangerously muddy the waters by minimizing the very real challenges that are faced by people who do, legitimately and painfully, struggle with eating disorders of all types.
I know of what I speak. I take this very personally, not because I think there’s intentional misrepresentation going on, but because I believe strongly in shades of gray. Somewhere between conscious eating, orthorexia, and anorexia, there are tipping points. I know all too well where mine are. I hope all my fellow conscious eaters know where theirs are. But before we get to those moments of crisis — long before — we’re striving to get to a place of true balance for ourselves, our health, our children, our environment. Let’s not allow careless reporting to diminish the challenges faced by any of us — those struggling with real eating disorders, and those struggling to illuminate the Great National Eating Disorder that’s consuming us all.