Weapons of eating disorders?

Q: Have you seen this? A new eating disorder, orthorexia, is a fixation on eating “too healthy”. I was curious about ur thoughts since the description of the disorder sounds like clean-eating. Where does one draw the line?

A: Yep, I’m familiar with the term “orthorexia.” I’m more annoyed by it than anything, but mainly because the term is abused as if to say that anyone who focuses on what they consider to be healthier eating has to have some form of anxiety about it. It has to be disordering our lives. If anything, clean eating is about learning how to make healthier living a part of our lives.

Before I even begin, Dr. Steven Bratman – the creator of the term – says the following:

FYI: “orthorexia nervosa” is not currently a diagnosis, nor do I have any personal interest in making it one. It’s a description.

The fact is, the concept of orthorexia isn’t very new – it’s almost 15 years old. It hasn’t been picked up by the DSM (the manual that is used to determine and define mental disorders), so there isn’t a very hard-set list of rules for it. (In fact, the creator of the term has said on several occasions he has no desire to see it as such, either.) So no, I’m not surprised – in the least – that there are media outlets taking the term and wildly applying it to anyone who has any focus on healthy eating in their lives. There’s no standard by which they must abide in discussing it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m well aware of the fact that there are anorexics who hide within the “clean eating community” because it’s generally accepted that most-if-not-all of us are food snobs and do, in fact, turn our noses up at certain foods processed in certain ways. However, regardless of how well you may eat, you are never removed from the reality that is… America. Your office will always have candy. Your meetings will always have those stupid bagels. You will always have more soft drink vending machines than there are the little machines that dispense the fruit and sandwiches. You still have to function within reality. At the point where you are removing yourself from reality because of an anxiety you develop over having the perfect diet? That’s where you should do a little thinking – your eating habits are disordering your lifestyle.

Clean eating, as I see it, isn’t a focus on nutrients – which is why I don’t discuss the specifics of them here. I’m not going to only eat my tomatoes with olive oil – because I want allllllll the lycopene – as a part of clean eating. Clean eating trusts the fact that the vast array of vegetable, fruits and proteins are going to nourish you by virtue of what they are. You don’t, essentially, have to obsess. You know that the default standard of clean eating – whole food – is going to have you covered.

To me, clean eating isn’t meant to be life, it is a part of life. If anything, as a former emotional eater, clean eating gave me back my life. Clean eating is about enlisting standards, and doing everything you can to live and abide by those standards.You can do that without it being considered disordered, and I’m pretty sure that we can all agree on that. If that were the case, any time a person acted on a standard that caused them to deviate from the norm, they’d be considered “disordered.”

And while I’m really cringing at the thought of shrugging off something that can be a mental health issue, when it comes to eating in this country – a country that has a habit of defending the very companies that serve them neurotoxins and call it “natural flavoring,” hands them little packets of cancer-causing agents and call it “sweetener” and sells them cheaply-made $0.99 dinners and won’t even identify the meat in the “meat patty” on the cover because they don’t know which meat is in it – if we were to define “normal” as “the current status quo,” and we were all expected to eat like everyone else? We’d all be screwed. All we have to do is look at the collective of Blacks in America and see how screwed we’ve been in trying to eat like everyone else.

That’s how you know that orthorexia is about more than the decision to eat healthier. It’s obviously imperative to have standards. And, as Bratman says, “I do not, and have never claimed that vegetarianism, veganism, or any other approach to eating healthy food is inherently an eating disorder!”

As obvious throughout Bratman’s entire site, he has some severe regrets for the way his term has kind of picked up legs and walked through the nation’s conversation about food. Throughout the comments on his site, he can be found explaining away the fact that the media is abusing the concept. He offers up half-hearted rebuttals against the people in the comments sections of his site who offer up their loved ones as “orthorexics” because “they have an unhealthy obsession with eating healthily.”

To the average American who is more inclined to use any and every excuse they can to justify their own unhealthy habits, they’d rather take the term and use that to imply that there’s wrong to have any standards in regards to food. It’s being used as a derailing tactic, and it’s annoying. This is where the media comes into play. Because of the way food debates are portrayed, the concept of “any” or “all” of us who are healthier eaters having actual eating disorders… or the idea that the attempt to try to eat healthier is somehow disordered is enough to get any journo’s attention. I doubt Bratman ever intended this.

In all honesty, I believe that anything can overtake people’s lives. While clean eating isn’t inherently disordered eating, it certainly can become such… and only you can make that determination for yourself. When I was first learning, I thrust myself into the center of every clean eating book I could, but learning about food was very different from obsessing over when I’d eat next or – even worse – pursuing and indulging in my next emotional eating binge. That knowledge I developed changed my life. So… while self-reflection is always important, the threat of being “called” (not “diagnosed,” as Bartman said himself) orthorexic shouldn’t be enough to turn one away from pursuing healthier eating. Considering the abuse of the term and in comparison to the eating habits of the rest of the country, I wonder how terrible of a thing that’d be.