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Orthorexia, the new eating disorder?

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Orthorexia nervosa may be a familiar term to some of you. For others, it might sound like I borrowed it from a medical dictionary. 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 its related eating behaviours are an accepted part of our daily food culture.

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).”

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, orthorexic habits can be seen in many people’s diet and eating habits.

Orthorexia 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. Similarly, a person with anorexia and who eats little may be complimented on their 'restraint' and dedication to their health. In a culture that values thinness over health, women are praised for our unhealthy eating habits.

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.

Our dieting 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? Not only is our insistence on organic and certain trendy health foods expensive and time-consuming, but so is our relationship to food. If, as orthorexia suggests, we are unable to eat a cookie without a corresponding desire to purge, how much of our attention to food is actually about our health at all?

Now, don't get me wrong, I do believe there are benefits to eating whole foods over processed, but the whole whole foods/organic/fresh trend of recent years seems, for many people, less about eating well than losing weight.

When I eat a balanced, fresh meal I feel good about nourishing my body. I enjoy the increased energy it gives me and the sense of connection with my body. But behind every healthy bite I hope, maybe, just maybe this will help me lose weight. My guess is, I'm not the only feminist or large lady with such problems. My friends have often heard me say that I don't know one woman who has a healthy relationship to food.

For me, the understanding of orthorexia as an illness sheds light on our emotional relationship 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.

But, where does 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 foodie 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?

Lastly, for all you food nerds out there, there is a longer version of this piece on Diary of a Lipstick Terrorist, which also examines the relationship of class with food and “organic culture.”

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