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November 5, 2009

Tom Venuto has an interesting article on clean eating and orthorexia. As someone who believes in enjoying food to the fullest and yet eats in a way that is characterized as super restrictive (even neurotic) by much of society, I too have mixed feelings about orthorexia.

I recently started reading “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” . Very interesting so far. It definitely has me thinking of how to best do my schedule for next semester so I can get a workout in before differential equations.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2009 9:48 am

    Hmm. I think Venuto misses the point, honestly. Orthorexia isn’t just about eating clean, or planning meals, or turning down junk food and waiting to eat. People who are diagnosed (or diagnosable) with orthorexia go way beyond that. As a hypothetical, a “healthy eater” in a situation where (for whatever reason – just go with me, here) there is NO healthy food available will probably just hold off on eating. But for how long? What if you were guaranteed that there would be nothing to eat but chicken nuggets and fries all day? Would you skip a day of eating? What about 2 days? Or 3? Would the thought of eating the junk food make you so anxious that you burst into tears or had a panic attack?

    See, here’s the thing: a healthy eater faced with nothing but chicken nuggets and fries for a week straight will probably eat some of them, because at some point, your body just needs food. A healthy eater might eat just the chicken, and try to pick off as much batter as possible in an attempt to mitigate the “junky” aspect of it, but most people aren’t going to go a week without food just because nothing healthier is available, and most people aren’t going to have hysterical crying jags in the bathroom because they’re so freaked out about eating “off-plan” or “unhealthfully.”

    Orthorexia, like other EDs, is partly characterized by an inability to normally prioritize (like, “hey, at some point SOME food is better than NO food”), or compromise (like making the best of a bad chicken nugget situation).

    And although the example above is extreme, part of an ED is that even when the externals aren’t that extreme, the internals are. Faced with a Thanksgiving dinner that isn’t healthy, most healthy eaters will eat a little turkey, maybe some vegetables, and fix something else when they get home. The orthorexic will have a mental breakdown because the turkey isn’t organic and free-range, and the neither are the veggies, and OMG I CAN’T EAT THIS TRASH.

    Does that sort of make sense? It’s just way more complex than the Venuto article presents.

    • November 6, 2009 11:10 am

      See, the way both you and Julie talk about it, it sounds very reasonable to call this a serious disorder. When the doctor who coined the term says “Does it sound beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by your mother – one single meal – and not try to control what she serves you? ” then it sounds more vague. Like, you can describe someone who’s a vegetarian or someone who starves to death because nothing is organic *enough* as orthorexic. I also think, like the tendency by some in the FA movement to characterize all dieters as ‘starving’, there is abuse of the term to score points.

      Maybe if there is some refining and a more solid definition (although I haven’t read the guy’s book so maybe he is better at categorizing it there) then I wouldn’t think Venuto had much of a point. But I do think, as far as I can tell at this point, that he has a point that in popular parlance at least, orthorexia applies to a lot of people. Reading the paper at the author’s site gives me the impression that he believes any attempt to eat a diet radically different from the common cultural one is at least somewhat orthorexic. Maybe I’m just being defensive though. <- this is his original essay on the disorder at his website.

  2. November 6, 2009 10:03 am

    I agree with Marste, I think Tom is missing a huge part of the OCD component here. There’s a long stretch between trying to generally eat healthy and refusing to let an unclean morsel pass the lips. I remember reading one blog post recently, and there were some likely orthorexics who commented. They don’t identify as such, but thought the posters were unreasonable, and got extremely defensive, as it’s not too much of a sacrifice to not attend a Thanksgiving feast, or ever eat out, or eat meals not prepared by oneself, and rigorously controlling every bite is reasonable, all the rest of us are big dummies who are in denial about how we’re poisoning ourselves. Personally, I think it’s not necessary, not helpful, and no way to live. We don’t know all that there is to know about nutrition, and what we do know, we tend to overdo to the point of diminishing returns. Look at the low-fat craze of 80s/90s to see how we can screw up on what is “obvious to everyone”. I have my doubts about a lot of the supplements people take, but I don’t know, and don’t butt in.

  3. November 6, 2009 3:45 pm

    I’ve seen the term overused and abused myself, and defined as pretty much, “anybody who eats in some way that ticks me off.” That is not the definition of a disease. Bullemia and anorexia are obviously diseases: they have a terrible physical toll and mortality rate. But this new one sounds fairly ill-defined and broad, and can be used as a psychiatric cudgel on someone who eats in unconventional ways.

  4. November 8, 2009 12:23 pm

    I also think, like the tendency by some in the FA movement to characterize all dieters as ’starving’, there is abuse of the term to score points.
    I think you hit the nail on the head right here. Because the medical establishment is still trying to figure out exactly what the parameters of this mindset are, there’s the opportunity for huge abuse of the term.

    (This is the part where I get all meta.) And we also live in a culture that glorifies eating disorders. I’ve been in WW meetings and heard women say that they “could use a little anorexia,” or say that they wished they had the “will-power” to have made themselves throw up after they ate cake the night before. At best, they were half-joking, and sometimes they were dead serious. So there’s a small contigent of people who WANT to define themselves that way, even though they don’t meet the criteria.

    And like Linda said, I’ve also seen the term defined as pretty much, “anybody who eats in some way that ticks me off.” Again, culturally, we seem to be in a state of throwing ED terms around like they don’t mean much at all. Witness “pregorexia” and “drunkorexia,” neither of which are EDs on their own. A pregnant woman who is starving is either an anorexic who got pregnant or a pregnant woman whose pregnancy weight gain triggered anorexia. A pregnant woman who is DIETING or who is very thin, which is who the label “pregorexic” is often applied to, may or may not have an ED. If she does, there’s already a term for it. If she doesn’t, then coining a term that SOUNDS like an ED just for the sake of – what? cattiness? – ends up trivializing the ACTUAL disorder, which is kind of what I think is happening with orthorexia.

    Havng said all that, I definitely see your point about vegetarianism and neurosis falling under the same broad diagnosis. But I also think that this particular ED is harder to pin down than anorexia, bulimia or binge eating because of exactly those questions: at what point does “restrictive” become “restricted?” I wouldn’t call a vegetarian orthorexic. I wouldn’t call someone who insists on only eating organic, grass-fed meat orthorexic, either (though I might call them a pain in the ass – then again I’m that way, too – ha!). But if someone had a burning need to know what EXACTLY went into the sandwich – not just the ingredients, but the history of the ingredients: whether all the grains in the whole-grain bread were grown sustainably, whether the cheese came from cows who were free-range, grass fed, whether the spinach was watered by fairies carrying thimbles and only harvested when the moon was full – yeah, I think that person’s orthorexic. Just eat the damn sandwich already. 😉

    (And FWIW, I didn’t think you sounded defensive at all, and I can TOTALLY see your point. I still think you summed it up by pointing out how we tend to abuse the term to the point of trivialization.)

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