I am keenly aware of the continual onslaught of medical studies that are written, supposedly to improve our health: studies that talk about eating disorders, obesity, helpful drugs, dangerous drugs, unhealthy foods, fiber-rich foods. And I stopped paying attention to them a while ago. No one is going to stop me from drinking my glass of zinfandel at dinner, my full-test coffee at breakfast, and my chocolate chip cookie after dinner. But I’m concerned about my fellow Americans, especially regarding their growing concerns about health. So I decided to do some research. I learned more than I wanted to know: we are obsessed with our health. I also came to the conclusion that these obsessions may say less about our health and more about our search for control, perfection and meaning.
Now I’ve been aware of this pre-occupation in our culture for many years. It’s important for me to state that I am not describing people who have serious, debilitating and painful health concerns; a number of Ricochettis bravely struggle with these kinds of issues. Instead I am speaking about the overload of information that we continually receive about what people should put into their bodies and how they respond to it. And we aren’t alone in this country; many articles I read were published in British newspapers. What does this obsession look like, and what is it telling us about ourselves?
Most of us know about the various eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and other conditions. Ironically we live in a time where obesity has become epidemic. Yet there are those who go in the opposite direction, focusing on everything they eat:
But there are signs that the modern wheat-free, dairy-free, gluten-free obsessiveness is taking a toll on people’s mental health, with the rise of the little-known condition called “orthorexia nervosa,” a fixation on eating healthily. The term was coined almost 20 years ago by an American doctor, Stephen Bratman, following his own obsessive illness. What starts as a healthy flirtation with kale juice can quickly spiral into something life-sappingly perfectionist.
Here is one medical opinion on this condition:
Orthorexia isn’t yet classified as an ‘official’ eating disorder but mental health professionals have seen a dramatic rise. Dr Bijal Chheda-Varma, a psychologist at the Nightingale Hospital in London describes a clear increase in patients who get anxious “if they eat anything ‘toxic’ like sugar”. Social media may have a big part to play. “My younger clients spend a lot of time on Instagram, looking at plates of ‘perfect’ lifestyles and their ‘perfect’ healthy food,” says Dr Chheda-Varma.
Some of the personal stories are difficult to fathom:
In a vegan cafe in New York City, Nisha Moodley pushes a glass crusted with the remnants of a berry-acai-almond milk smoothie across the table and begins listing the foods she excised from her diet six years ago.
‘Factory-farmed meats; hormone-laden dairy; conventional nonorganic fruits and vegetables; anything hydrogenated; anything microwaved,’ the slender 32-year-old health coach says. ‘I would not eat irradiated food; charred or blackened foods; artificial coloring, flavoring, or sweetener; MSG; white rice; sugar; table salt; or anything canned.’
It is worthwhile pointing out that some people may have an adverse reaction to a number of products and must avoid them in their diets. But it is the combination of arbitrary multiple restrictions that makes this lifestyle so insidious.
So how do you know if you, or someone in your life, is caught up in this behavior? One article suggested steps for recognizing that one’s obsession may have moved in a potentially life-threatening direction:
- When you do something “unhealthy,” you may get angry, have an anxiety attack or feel guilt or depression.
- Health is seen in moral terms. If you eat a piece of chocolate cake, you may see yourself as a bad person, questioning your sense of self-worth.
- You restrict your life to fit your health requirements. Your day centers around eating, exercise, and vacations or time away may threaten your need to control your activities.
- You’re missing your menstrual period. When you deprive your body of enough nutrients, your estrogen drops and you are at a higher risk of osteoporosis.
- You become paranoid about foods, fearing that certain foods are “poisonous.”
- You exercise even when you are injured or ill. This behavior can exacerbate injuries and delay recovery.
- You become defensive if someone tells you that you are going too far in “maintaining good health.”
If you or someone you care for is indulging in this behavior, it may be a time for self-reflection. You might also check out this piece by a nutritionist about this condition.
So why is this particular obsession manifesting at an increasing rate? Some medical authorities point to general anxiety and fear. People are terrified and feel their lives are threatened by outside forces that they cannot control. Even though these fears have always been around, we also now have to cope with super bugs, terrorism, unemployment, sexual confusion, and other cultural issues. So people are focusing on their bodies, those organisms over which they have some control with exercise and diet.
But I believe a key issue that is driving these obsessions is man’s lack of meaning in life, particularly the dominance of secularism in our society. When people believed they could rely on G-d for spiritual strength and sustenance, they may have been better prepared for facing life and its threats and challenges. As long as secularism continues to grow, however, people will become more isolated, more fearful, more self-destructive, and angrier, and their obsessions will grow in their desperate attempt to save themselves. This downward spiral will only deepen their sense of helplessness and desperation.
Orthoexic is just another step toward human self-destruction. And I see no way to counter it. What do you think of this assessment? If you think it has merit, do you see a healing path forward?