The first time I heard about orthorexia was while reading Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food. The term was coined by California doctor Steven Bratman in 1997 and used to describe those with a “healthy eating disorder.” In other words, it’s meant to describe those people who are “obsessed” with making healthy food choices.
I tried to imagine the average orthorexic. What does it mean, after all, to be “obsessed” with eating healthy, real, nourishing foods? And could it be a bad thing? Perhaps the average orthorexic never or rarely eats out because they know the food they’re being served is the product of the industrial food chain. Or maybe they refuse certain foods at social functions because of the food’s indeterminate origins.
Oh wait. That pretty much describes me and about half my friends. Does our desire to feed ourselves and our children the healthiest food possible mean that we’ve got a mental disorder? I didn’t think so.
I continued trying to wrap my head around how healthy eating could be a mental disorder. Maybe I should get more creative in my imagination. Maybe orthorexics are so obsessed with eating well that they don’t eat anything at all? They’d rather starve than eat crap?
Then I found this quiz. It’s the one Dr. Bratman published in his book Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating which is supposed to tell you if you’re orthorexic or not. I failed the quiz, and that struck me as quite funny.
So, I’m sharing it here for you.
The Orthorexia Quiz
1) Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about food? (For four hours give yourself two points.)
The time measurement includes cooking, shopping, reading about your diet, discussing (or evangelizing) it with friends, and joining Internet chat groups on the subject. Three hours a day is too much time to think about healthy food. Life is meant for love, joy, passion, and accomplishment. Absorption with righteous food seldom produces any of these things.
2) Do you plan tomorrow’s food today?
Orthorexics tend to dwell on upcoming menus. “Today I will eat steamed broccoli, while tomorrow I will boil Swiss chard. The day after that I think I’ll make brown rice with adzuki beans.” If you get a thrill of pleasure from contemplating a healthy menu the day after tomorrow, something is wrong with your focus.
3) Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
It’s one thing to love to eat, but for an orthrexic it isn’t the food itself; it’s the idea of the food. You can pump yourself up so giddily with pride that you don’t even taste it going down.
4) Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?
The problem with orthorexia is that healthy food doesn’t feed your soul. If you spend too much energy on what you put into your mouth, pretty soon the meaning will drain out of the rest of your life.
5) Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
Like other addictions, orthorexia tends to escalate, demanding increasing vigilance as time passes. The diet of yesterday isn’t pure enough for tomorrow. Over time the rules governing healthy eating get more rigid. And if you are an orthrexic, you get a grim pleasure from this.
6) Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?
Because of it’s confused scale of values, orthorexia leads to a crazy allocation of interest. Have you fallen into this trap? Will you turn down an invitation to eat at a friend’s house because the food there isn’t healthy enough for you? Do you find that obsessive thoughts of healthy food occupy your mind while you watch your child perform in a play at school?
7) Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food? Do you look down on others who don’t?
One of the seductive aspects of orthorexia is that it allows one to feel superior to other people. After all, healthy eating is everywhere extolled. Orthorexia seems to be right up there with good work habits and a clean life. In this, orthorexia has an aspect that can make it harder to shake than other eating disorders: While anorexics and bulimics feel ashamed of their habits, orthorexics strut with pride. “Look at those degenerates,” the mind says of everyone else, “hopelessly addicted to junk.”
8) Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
If you are an orthorexic, you feel guilt and shame when you eat foods that don’t fit the anointed diet. Your sense of self-esteem is so linked to what you eat that tasting a morsel of forbidden food feels like a sin. The only way to regain self-respect is to recommit yourself to ever-stricter eating, to despise yourself when you stray from the path of food righteousness.
There are times in life when it’s worthwhile being ashamed. When I’ve lost my temper at a child, betrayed a secret, insulted a friend behind his back, I’ve committed an actual error worthy of actual guilt. But eating pizza is fairly low on the scale of moral lapses. No one on her deathbed looks back and says, “I’m filled with regret that I ate too much ice cream and not enough kale.”
9) Does your diet socially isolate you?
Once you’ve reached a certain point, the rigidity demanded by orthorexia makes it truly difficult for you to eat anywhere but home. Most restaurants don’t serve the right foods, and even when they do, you won’t trust that it’s been prepared correctly. Even your friends inexplicably fail to cater to your personal preferences.
A common strategy is to bring your own food in separate containers and chew it slowly, looking virtuous and soulful while everyone else gulps down garbage. Or, like a solitary alcoholic, you can decline the invitation and dine in the loneliness and comfort of your own home.
10) When eating the way you are supposed to, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?
Life is complicated, unpredictable, and often scary. It is not always possible to control your life, but you can control what you eat. A heavy-handed domination over what goes onto your fork or spoon can create the comfortable illusion that your life is no longer in danger of veering from the plan.
As to these, the only ones I couldn’t answer in the affirmative were #3 & 4. That’s because, for me, I derive a lot of pleasure from eating my food. That pleasure is, in fact, one of the reasons I eat this way. Let’s face it. Real Food tastes better. Raw milk tastes sweet, creamy, and alive. A freshly picked summer tomato is exquisite. Eggs from pastured hens taste, well, egg-ier. And choosing to source, eat, and prepare these foods well adds to, rather than detracts from, my life. Remember how I once said that Real Food is ennobling? To me, the pleasure is more important than the virtue, although it’s somewhat tangled up in a sense of being virtuous.
For all the other questions, I found myself — in some ways at least — answering “yes.” I may not have agreed with Dr. Bratman’s explanatory statements or questions, but an honest answer to the question required a positive response.
Supposedly, answering 4 or more in the affirmative means you need help. Answering 8? I must be totally off my rocker.
Could this be true? Perhaps this one quiz is particularly skewed. What do other doctors have to say about orthorexia nervosa? In this interview with the UK’s The Guardian, I read:
“I am definitely seeing significantly more orthorexics than just a few years ago,” said Ursula Philpot, chair of the British Dietetic Association’s mental health group. “Other eating disorders focus on quantity of food but orthorexics can be overweight or look normal. They are solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure’.”
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 issues underlying orthorexia are often the same as anorexia and the two conditions can overlap but orthorexia is very definitely a distinct disorder,” said Philpot. “Those most susceptible are middle-class, well-educated people who read about food scares in the papers, research them on the internet, and have the time and money to source what they believe to be purer alternatives.”
Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders, said: “There is a fine line between people who think they are taking care of themselves by manipulating their diet and those who have orthorexia. I see people around me who have no idea they have this disorder. I see it in my practice and I see it among my friends and colleagues.”
Jade believes the condition is on the increase because “modern society has lost its way with food”. She said: “It’s everywhere, from the people who think it’s normal if their friends stop eating entire food groups, to the personal trainer in the gym who [promotes] certain foods to enhance performance, to the proliferation of nutritionists, dieticians and naturopaths [who believe in curing problems through entirely natural methods such as sunlight and massage].
“And just look in the bookshops – all the diets that advise eating according to your blood type or metabolic rate. This is all grist for the mill to those looking for proof to confirm or encourage their anxieties around food.”
Is it really a mental disorder to try to source pure food? To realize your body functions better when you eliminate grains, GMOs, or industrially refined crap?
You’re not supposed to question your food, folks. Sit down, shut up, dig in and chow down. Stop thinking about what you’re eating and just do what you’re told by the mainstream media and its processed food advertisers. Questioning the health properties of your junk food is a mental disorder, didn’t you know? And if you “obsess” over foods (by doing such things as reading the ingredients labels, for example), then you’re weird. Maybe even sick.
That’s the message they’re broadcasting now. Junk food eaters are “normal” and “sane” and “nourished.” But health food eaters are diseased, abnormal and malnourished.
So, my dear readers, how off your rockers are you? Take the Orthorexia Quiz and let us know!
(photo by anabadili)