“Are you 100% raw vegan?” she asked, with an evangelical gleam in her eye.
That was before she’d asked me my name.
It’s not the first time somebody has ‘introduced’ themselves to me in this way at a rawfood potluck.
If you move in rawfood circles, you may have come across this all or nothing ’cooked food is poison’ kind of attitude, and it can be a bit off-putting, especially if you’re just getting started and wonder how on earth your diet could possibly exclude all cooked food.
There are some who would argue that this kind of thinking – whether it relates to raw, paleo, vegan, or any other restrictive diet – deserves to be classified as an eating disorder. And in fact there’s even a label for it.
Stephen Bratman first coined the term ‘Orthorexia’ in 1997, defining it as “an emotionally disturbed, self-punishing relationship with food that involves a progressively shrinking universe of foods deemed acceptable”.
If you’re the kind of person that says “Hey, I eat what I like! As long as it’s tasty, that’s all that I care about!”, while rolling your eyes at that person in the supermarket carefully scanning the ingredient list on a packet of gluten-free bread, then you may agree.
On the other hand, if you have done a bit of research into exactly what ingredients are added to processed foods, then you might think that a mental illness label is more suited to those people who blithely trust the big food corporations to feed them without checking out what exactly is inside those pretty boxes of convenience foods.
Michael Moss, author of ‘Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us’ certainly puts a strong point across in his expose of the sinister marketing practices of the major food industries, claiming that junk food is basically a legalised narcotic that we are being systematically manipulated to consume.
Back in the 1990s when the concept of Orthorexia was starting to be discussed, I was beginning to change my own eating habits; becoming vegetarian, then a few years later moving onto the raw food diet. So when I came across the concept of Orthorexia I was outraged at the idea that eating healthily should be labelled with such negatively.
However, after spending many years immersed in the world of health food, I have to say that the kind of obsessiveness that Bratman describes is indeed often apparent.
That constant search for the pure, perfect diet and the feelings of guilt or shame when it isn’t followed (and the sense of superiority when it IS followed) are common topics of conversation on internet forums, Facebook groups, and at pot-lucks.
Yet the search for that perfect diet remains elusive. It seems everyone has a different opinion on what we should eat, and in this age of ‘information overload’ we never have far to go (or to click) before we get to the next self-proclaimed expert telling us to…
Eat lots of fruit!
Don’t eat any fruit!
Eat animal products!
Kale will kill you!
Eat raw food!
Always cook your food!
And so on, until it seems the only feasible option left is to become breatharian..
There’s a minefield of confusion out there in the world of nutrition, in both mainstream and alternative circles. Added to this, each year seems to bring some kind of food scandal, such as salmonella in eggs, ‘mad cow disease’, and horsemeat in supermarket ready meals.
So there’s little wonder that people are starting to become much more aware of what to put in their bodies. But does it necessarily mean that you’re mentally unstable?
There’s a list of questions at Webmd.com to help you identify whether you’re suffering from Orthorexia. They’re not all that helpful, in my opinion. Some of them seem to assume some quite specific social norms.
For instance, the question: ‘are you planning tomorrow’s menu today?’ operates on the assumption that everybody outsources their food preparation.
I mean, if you’re getting your meals from the local takeaway, then sure, you don’t need to do much planning other than picking up the phone and dialling a number.
If however you’re making your meals from REAL foods – not pre-packaged boxes – then of course you have to prepare and plan them in advance.
For example: sprouting, fermenting and dehydrating are all popular ways of preparing foods on a raw diet, and they all require some prior planning (several days in some cases). But does that mean we’re orthorexic – or are we just organised?
Not so long ago people had to plan MONTHS in advance in order to eat: they would grow their own food, then utilise preservation methods such as pickling to store it for when it was needed.
Does all this pre-preparation mean they were orthorexic? Of course not. It’s just that we now live in a society where we expect somebody else in a place far away to do all that for us.
Another question asks: ‘Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat anywhere but at home, distancing you from friends and family?’
I’d say this is more of a reflection on the type and variety of restaurants available, than on your state of mind. Twenty years ago even just being vegetarian made it difficult to eat out, whereas nowadays restaurants are much more willing to cater to a multitude of dietary requirements. Glasgow for instance has an abundance of restaurants who offer vegan options, and even some who are exclusively vegan.
So rather than asking what kind of foods we’re eating, the amount of time we spend preparing them, or where we eat them, perhaps a more appropriate question may be:
Do you feel guilty or anxious, fearful or irritable, if you eat something you think you shouldn’t?
Even this question is not quite impartial, as science is now finding out that food may in fact alter and affect our emotions.
Food and emotions – It’s a two-way street
Studies such as this one from The Journal of Psychiatric Research look at the role of the gut microbiota in cognitive function, demonstrating how our internal microorganisms can actually shape our thoughts and behaviour in negative ways.
So is it right to assume that we’re feeling down about our poor food choices – or are we in fact simply responding to the influence of our gut microbes?
Food and emotions are clearly interlinked in very complex ways, making it very difficult to really define a term such as Orthorexia. But if I had to make my own checklist to identify if I have an eating disorder, I think I could whittle it down to just three questions:
Do you have fun and enjoy being creative while preparing food?
Does your body feel good after you’ve eaten?
Are mealtimes a joyful experience for you?
If you can answer yes to these questions, then chances are you’re on the right path.