Monday, October 19, 2009


WARNING: This is another post in my series of hard questions and serious reflexion. No, I am not targeting "you". I just think this is an interesting topic that warrants thought and debate.

The other day, I was having lunch at a sushi restaurant with two colleagues. Neither are slim--they are painfully thin. From what I can tell, they are both addicted to exercise. They also both "watch what they eat", although I have seen one of them drinking a high-calorie food supplement. He knows that he is actually way too thin for his own health. The other colleague seems to enjoy her food, though for the life of me, I can't understand why she would use that vile, low-calorie, chemical-laden dressing on her salads.

We were looking over the menu when L. turned to me and asked if I'd heard that drinking three cups of green tea per day is said to lower your likelihood of developing colo-rectal cancer by 79%. He was both serious and a bit mocking. How did they come to such a precise number? Why not around 75-80%, for instance?

And thus ensued an interesting discussion of orthorexia.

Have your ever heard the term "orthorexia"?

From Wikipedia:

Orthorexia, or orthorexia nervosa is a term coined by Steven Bratman, a Colorado MD, to denote an eating disorder characterized by excessive focus on eating healthy foods. In rare cases, this focus may turn into a fixation so extreme that it can lead to severe malnutrition or even death.[1][2]

Bratman coined the term in 1997 from the Greek orthos, "correct or right", and orexis for "appetite"[3]. Literally "correct appetite", the word is modeled on anorexia, "without appetite", as used in definition of the condition anorexia nervosa. Bratman describes orthorexia as an unhealthy obsession (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder) with what the sufferer considers to be healthy eating. The subject may avoid certain foods, such as those containing fats, preservatives, animal products, or other ingredients considered by the subject to be unhealthy; if the dietary restrictions are too severe or improperly managed, malnutrition can result. Bratman asserts that "emaciation is common among followers of certain health food diets, such as rawfoodism, and this can at times reach the extremes seen in anorexia nervosa." In addition, he claims that "anorexic orthorexia" can be as dangerous as anorexia. However, he states, "the underlying motivation is quite different. While an anorexic wants to lose weight, an orthorexic wants to feel pure, healthy and natural.

And from this article in the Guardian, a well-respected British newspaper:

Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.

The obsession about which foods are "good" and which are "bad" means orthorexics can end up malnourished. Their dietary restrictions commonly cause sufferers to feel proud of their "virtuous" behaviour even if it means that eating becomes so stressful their personal relationships can come under pressure and they become socially isolated.

Yes, of course you can be careful about what you eat without suffering from full-blown orthorexia! I repeat (because there are readers who are going to accuse me of attacking their incredibly healthy, fine eating): OF COURSE YOU CAN BE CAREFUL ABOUT WHAT YOU EAT WITHOUT SUFFERING FROM ORTHOREXIA. Clear? Now, you know where I stand.

I grew up in the 1960s when everybody ate marshmallow Fluff on white bread, the only cooking oil you could buy was corn oil and nobody thought it was necessary to think about eating enough fruits and veggies...except for my mom. White bread never crossed our door. Peanut butter came from the health food store and was free of sugar and salt. Baked goods were as rare as hen's teeth in our home.

I grew up in a household where healthy eating reigned supreme. My mom worshipped Adele Davis.

Of course, I rebelled and lusted mightily after all things junky and sweet. I still like sweets. It's just the way I am. But the basics that my mom taught me did stick in my mind.

When I started developing arthritis (it runs in the family), I consulted a number of alternative medicine practitioners in an effort to slow down the disease. At one time or another, I cut out all the usual culprits: refined sugar, wheat, dairy. Then I cut out "evil" foods masquerading as my friends: brussel sprouts, grapes, tomatoes, eggplant...

I've told this story before. None of these virtuous plans ever did me a lick of good. I finally decided that my mother's guidance was good enough for me: a variety of foods, whole grains inasmuch as possible (you'll have to pry the occasional piece of baguette that I eat out of my cold, dead hands), fruits, vegetables, meats, but very small amounts of junk food and processed sweets. No orthorexia for me!

But recently, I've had to ask myself whether I'm more concerned about virtuous eating than I thought.

There are a few weight-loss bloggers out there who are losing scads of weight eating whatever they want, though in modest amounts. Generally speaking, my reaction to them is BRAVO! They're not trying to cram themselves into strict plans that consider many ordinary foods to be the devil's spawn. They've made peace with food, in their own way, just as I'm trying to do.

However, now I'm starting to worry about these wonderful people. Junk food can be awfully tasty and just fine from time to time but if there are no apples in the mix, if green beans only get on the plate every few weeks or so (I'm not quoting anyone's diet in particular, here--just speaking in generalities), if squash is just a dream, I have to ask myself: are my admirable friends going to stay healthy?

Weight loss and more exercise are fabulous. Reasonable portions are to be applauded, but I hear my mom calling and she's saying "eat your veggies, have some fruit, choose healthy over empty calories more often"!

So here I am, as usual out on my own personal ice floe. I don't feel comfortable with food purity, I do applaud people who can make peace with their food and don't have to hide from the occasional piece of pizza as if it were poison but I do think we should stress eating a well-balanced diet that's based on nutrient-rich foods.

What do you think?

P.S. I have thought long and hard about posting this. I know that everybody has their own "what works best". I am incredibly impressed with the successes I see around me but I cannot help feeling somewhat ill at ease with both the purists and the "anything goes as long as I'm losing" crowd. I admit that I fear being bashed by both sides because of this post. I guess I'd better don my flak jacket...


  1. I try to get in as many fruits and vegetables as I can during the day. I think I'm doing a pretty good job most days.
    For the longest time and due to the outpouring of information, I was afraid to eat eggs, meat and fat.
    I've changed my opinion on these foods and now eat them regularly without guilt or fear of keeling over.
    I'm of the opinion that you can't get too many F & V in your diet and they are always the better choice over processed crap.
    I don't think it's healthy to eat most of your food made in a factory.
    Eating foods closest to the way nature intended, IMO, is the healthiest diet. I'm after weight loss first and foremost to be honest but I definitely want to maintain or even increase my good health in the process.
    I wouldn't classify myself as a clean eating purist at all although I've had my moments of militancy throughout this process.
    But I definitely fall in to the "processed food is crap" camp.

    This is a good post, Wendy. Never fear! :D

  2. Just yesterday I thought..I really want to post on some of these bloggers sites about how they are losing weight but still eating UNHEALTHY food and fries are just NOT GOOD for anyone. Yes, I believe if they're losing weight that alone is helping in getting them healthier, but they still eat JUNK, just less of it I guess . There is no disputing that eating healthy makes you feel GREAT. Plus , if they are putting that much effort into losing weight, why would they still put nasty fast food and junk into their body? Why not just change your diet to mostly fruits and veggies and lean proteins? The weight falls off a lot quicker and you don't feel sluggish like after ingesting junk.

  3. I'm kind of in the middle, I'm not afraid of pizza, bacon, cookies, but I eat lots of fruits and veggies, and wouldn't eat fast food except under duress (this happens maybe every 3 years). I've seen orthorexic people, and others who are just uptight and difficult. I think trying for perfection is a waste of time and effort, eating, in my opinion, is one of those places for "pretty good"

    BTW, I don't think people who eat smaller portions of fast food and processed and fried everything but vegetable diet are healthy, no matter how thin they get.

  4. Your diet sounds most realistic for the long haul: a variety of foods, whole grains inasmuch as possible, fruits, vegetables, meats, but very small amounts of junk food and processed sweets. No where do you say "never" to a food. I feel the diet is what you eat most of the time, not at your birthday party.

  5. I find the whole orthorexia thing very irritating. Bratman is lumping an awareness of healthy food and the effects of poor food choices together with eating disorders, when the difference is quite clear. Eating disorders lead to malnutrition, no matter what form they take. And the end goal for the person with the disorder is NOT health, but annihilation of self. But generally speaking, people who eat raw foods, vegan diets and organic whole food diets ARE extremely healthy and live happy, fulfilled lives.

    Nutrient deficiencies are much more common in people eating a processed diet than in people who are aware of what they eat.

    Like you, I believe that weight loss can be achieved by a number of means, but they are most often not healthy (think heroin addiction or AIDS) or sustainable.

    I think counting calories, fat grams and the like is a more disordered way of eating than satisfying your hunger with as much fresh whole food as you wish.

  6. I'm just trying to find balance! Like you said healthy choices most of the time with occasional treats mixed in. Define occasional? For me it used to be daily! :) Now I'm thinking weekly. I'm trying to stay away from artificial sweeteners and sugar...I notice that my body doesn't like sugar. Unfortunately it's in everything. Balance! It's hard!