February 25, 2016

When Healthy Eating Makes Us Sick.

Juan José Valencia Antía/Unsplash

Recently, Elle published an article asking one of Hollywood’s elite healthy eating lifestyle entrepreneurs what she ate for one day. The interview, intended to be an inspiring lifestyle piece, then became the source of intense online attack and ridicule.

During the nonchalant rundown of a typical day, we common folk were brought into a wonderful world of teas, tonics, dusts and juices with exotic names that most of us have never heard of. Forget coffee and breakfast as you run out the door, you self-harming mortals!

More than her amazing looks, by eating and drinking her own products this business owner claims she has been able to align cosmically with her life purpose and become successful. It might leave a reader wondering which aisle in the supermarket they’ve been missing.

But you can’t find these products in any old supermarket; not surprisingly, you can only find these products in her exclusive juice store in Los Angeles.

What? You never knew you needed Brain Dust to, “increase your mental flow” or Spirit Dust to, “feed your harmony.” That’s why your nervous system has been off; you’ve been lacking Mucuna. And what about your poor struggling thyroid? It’s been starved of Ashwangandha. Not to mention why you look like an old bag; it’s because you’ve never had any Lucuma.

Divorced, dumped, discouraged? It’s time you bought some expensive magic potions you’ve never heard of before.

I must admit, this lifestyle is seductive. In the day-to-day struggles we all face juggling self-care, work obligations and family needs, what most of us wouldn’t give to float with health and ease through our days, free from impurities and full of energy.

Yes, I want that! So why does it all feel somehow made up? And why was the comments section full of such angry and sometimes downright mean quips?

I think the angry felt like they were covertly being sold a way of life that strayed far from sanity into the realms of an unhealthy, neurotic fantasy. In the comments backlash, I think people were refusing to feel ashamed for how they live their lives, imperfections and all, and refusing to “be inspired” by a way of eating and living available only to the privileged.

In 1997, American physician Steven Bratman, M.D. introduced the term, “Orthorexia” as a distinct eating disorder characterized by extreme or excessive preoccupation with eating food believed to be healthy. His definition,

“…suggests that in some susceptible people, dietary restrictions intended to promote health may paradoxically lead to unhealthy consequences, such as social isolation, anxiety, loss of ability to eat in a natural, intuitive manner, reduced interest in the full range of other healthy human activities, and, in rare cases, severe malnutrition or even death.”

It is concerning how insidious the marketing of disordered eating can be. Just like the modeling industry, which successfully sells us anorexia, exemplified by Kate Moss’ famous quote, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” we are now increasingly up against the health and wellness industry and its plethora of dietary coaches, fitness gurus and celebrities, some of whom are posing as pseudo-scientists and telling us how we can optimize and perfect our lives in less than healthy ways.

The striving for a purer life can turn from a helpful to a dangerous pursuit, relying on restriction and unrealistic food choices. When we fail to live up to this high standard of eating (because let’s face it, most of us will), we feel deeply shamed, actually enforcing, rather than easing, the belief that we are not worthy. It becomes a negative shame spiral damaging our self-esteem.

If we are able to live up to this standard, then we may live in a false sense of grandiosity about our achievements without realizing the stress and anxiety induced trying to keep this standard up. All the while, we are focusing huge amounts of our precious energies into this profitable fallacy.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with wanting to live a healthier and more balanced life, but there seems to be a fine line between people who are taking care of themselves by manipulating their diet and those who are stuck in disordered behavior.

Orthorexia involves obsessive magical thinking about the power of food. Part of healing any eating disorder is gently letting go of these ideas and exploring the underlying anxieties about self and life that we are trying to ease with the food obsession.

There is no perfect weight or food that will take away life’s conflicts, make people love us or stop us from aging and dying. Suffering is part of life, and we have to learn to live with, not get rid of, the pains and conflicts that arise. This also means seeing food realistically, as something that is nourishing and enjoyable, but not the solution to all of life’s problems.

So how do we know when our desire to make healthy choices is becoming a problem? If you recognize some of these symptoms you might want to take a closer look at yourself and possibly get some help:

  • Obsessive focus on food choice, planning, purchase, preparation and consumption.
  • Food regarded primarily as source of health rather than pleasure.
  • Withdrawal from people or events seen not to support our “healthy” regime.
  • Distress or disgust when in proximity to prohibited foods.
  • Exaggerated faith that inclusion or elimination of particular kinds of food can prevent or cure disease or affect daily well-being.
  • Moral judgment of others based on dietary choices.
  • Body image distortion around sense of physical “impurity.”
  • Persistent belief that dietary practices are health promoting, despite evidence of malnutrition.


Relephant Read:

Orthorexia: Healing From Disordered Eating.


Author: Sophie Frost

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Juan José Valencia Antía/Unsplash // Christy McKenna/Flickr


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