I recently read an article on a “healthy eating” website describing something called orthorexia. Orthorexia is a relatively new diagnosis and it describes people who are obsessive about finding foods that are healthy.
The “healthy eating” website (which for point of reference makes its money by helping people learn about and research information about healthy foods) accused “psychiatry” of trying to denigrate the healthy food movement. They even suggested that the field of psychiatry seeks to demonize anything revolutionary in the food arena and just wants to sell pills to make your orthorexia go away.
A few things stood out about this to me that I want to grok out.
Psychiatric practice is a critical part of the medical industry. Psychiatrists go to medical school just like other MDs, and they spend their careers learning about how the chemicals of a person’s brain and body can affect their moods. They study what medications we have created which can help symptoms of anxiety, depression, psychosis, schizophrenia, manic depression, panic disorder, and thousands of other imbalances in the brain’s chemistry.
Do psychiatrists “get in bed,” as it were, with pharmaceutical companies? Of course they do. So does your internist and every pediatrician in this country. It’s what happens when capitalism takes over even the medical field.
But psychiatry is not looking to hurt you by picking on your interest in healthy eating, I promise.
The diagnosis of orthorexia comes when one’s interest in eating healthy becomes an obsession. An obsession is a mental fixation which takes up time that you would otherwise be spending not thinking about the thing you are obsessing about. An obsession has a ‘mind of its own’ and the thoughts and actions taken surrounding the obsession may feel out of the person’s control. Stopping those thoughts or behaviors associated with them may be very difficult and may cause a tremendous amount of anxiety.
Think about anorexia, for example. People with anorexia never feel thin enough and restrict their eating and/or exercise compulsively to keep losing weight even when they are underweight and at risk of hurting their bodies. But anorexia is different from people who “want to be skinny.” It’s even different from people who restrict their eating and always compare themselves to models and actresses (many of whom are models!).
Similarly, orthorexia is not a diagnosis that describes the majority of people who are concerned with what they eat, and has not been designated as a diagnosis in order to convince people to stop caring about what they eat and just eat what is handed to them. Healthy eating, and healthy concern about what our food is made of, is worthwhile. But once this concern is all-consuming, a fixation, it becomes the disorder of orthorexia.
The food we eat is directly linked to how our bodies work. So many of us today are touched by health problems because of the foods we eat, the chemicals in the foods we eat, and the environment we eat them in. When I was a kid, I knew one person who had breast cancer. Now, I know dozens and dozens and my kids come in contact with kids who know dozens and dozens of people with breast cancer. A lot of people have become increasingly wary about eating processed foods because of the link between food and cancer as well as many other illnesses.
Anecdotal stories of someone’s third cousin’s best friend who only ate fast food and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and drank a pint of whiskey every night and lived until 102 aside, blood pressure, cholesterol, cancer, diabetes and myriad weight-related maladies are impacted by the foods we eat. Every major medical organization recommends we all eat less processed foods (that means generally foods made up of more than a few ingredients), less dairy and meat, and more grains and fruit and vegetables.
It’s not vegan or dieting propaganda to say these things, because plenty of non-vegan and non-dieting organizations have said hem. Millions and millions of dollars are spent in this country’s hospitals in treatment of food-related illnesses and problems. Taxpayers pay for other people to have procedures and medications and surgeries that are often connected to the foods we eat.
Orthorexia is a serious problem, but it should not be confused with the kinds of concerns I’ve talked about here. It’s okay to be concerned about what we eat and how it affects us. But if you think that your interest in the impact of food on your body is more of an obsession, or if you find yourself thinking less about eating healthier for your body’s general good and more about what sickness or disease you might get if you eat something, please get help.
For help or more information about eating disorders, visit the National Eating Disorders Association.
You may also want to consult with NAMI: The National Alliance on Mental Illness, for additional assistance.