The Dilemma of Orthorexia

The cover of last week’s edition of New York Magazine featured the “Neurotic Eater’s Grocery List: The ethical, environmental, and health problems of virtually every food in the supermarket.”  The article serves as a guide to help consumers make more informed and ethical food choices, while at the same time conveying that our relationship to food is more neurotic and phobic than ever before.  From scares of E.coli in cucumbers to bacon causing cancer, eating is dangerous!

 As an eating disorder therapist, I help people navigate their very personal relationship to eating. Food exists outside us and we put it inside our bodies. So our relationship to food can easily become conflicted, reaching into primitive feelings about intimacy, purity, contamination, and desire. In the modern imagination, it’s not a far cry to suggest that if I eat this cheeseburger not only will it make me fat, but I will also be promoting a factory farm, putting toxins in my bloodstream, contributing to global warming, and ultimately bringing about the apocalypse. In this kind of inner hostage situation, perhaps a bag of sprouted mung beans for dinner seems like a good alternative.

Disordered eating that is centered around environmental and ethical concerns is particularly tricky to resolve, in that the individual with these food politics usually feels morally correct.  And in a way they are, given the state of today’s food industry. The obsession with eating foods considered to be healthy, called “orthorexia,” literally translates from Greek to “correct appetite.” Someone with orthorexic tendencies could simply be considered a humane eater, a food snob, a health nut, or an activist.  However, for individuals vulnerable to developing an eating disorder, information about contaminants, hormones, and preservatives can become a paralyzing obsession, coupled with the reality that time and money may be too limited to always have access to the “clean” option. In the mind of the person with orthorexia, eating nothing is preferred to eating “dirty,” and this self-denial is also experienced as a sign of discipline.  A commitment to the belief that one’s dietary practices are morally superior despite significant restriction and even malnutrition is a hallmark feature of orthorexia.

 While we may not all acquire an orthorexia diagnosis, “clean eating” ideologies are mainstream.  What I am continually struck by are the religious dimensions apparent in our relationship to food.  Factory farms are hellish places where chickens have two heads and live in filth, whereas green juice is the holy water that will wash away our sins.  An orthorexic disposition is the chastity belt that will prevent these impurities from getting inside.

Culturally we have fallen from the blissful ignorance that milk simply does a body good and now we are left with the naked truth of how the milk got in the glass in the first place. We are saturated with troubling information about food sourcing, so perhaps the worship of “clean food” provides a sense of security and comfort in an otherwise corrupt and unsafe world.