Orthorexia, the new eating disorder?

Laura Brightwell examines the trend in organic and fresh foods and argues that we are unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating.

Our eating habits have changed hugely in the past 10 years. Women on a diet no longer content ourselves with eating a salad and skipping meals. We have also started paying microscopic attention to the food that we do eat. Understanding more about the way chemicals in mass-produced and processed foods impact our health, we, as a culture, are turning to organic and fresh choices. Outside of supermarkets, our city streets are sprouting whole foods shops, raw and fresh restaurants and even our fast food chains are selling foods marketed at a health-conscious audience. But how much of a difference do these foods make? Are businesses that offer “healthier” choices just cashing in on our nutty obsessions?

Orthorexia nervosa may be a familiar term to some of you. For others, it’s totally new. But, the reality is, we are all familiar with the eating behaviours this term describes. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating. From the mass-marketing of organic produce to the popularity of “fresh” restaurants, orthorexia and related eating behaviours are an accepted part of our daily food culture.

Orthorexia calls attention to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one.

The first time I read the term orthorexia (admittedly, in my favourite book on healthy eating for women), was an AHA! moment. It gives the name to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one. Orthorexia is, of course, not just eating well. According to the AEDA, “Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity.  They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and […] self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise).”

Organic Coke by Koert van Mensvoort
Organic Coke by Koert van Mensvoort

For me and, I suspect, for many women, this description of a dysfunctional relationship with food sounds all too familiar. Although I recognize that orthorexia, along with other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, is a serious illness, like these other eating disorders, aspects of orthorexia can be seen in many people’s diet and eating habits.

For media and the collective subconscious, “healthy” is often shorthand for “thin.”

This new term calls attention to a disordered relationship with food that is so often perceived as a healthy one.People who exhibit orthorexic behaviours are often publicly praised for eating healthily. A person with anorexia who eats little may be lauded for their ‘restraint’ and dedication to their health. In a culture that values thinness over health, women are praised for unhealthy eating behaviours. For media and the collective subconscious, “healthy” is often shorthand for “thin.”

Other aspects of orthorexic behaviour include a feeling of superiority to others as your self-esteem becomes wrapped up in your eating habits. We often use moral terminology when we talk about to the food we choose. We say that we have been “good” when we follow a diet and “bad” when we don’t. Needless to say, thinking of all eating as “bad” and not eating as “good,” is inherently unhealthy. If we are unable to eat a cookie without experiencing a desire to purge or punish ourselves, how much of our attention to food is about our health at all?

The face of organic culture is undeniably young, white and thin.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are benefits to eating whole foods over processed, but the whole foods/organic/fresh trend of recent years seems, for many people, less about eating well than losing weight. The obsessiveness behind our eating highlights the problem with our new healthy habits. It is worth asking ourselves why we choose the foods we eat. Do we choose healthy food to feel good and nourish our bodies, or do we aim to do both these things while secretly hoping that we will lose weight?

Healthy or not? Cafe sells organic fast food in NYC
Healthy or not? Cafe sells organic fast food in NYC

For me, the understanding of orthorexia as an illness sheds light on our emotional relationships with food. When I eat a carrot, I feel good about myself. I feel in control of my environment, my body and my life. When I eat several cookies, I start to feel that my body is my enemy and my life is out of control. The desire to eat healthy food is, unfortunately, less about being healthy, but more about controlling my body, my desires and my weight.

Is it worth asking ourselves who has access to our “healthy” spaces and at what financial and emotional cost.

The face of organic culture is undeniably young, white and thin. I would also argue that it is predominantly female. As Christi-an from Kula yoga in Toronto says, the litmus test of norms comes in what kind of bodies are welcome in certain spaces. It is very easy to see who does, and who doesn’t belong in a space. When I walk into a yoga class, or vegetarian restaurant I anxiously look around to find someone as fat as me.  Unless I am represented in a space, I am unlikely to feel comfortable in it.

Although it might be tempting to dismiss my discomfort as neurosis, this exclusion of non-normative bodies has been well documented. The absence of fat-positive yoga studios for example, has led Kula yoga studio in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood to create a fat-positive space, as well as brown girl and queer yoga classes. I would, of course, argue that this exclusion stretches to the majority of health and well-being services.

Is it worth asking ourselves who has access to our “healthy” spaces and at what financial and emotional cost. If I, a young, white, middle-class, feminine, able-bodied, albeit fat and queer, woman feel uncomfortable in spaces that sell health, how would a queer person of colour feel, or someone who Is differently abled? And all this is not to mention the fact that such services are often expensive, thereby excluding those with low incomes.

If I’m not allowed access to a certain lifestyle because I don’t feel or look thin enough, then how much is this lifestyle about my health? Organic, fresh culture seems disproportionately focused on the way we look and far less on improving our mental and physical health. To take it even further, as this article argues, could our eating habits even be a way of proving our social status?

But, where does all this leave orthorexia? What’s so wrong, after all, with a preference for fresh, organic food over processed junk food? Although a fastidious attention to produce and freshness could be perceived as a healthy habit, as with all eating disorders and worrisome habits, the problem lies in the thought process behind, and the excessiveness of the behaviour. If we, as women, or as a culture, can’t ever enjoy a burger or a donut without feeling compelled to purge or punish ourselves by excessive dieting or exercise, then there is something tragically wrong in our relationship to food. This is undeniably unhealthy.

I’d like your input to help me work this moral foody conundrum out. Do we live in an orthorexic culture? I’m especially interested in how our gender dictates our relationship to food. Women often have a hugely complicated relationship with nutrition and our bodies. Is healthy eating, for you women readers, just a way to stay thin?

15 thoughts on “Orthorexia, the new eating disorder?

  1. While I can see some of my peers going to the extreme in the name of beauty and being thin, this represents a small group in more liberal cities in our country. It’s a much smaller group than the America that believes an organic healthy lifestyle is “hippie” or “weird” or even “anti-american.” I believe we are unwilling to embrace that being overweight is unhealthy and make this real connection, regardless of personal body image.

    It took me a long time to realize that sugar is very detrimental to my health and admit that I’m not supposed to eat the way the corn industry wants me to. Eating non organic GMO corn fed beef, chicken, and corn syrup laced everything is promoted to me every day as “healthy” and “normal” when I now believe it is not.

    I’ve gotten my share of insults and scoffs for being interested in yoga and herbs, and I certainly do not feel superior for exploring that interest.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Thanks for the comment filmoyster! While, like you, I believe there are health benefits to be gained from eating well, I also think there are aspect of health food culture that are inherently classist and fatphobic.

      It’s crazy that some people think eating organically is Anti-American! What would they make of the organic chili dog?!

  2. I like to think I have a healthy relationship with food. I “eat well” but am not obsessed with buying organic fruits, veggies or meat, mostly because it is too expensive. I eat pretty much everything, including lots of fat via olive oil, seeds, nuts and butter, but certain foods in moderation, specifically bread, cheese and sugar.

    As for being lauded for such eating behaviour, the opposite often happens, people feeling free to comment with backhanded compliments about my size (I’m slim) or ridiculing my food choices. Recently I was told on vacation that “you eat like a bird.” Which is total BS if you actually paid attention to what I eat during the day.This probably was because I was not eating copious amounts of the bread and cheese that had been stocked in our condo kitchen. My travelling companion didn’t believe me when I said I was starving at lunchtime after a less than filling breakfast of toast and peanut butter. At home breakfast would be steel-cut oatmeal with maple syrup, nuts, fruit and full-fat yogurt.

    I can say I eat the way I do because of how it makes be feel physically – energetic and healthy – but others may assume otherwise, insistent I’m only doing it to maintain my weight. I can say that when I eat too much bread, flour, cheese or meat I can feel the inflammatory response in my gut and joints, but some will roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, sure.” Who cares. I know what I know about my body.

    What I also know for sure is that I don’t really give a damn what other people think of the way I eat. It makes me feel good. I think we can eat for health, or acquire habits that help us want to eat for health. I like Michael Pollan’s approach to food. We could do worse than follow his simple guidelines for health eating.

    FYI: There is an eating disorder called cognitive dietary restraint that relates to worry that certain foods will cause weight gain. It involves some of the psychological processes you describe here. It certainly could overlap with other eating disorders such as orthorexia. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/127811680)

    Also, I was interested to see that your favourite book on healthy eating is Woman Code by Alisa Vitti. I met her briefly at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference in New York City this past June. Her work to help women balance hormones to achieve healthy menstrual cycles through nutrition is noteworthy.

    Thanks for this interesting post.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Thanks for this thought-provoking comment Laura. It sounds like we have some overlapping areas of interest. It must have been great to meet Alissa Vitti – I am half following the Womancode’s diet plan, as a way to improve my overall health and regulate my periods, and the period regulation bit has really worked.

      I hate how people feel free to comment on each other’s bodies, whether that person be fat or thin. We are constantly judging the way each other looks. I have also had thin friends tell me about the backhanded “compliments” they receive on their bodies. In general, we seem to feel jealous of thin women because they are thin, and at the same time feel superior; that we have a better relationship to food. Women’s relationships to our weight and our bodies are so effing fraught and I think we try to make ourselves feel better by putting others down.

  3. Interesting take that eating healthy could turn into an eating disorder. I think you’re right, it has a lot to do with wanting to be in control. After all, there is so much we can’t control in life: the state of the economy, the decision-making of our elected representatives, … to name a few. But at least those of us with the resources can control (to an extent) what we put into our bodies and which industries we support. I think that is the opposite of unhealthy behavior. And I think it can only be considered unhealthy, if it damages one’s health, while I think the behavior you describe only implies that one is already borderline anorexic. Funny, I try to eat vegan most of the time, so that when I do eat an ice cream cake I don’t have to feel bad about it, but that’s just me. And if I do feel bad, it’s because I just contributed to the exploitation of dairy cows. It’s similar to feeling bad when you increase your carbon footprint by flying or exploiting Bangladeshi garment workers by buying an H&M dress. I think that’s a good thing, because at the very least there is awareness.
    “Do we choose healthy food to feel good and nourish our bodies, or do we aim to do both these things while secretly hoping that we will lose weight?” I guess what I’m saying is there are many other reasons for why people eat organic that have nothing to do with health or body weight. But yes, you’re right by mentioning that not everyone can “afford” to prioritize these.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Hi H.D! My post isn’t trying to put down people who choose to eat healthily, or frequent vegan places, or buy organic food. I do all of these things at times, and myself am one of the well-off upper-middle-class white women who can afford to do so. In general, I am trying to examine a social phenomenon without being all “that white vegan middle-class dude is a bad person!”

      What I am trying to say is that these “healthy” spaces only include certain types of bodies – mostly white, middle and upper class, thin – to the extent that people of colour, or fat people, or working class people feel that they can’t and/or can’t afford to enter them. This is what makes me suspicious of how much health food trends are about being healthy, and how much about fashion and an expression of one’s social status. If the health food trend were about only about being healthy, then wouldn’t it be accessible to a lot more people?

      1. Yes, health food should be accessible!

        However, you ask a question in which the answer involves a complex analysis of history, culture, biology, and economics as to how we got here! With my Economics 101 and cultural Anthropology 101 knowledge, I’m going to give it a shot below.

        Humans have been eating the diet we eat for less than 100 years now. For the prior 250,000 most homo sapiens ate to survive, and our metabolism is designed to eat the available lower calorie food and preserve that energy. Refined sugars were not part of our diet, and less than 100 years is frankly not enough time on the evolutionary scale to “catch up”. Our genes cannot deal with this huge caloric load, which explains obesity and the frightening rise of diabetes in this country.

        But why are we eating this way now?

        Take some time to look at the birth of mass produced corn. It started with a good intention by the government to help farmers with the Farm Bill about 30 years ago. (Renewed every 5-6 years). This subsidy was designed to aid farmers and resulted in excess corn crops and production. This was followed by a need to deal with excess corn production, hence the increase availability of corn syrup and the practice of feeding cows corn. Cows have eaten grass for most of their duration on earth and only recently are eating corn. The end result – cheap beef and cheap sugar. These foods are still subsidized by the government, produced in mass, and tilts the market to make it very difficult for healthy foods to compete with.

        Also fast food chains and soda companies do not have an interest in educating our population on healthy choices and are happy to profit on cheap, government subsidized, corn fed beef and corn syrup.

        We have a strong cultural and economic basis for why we eat unhealthy food. We also have an uneducated population that unflinchingly will drink a gallon of soda per week and question why they have diabetes. Until there is that connection made, until there is a soaring demand for healthy food, healthy food will be expensive. Healthy food being “trendy” or desirable might actually be a step in the right direction.

      2. Lipstick Terrorist

        WOW you know a lot about our food history! That’s impressive. It’s true that, as with so many of the topics I tackle, it would take a book to get even a little bit closer to the complex underlying reasons for a given situation. However, I think it’s important to tackle them even at this level because, well, I’m a stringent feminist and I like sticking my oar in.

        I agree with everything you say but take a little exception to this “We also have an uneducated population that unflinchingly will drink a gallon of soda per week and question why they have diabetes.” While some folk with diabetes may not understand the connection between their eating habits and their illness fully, I think it’s dangerous to assume that poor folk/fat folk don’t understand why eating healthily is important. It’s often a question of access and $$ when deciding what to eat. But a loaf of cheap sugar-filled white bread to fill your family’s stomach or provide nutrition to one person by buying an overpriced red pepper. Stereotypes about working class people are unhelpful.

        I just watched the video I posted above and it’s amazingly elucidating. Enjoy!

      3. Groovy, thanks! I am fortunate that I can pick and choose what I eat without worrying about whether or not I’ll be able to pay the gas bill. Good point on that!

  4. Krystin

    In June I moved back to Ontario after being on Vancouver Island for six years. A few weeks ago an old friend of mine and I were sitting together with the TV on in the background, when she asked me “What should I eat after I work out?”. This question floored me. She may as well have asked if I were wearing underwear. Coming from the land of no TV and unshaved armpits, this question took me off guard. My answer: “Food..?”. It was then that it occurred to me that the concept of food in a media- saturated culture may be slightly different than my tight little community on Vancouver Island. In BC not one person I knew had a gym membership yet they were healthy and active thanks to the many outdoor recreational options available, for his reason I was unsure of how to sensitively answer the question at hand. I’ve been thinking about media, environment, and culture and how it subtly and not so subtly shapes our relationship with food and body image. Since I’ve been back I have noticed many guilty comments made around food “I’ve already had dessert today, I couldn’t have it again!” “Oh I guess I’ll have another serving!” “I can’t justify eating an appetizer to myself!” All of these comments made with a hint of shame and guilt behind them. I keep looking around half expecting to share a perplexed facial expression with someone after these statements are made, but alas, I stand alone. Yet I can remember a time when I lived in Ontario and guilt and shame loomed over me while downing that bowl of triple chocolate ice cream that was almost more satisfying because of the shame element involved… so naturally I needed another bowl. I have been thinking in depth about our relationship with food and how it is constructed. What is intrinsic, what has been so deeply ingrained into us by media, and how much of it is also determined by our environment and priorities? I’m not sure if this is a statement about media or physical surroundings or how far we’ve moved from learning to listen to our bodies to know what it does and doesn’t need at any given moment, but moving across the continent definitely highlighted to me the fact that there is something off-putting about the way our culture, in particular women of our culture, relate to food. How to get off the running wheel is the real issue. In my opinion, for starters, get rid of the TV.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Hi Krystin, I agree with pretty much everything you say in this post. But I think to avoid the negative associations we have around food as a culture, it takes more than getting rid of the TV. At work, it’s common for my female co-workers to say how “naughty” they are for eating something sweet. These expressions have always rubbed me up the wrong way, as I think they’re psychologically damaging. I think avoiding media as you say and surrounding yourself with awesome feminist people who don’t speak about food and bodies in the same way helps. Apart from that, I’m at a loss what to do…

  5. This is kind of off topic, but not really. Krystin’s comment about her community on Vancouver Island being healthy and active without gym memberships, just by eating good food and taking part in lots of activities, made me think of it.

    There is definitely something different going on with food, exercise and bodies that was not going on decades ago. If you ever get a chance to watch the movie Woodstock (filmed in 1969 I think), take notice of women’s bodies in the film. I also noticed this in a short doc from the 60s or 70s that entailed several naked women dancing in the woods (saw it at a conference, can’t remember the name) I’m not the only one to notice this; I’ve talked about it with others. The women’s bodies in these two films are slim-waisted and full-breasted, curvy and lush, truly healthy looking. They are the bodies of active women who were eating healthy food in, quite likely, reasonable quantities. Today I would suggest that these kinds of bodies are the exception, not the norm.

    So what’s changed? So many things it’s hard to think of them all: larger portions of everything considered to be normal, popularization of junk/fast food – including calorie-laden beverages with no food value, incessant bombardment with the supposed ideal woman’s body via pop culture, decades of hormonal birth control consumption, rise of uninformed vegetarianism that sees many young women living on bagels, more sitting – less walking for many, exercise as one more must-do rather than part of daily living, etc, etc. Our bodies have paid a price for these changes in food and exercise culture. It takes information, education, persistence, support to counteract them all.

    Just my observations.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Hi Laura, again you make some really valid points. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the causes you’ve identified. I remember seeing a lesbian feminist art movie from the 70s where a group of women were running around in the countryside and, as you say, their full and healthy bodies are definitely out of the norm today. We either seem to starve ourselves to be thin, or binge eat and are overweight. A healthy relationship with food and our bodies is the holy grail of today, sadly.

  6. Anna

    Eating healthy didn’t become important to me until I became chronically ill. Before that I was almost macho in my claims of being able to eat “everything,” and I did. I baked cakes and pies with abandon, ate cheeseburgers, and cooked rich food without any guilt or any real problems with being a little overweight. But then suddenly I started to get extremely ill whenever I ate at a restaurant, any restaurant except the one organic one near my house. Gluten dairy, and sugar also made me sick, I noticed. It took months of self-denial before I was able to admit to myself that the only way I was going to get better was to cut down on certain foods, and cut out other foods entirely. And that’s when I started to research food’s effect on the body and to realize that I am one of those people that CAN’T eat everything. Cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar, and MSG basically saved my life. I am no longer a prisoner to chronic dizziness, migraines, nausea, IBS, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and adrenal fatigue. It’s been almost three years and I’m still recovering, but even one naughty foray into the world of sugar or cheese is instantly felt and instantly punished with something like a week-long cold or flu, or anguishing aches and pains or a migraine. In the meantime I did lose about 15 pounds, but that was never the incentive. But what I found out in my research was the grim truth that these foods are detrimental to everyone’s health, although not everyone is going to show obvious symptoms. Yet even people who think they are not showing symptoms usually do in some way. These toxic foods are related to things such as asthma, allergies, and mental illness as well as diabetes and heart disease. Eating healthy is a miracle cure for many diseases, not just for obesity. The horrible thing is that poor people have little access to healthy foods, and they do die earlier because of it. I remember being in that position of having to eat junk food because it was the only thing I could afford. And that’s probably partly what got me into the health state I eventually collapsed into.

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