Table of Contents
Analysis of Definition #1
Analysis of Definition #2
Analysis of Definition #3
Analysis of Definition #4
Morale of the story
Do we really have to choose either Health or Pleasure?
In my reading and interacting online, I’ve come across different uses of the word “orthorexia”. Some people, like the person who coined this word, strictly reserve it to cases where the person got physically sick from it. Others are happy to throw the word “orthorexia” at anyone who seems to be interested in eating in a healthy way, usually healthier than themselves.
The first time I came across this word it was from someone promoting a very obsolete (health-damaging) dietary lifestyle. When I confronted him, he explained that he should be thanked for working hard to ease people into developing a healthy relationship to food and fight off “orthorexia”. Basically, he was trying to reassure people that are curious about how to eat healthfully, and/or people whom feel bad for genuine excesses of junk foods. His advice was down the line of “a little bit of everything”, “moderation” etc., in short, stuff which we know gives the population a little bit of every cancer, and give otherwise preventable cardiovascular disease to a moderately huge portion of the population.
So I looked at the definition of “orthorexia” and something very interesting happened!
I wasn’t interpreting the definition with the common biases of someone who eats carelessly and judges from there. I read the definition from the standpoint of someone who understands rather extensively and on evidence-based grounds, that what most people eat, makes most of the sickness.
Suddenly, and I must say ironically, orthorexia explained very well why the general public eats its ways to disease and death, in massive numbers and with appalling predictability. By general public I mean most people, of most countries.
I called it “orthorexia nervosa populi” for orthorexia of the people, or “orthorexia nervosa vulgaris” for Common Orthorexia.
Let’s a take a few definitions from Wikipedia’s article on Orthorexia nervosa, and demonstrate the mechanism. Virtually any definition works.
Analysis of definition #1 – Bratman’s original definition
“dietary restrictions intended to promote health may paradoxically lead to unhealthy consequences, such as social isolation, anxiety, loss of ability to eat in a natural, intuitive manner, reduced interest in the full range of other healthy human activities, and, in rare cases, severe malnutrition or even death.”
Let’s analyse all this.
People representing the general public’s way of eating are restricting their diet from a wide variety of unprocessed whole plant and mushroom foods.
“intended to promote health”
Based on popular nutritional illiteracy, a (low-fat, whole-food) plant-based diet is commonly viewed as unhealthy and extreme.
The general public avoid eating in what is perceived as “extreme” or “unhealthy” ways, and instead holds beliefs such as:
- “some oils are health-healthy”,
- “meat is good because you need protein”,
- “milk is good for bones”,
- “fish is good for omega-3s needed by the brain”,
- “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”
- yin/yang or heating/cooling balance, alkaline/acid balance between health-promoting and health-damaging foods and habits, etc.
Additionally, and beyond physical health, the average eater follows whatever food is pleasurable based on familiarity, which is heavily influenced by culture and the food habits parents have passed on during upbringing. There is a sense of psychological health in the pleasure and satisfaction derived from eating foods we grew used to, unfortunately most often foods with a very relevant negative impact on health.
In short, for most people, pleasure is the new health, and it’s often assumed pleasure can only come from the foods one is already used to, and mistakenly assumed this cannot change.
“may paradoxically lead to unhealthy consequences”
Look at the rates of cancer and heart disease in essentially (low-fat, whole-food) plant-based rural China in the 1980s, and look in your own country.
“such as social isolation”
A majority of people, in a growing number of countries eating a Western-type diet, will unfortunately suffer for decades from cardiovascular disease and/or cancers. These are mostly preventable and largely caused/promoted/worsened by a poor dietary lifestyle centred on animal and processed foods. Ask someone getting their chest open or undergoing chemotherapy if they don’t feel isolated. Sadly, most cultural or “convenience” diets leads to much isolation.
There are different ways by which eating “a relaxed, unrestricted diet” causes anxiety: the short-term, the sickness and the guilt.
Some junk foods are known to change the mood and raise anxiety. Few people are aware how sugar or animal protein increases stress levels. That in the short-term.
Disease and illness are also very anxiogenic, especially when people can no longer do simple things they used to, life is threatened, drugs are ineffective and cause undesirable effects.
Anxiety is also what I often observe when I talk to people about healthy eating. Without even doing that, just observe the inner struggles of people that don’t “restrict” anything, and yet are filled with guilt because they know better.
A lifetime of poor choices we’re well-aware of, is a lifetime of anxiety and guilt, and that’s before people even get seriously sick. It gets worse then.
“loss of ability to eat in a natural, intuitive manner“
Well, that’s done long ago, find me other apes that naturally and intuitively eat white bread, French fries, ice-cream, or pizza covered in cheese.
There is nothing natural about what most people eat today. There is nothing intuitive in spending a life of eating foods that we don’t digest well, make us regularly sick and result in life-threatening illness. There is nothing intuitive in continuing to eat “like everyone” when we know too well what kills everyone.
“reduced interest in the full range of other healthy human activities”
People who care little about something as central to health as food can be expected to have a reduced interest about not smoking, minimizing drinking, exercising, taking part in constructive social activities…
“and, in rare cases, severe malnutrition or even death.”
This regrettably not rare. The general public, which consumes a processed and carnist diet (containing foods of animal origin) does routinely suffer malnutrition, does routinely intoxicate itself with food, does routinely suffer the subsequent diseases, and the death caused by the diseases. This is not rare at all.
I urge you to consult the public websites with the disease and mortality statistics of your country. They’re made very accessible to the general public nowadays, it’s most often very easy to read.
Analysis of definition number #2 – Ursula Philpot’s definition as former chair of British Dietetic Association
“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’.”
“solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies”
Most people who have a so-called “relaxed and healthy relationship” to food are solely concerned the pleasure-giving quality of their food.
“refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure’.”
“refining”: yes, in all its meanings, including literal meaning of “refining”: refined processed foods.
“and restricting their diets”: from a wide variety of unprocessed whole plant and mushroom foods, which are naturally nutrient-dense and fiber-rich.
“according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure'”: “pure” in the understanding of the general public can be:
• what’s pure pleasure, typically the health-damaging “foods” high in animal products, fat, sugar and salt.
• pure can mean traditional, authentic, cultural, but health-damaging foods
• what feels homey, those irresistible family recipes that are emotionally rooted yet are tremendously unhealthy
• local and organic animal products, for instance bought from the local butcher who might also be a friend or relative, or dairy and eggs from our very local friend who owns a cow or chickens which you might have seen yourself “happy” in the open air and pastures…all of which, regardless, still cause the same high rates of damage to heath, disease, and death, because you can’t escape the biology of it.
Analysis of definition #3 – Bratman’s reconsidered definition
“In 2015, responding to news articles in which the term orthorexia is applied to people who merely follow a non-mainstream theory of healthy eating, Bratman specified the following: “A theory may be conventional or unconventional, extreme or lax, sensible or totally wacky, but, regardless of the details, followers of the theory do not necessarily have orthorexia. They are simply adherents of a dietary theory. The term ‘orthorexia’ only applies when an eating disorder develops around that theory.” “
So based on Bratman’s statement, the general public does not necessarily have anorexia, even if it follows the conventional theory, lax and wacky, according to which neither of these is harmful: moderation, carnism, “eating a bit of everything”, and “not depriving oneself of any particular food”.
He goes on:
‘Bratman elsewhere clarifies that with a few exceptions, most common theories of healthy eating are followed safely by the majority of their adherents; however, “for some people, going down the path of a restrictive diet in search of health may escalate into dietary perfectionism.”‘
“with a few exceptions, most common theories of healthy eating are followed safely by the majority of their adherents;”
Some are not theories, but abundantly evidence-based: such as low-fat whole-food plant-based.
In contrast, the mainstream theories (i.e. dietary carnism) and approach to food is surely followed by everyone and is not safe at all. Look at the statistics, compare to plant-based rural Africa half a century ago (or in anywhere today that still eats that way if you find).
All that disease need not exist.
“for some people, going down the path of a restrictive diet in search of health may escalate into dietary perfectionism.”
For many people, going down the path of restricting oneself from unprocessed plant and mushrooms food in search of the pleasure kind of health, does routinely escalate into dietary perfectionism: one that rejects systematically anything that doesn’t have animal products, lots of fat, sugar or salt.
Analysis of definition #4 – (U.S.) National Eating Disorders Association
“Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.”
“Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers”
In orthorexia nervosa populi, the general public’s food is highly restrictive to almost only to processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt along with animal products. It is restricted in terms of calories as it doesn’t allow many low-calorie foods, if any at all. As a result, health suffers, people get obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, high rates of cancer and so on.
“an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.”
An ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to a life that’s healthy through pleasure.
So much for “having a relaxed and healthy relationship with food”.
Morale of the story
I’ll stop at four definitions, I think you get the point by now.
I could go with virtually any definition of orthorexia nervosa, to easily demonstrate that the general public itself is the leading community that most literally suffers orthorexia nervosa.
The only differences with the conventional interpretation are:
- mistaken beliefs on the benefit of harmful foods on physical health
- the benchmark for foods that are “healthy” in orthorexia nervosa populi are foods that are “psychologically” healthy through pleasure.
As for the harmful effects on heath, we observe both physical and psychological, and as far as the psychological aspect is concerned, the spectrum of is large:
- it starts with guilt,
- turns into anxiety and depression from sickness and disease and
- can also take the form of neuro-degenerative diseases like far higher rates of Alzeimer’s disease in junk-food-reliant countries.
This article is not to minimize the serious health issues that some people experience by following trends (like Atkins, Paleo, etc…) which are neither rooted in clinical scientific evidence, nor based on any reasonable and coherent considerations.
This is not to take the defence of the many people who get at the doorstep of ways of eating proven to be healthy (ex: plant-based diets) but implement it completely wrongly, for instance : not introducing enough food diversity, not taking B12, or eating an overly processed version of it and as a result get predictably sick. A good example is a great portion of “ex-vegans” whom often blame the diet instead of questioning their own implementation of it or an unexplored health issue (like, among others, menstrual/intestinal bleeding so important that even the generous amount of iron in a healthy plant-based diet can’t make up for it).
This is not to minimize the gravity of the issue of people seeking physical health and hurting themselves by doing it wrongly, or as a means of self-harm, typically for those who had started the dietary journey loaded with personal issues.
In short, this article is not ammunition for people who genuinely qualify to the conventional definition to retaliate back when they have demonstrably eaten their way to illness. Yes, these people exist and they are relatively very few.
What I am doing here is showing the other side of the big finger pointing at “conventional” orthorexia. There we find many more people making themselves sick, in fact virtually everyone. Almost every person has an obsession for foods that maintain psychological well-being through the pleasure we get from eating junk foods. This attitude is shielded by dogmatic theories (now fallacies) on omnivorism. At the scale of the general population, this attitude leads most systematically to serious nutrient restrictions, chronic food intoxication, and routinely to premature, preventible death.
When a cancer is clinically declared, or a heart disease threatens someone’s life, the illness cares very little whether the person got sick by prioritizing the carefreeness sort of health over physical health (Orthorexia Nervosa Populi), or by seeking physical healthy and getting it wrong (conventional Orthorexia Nervosa). A metastatic cancer cares little whether a fancy name was given to our poor behaviour, or not. It cares little if we were on the side of majority, or breaking out from it trying to eat sanely, or to compensate for personal issues.
Bottom line, all these attitudes have in common: nutritional illiteracy.
Nutritional illiteracy is best achieved by not wanting to know, by thinking we know, or by being confident we know but knowing the wrong things.
The good news is: You are not doomed.
Do we really have to choose between healthy food and pleasure?
I am living proof that no, far from it!
At this time, the best evidence over more than half a century of science and clinical trials, clearly points the healthiest way of eating as being : high-carb, low-fat, whole-food, plant-based nutrition, with no oil, flavour from food instead of salt and sweetness from sweet whole foods instead of from the many extracted sugars out there.
If you want to find out more, watch and listen to: Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Esselstyn and Dr. McDougall.
That is the science.
As for what it’s like to eat that way: It is the sweet spot that combines pleasure, carefreeness, and health, with no compromise. But to fully understand that, you can’t just use your fear-fed imagination, speculate, or throw a snap judgement and call it “extreme”…To really know you need to do your homework first. If that looks convincing and serious enough, then steer your way out of popular death foods and the theories that try to make sense of then without proving a benefit similar to what low-fat plants, whole-foods, plants and mushrooms have to offer.
The destination is only what we’re all supposed to eat. It’s normal if at first it looks very far, or extreme. What’s actually extreme is how far away each one of us is from eating foods that do what they’re supposed to do: not kill us, taste wonderful, and support our health.
Food for thought…
Whole foods FAQ – Why whole-food plant-based? Why no oil, no salt or no sugar?
“Is this a whole food?” – A Guide to Whole-Food Alternatives to Common Processed Foods
Recipes (WFPB, no-SOS)