A couple of years ago, I started hearing about a new eating disorder, “orthorexia,” an obsession with eating only “healthy” or “clean” food. My first thought was identical to what had crossed my mind when I heard the term “exercise bulimia” a decade earlier: “That doesn’t sound like such a bad disorder to me.”
But of course it is. They both are. While orthorexia may be relatively rare – and certainly the “luxury problem” of those with the means to be picky about what they eat – it is nevertheless joy-diminishing and life-depleting. Compared to anorexia or bulimia, it hardly seems to deserve the title “disorder,” but that’s what makes it insidious. The anorexic wants a “perfect” body if it kills her. The orthorexic can want a perfect diet almost as much.
Everything starts out fine. It could happen to any of us. It could happen to you. Let’s say you’re vegan so the animal products are gone – a very good thing on a great many levels – and you just want to eat a little better, so you cut out refined sugar. Laudable move. Then the white bread and white rice go. Fried foods get the axe. You get more serious about exercise. You’re happy. Your doctor is happy. All is well.
Then you read that oil is problematic. Okay, out go most salad dressings and any oil-sauteeing. When you learn that sweeteners other than sugar are really just sugar, the maple syrup and agave nectar are dispensed with. And since dried fruit has a high sugar content, that needs to go, too.
You watch Fat, Sick & Nearly Dead, and juicing looks incredibly cool, but not fruit juice since that’s all sugar. Same with carrot juice. Sure, you’ve seen the old books about people who cured their cancers with carrot juice or grape diets, but that was a long time ago, before we knew about sugar. So you decide that some juice is okay, mostly green, even though some experts argue that juice isn’t a whole food and you should really leave it alone.
It’s getting tough, but you’re committed, and then you learn, OMG, wheat has been so severely hybridized and the gluten in it is harmful to lots more people than just the one percent with celiac disease. So no more bread or pasta or flour products, unless they’re gluten-free. But guess what? Most of the gluten-free stuff is refined, made from potato starch and refined rice flour, so that’s out, too.
You’re doing okay with gluten-free grains and vegetables and fresh fruit (not too much: the sugar…) when your friend goes on the Wheat Belly diet and shares with you that it’s not just wheat, but grains in general, refined and unrefined, that are dangerous. In fact, all starches should be curtailed – beans, potatoes. (Sweet potatoes aren’t bad, but white potatoes, good grief! They’re high on the Glycemic Index and basically metabolize as sugar, so there they go. Besides, they’re nightshades and your macro friend told you those are bad, so while you’re at it, get rid of the peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes.)
Then there’s soy. Some people say it’s the devil, so you do your research and decide that natural soy – edamame, miso, tempeh, and a little tofu — are okay, as long as you’re sure it’s not GMO. That means no tofu from the Chinese place and no edamame at the Japanese restaurant, so you’re down to eating only vegetables when you go there (no rice; it’s white. And you should only eat rice grown in California anyway, since the other stuff has a high arsenic content).
The GMO thing is scary. Most corn is GMO so no more popcorn at the movies (but wait: isn’t that a different kind of corn that isn’t GMO? Who knows? It probably has bad oil anyway – oops, ‘forgot: all oil is bad). Cottonseed and canola are bad since they’re oils and super-bad since they’re GMO, so that means no crackers with the hummus your friend made special since you’re vegan, and no peanuts in the airplane. (Peanuts get that naturally occurring mold, aflatoxin, and you realize you’re better off without them.) Other nuts are okay – well, not almonds; they’re too high in Omega-6 fatty acids.
By now, you’re buying organic food almost exclusively. When you eat out, the food seems inferior – it’s poisoned after all – and highly unethical and damaging to farm workers and farmers and the planet. It’s easier to turn down lunch and dinner invites and just do coffee.
You’ve held onto caffeine because the news is always mixed – one study says it’s helpful, one says harmful – and the same with wine. So you go back and forth – one week on, one week off. Your friends can’t keep up. You could have cocoa – the powder doesn’t have the saturated fat that a chocolate bar does – but, gosh, it’s hard to make decent hot chocolate without some sweetener in it. Green tea should be okay, but tea has aluminum, believed to cause Alzheimer’s.
You never intended for this to happen, but now you’re in a situation in which it’s getting hard to eat, not so much at home – you have a pattern there, a routine – but when you’re out, or traveling, food becomes a big deal. If you eat something beneath your standards, you feel bad – guilty, even afraid that the cheese-free sandwich from Subway or one order of fries at an airport will give you some awful disease.
Now, obviously, if you have a medical condition, you have to eat in accordance with your therapeutic protocol. But if you’re just someone who wants to be healthier, part of healthy living may well be to ease up just a little. I’m a fan of Dr. Joel Fuhrman’s “Nutritarian” approach that calls for eating 90 percent of calories in the form of whole, plant foods, and leaving the other ten percent for real-world wiggle room. Now, I realize that some Nutritarians use that ten percent for animal foods which, as an ethical vegan, I wouldn’t do, but knowing that there’s some leeway for an unplanned lunch out or a road trip to whatever hinterland seems interesting, is a great relief.
Years ago, when being vegetarian was as edgy in this country as being vegan is now, I knew a corporate trainer, a vegetarian, who was on the road a lot. She told me something very wise: “When I can’t get the food I want, I eat what’s available as long as it’s vegetarian. I say to my body: ‘Deal with it,’ and trust that it will do that.” I had to remember that many times on my recent trip to Paris when I was eating white bread and white rice, which I almost never do at home, pretty much daily. At first, I acted downright orthorexic: white bread! What if the sky falls? When it became apparent that I wasn’t going change French culinary culture, I remembered my mentor’s words from the distant past: “Body, deal with it.”
We all have an idea of what we believe to be optimal nourishment. When we eat those foods, we feel better – both in our bodies and about ourselves. But to get to the point where almost everything has something wrong with it takes away the joy of eating. That joy is important to digestion, and even more important to life.
Victoria Moran is the director of Main Street Vegan Academy, host of the weekly Main Street Vegan podcast, and author of twelve books, including The Good Karma Diet: Eat Gently, Feel Amazing, Age in Slow Motion, coming in May 19 and available now for preorder. If you order now, you can attend a private teleclass with Victoria and be entered in a contest to win one of three $100 gifts to your favorite charity. Click here for information.