Orthorexia: on Fear, Sugar, and Immortality

I’ve learned a new word today; and now, so will you: orthorexia.

It’s a portmanteau of two Greek roots:

  1. ortho-, meaning “correct” (think orthopedics, things that give you “correct feet”), and
  2. –rexia, meaning “appetite” (think anorexia, people who claim to have “no appetite.”)

Orthorexia nervosa is now a Real Thing. Depending on whom you ask, it’s a mental disorder or an eating disorder—one more behavioural disorder to the millions already discovered, or as I like to say, invented.

The present statistics on mental illness are varied. According to ABC, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says that 1 in 5 people (Well, 1 in 5 Americans) suffers from mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health (or NIMH, if you remember; the creepy organization that Jonathan Frisby escaped from) puts this number as high as high as 1 in 4–at any given time. According to the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the official handbook of head-shrinkers everywhere, the odds are now greater than 50% that you will have a mental illness in your lifetime. The odds are even higher if you’re a woman, for reasons that should be glaringly obvious to anyone even half-awake…reasons that Dustin Hoffman has recently brought into powerful relief in an emotional interview on his experience as a woman in Tootsie that’s now going viral.

So more than half of the world suffers, at least periodically. from what I’ll more evocatively call madness. Statistically, any time you talk to another person, no matter who that person is, he or she is probably suffering from mental illness. If he or she isn’t, as the screwy world of statistics tells us, you almost certainly are.

In our world of superclassification, I think this estimate is at best conservatively low, and at worst unambitious. Come on, psychiatry, if you can make up special boutique mental disorders for Glinda the Good Witch, you can make one up for me. There are so many neuroses in the world, with new ones invented every day, that we could easily find or develop a troubling diagnosis for every human alive. As Tom Waits says (shades of Lewis Carroll), we’re all mad here.

Similarly, and also in the spirit of Lewis Carroll, I like to tell people I try to indulge at least six neuroses before breakfast. At breakfast, however, I struggle, as many of you do, with orthorexia.

Orthorexia nervosa was was coined in 1997 by Dr. Steven Bratman, who defines it as “an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food.” This sounds, he admits, like an oxymoron, but reminds us of other “healthy” things in life–exercise, sex, sleep, work, My Little Pony–that can all be taken to ridiculous extremes, as the Guy Who’s Marrying Twilight Sparkle has taught us.

Worst of all, there’s no indication that obsessing over the health of our food is actually making us healthier. An outstanding piece by blogger Julie Neidlinger that’s now making the viral rounds doesn’t actually mention the word “orthorexia,” but pillories the concept just the same. A couple of choice quotes from her article need very little framing to be pithy:

“Let’s just be honest: people who point out the inadequacies in my eating and health regimen are merely quibbling over the bet they’re placing that I’ll die first. You’re telling me I’m killing myself and it’s my fault. You almost hint that I can take the blame for any physical ailment coming my way. I propose that cellular degeneration and the natural order of things might get some blame, and not just that Snickers I ate yesterday.”

“As I’m standing in the grocery store, I think of some of the poorest people in Nicaragua I’ve seen living and scrounging for food near the garbage dump. I get a bit upset at the arrogance that says the strawberries or apples or oranges stacked in heaping piles before me are “not good enough” because they are not organic. I am repulsed by the idolatry that my body is so precious that I must find something more healthy and pure, that these non-organic fruits lack enough nutritional value for the little god that is me.”

Let’s take apart the first of these: it’s a common situation. Our parents, especially, do this to us–or at least we feel they do it to us, because we remember them as the gods of our whole childhood; even as independent adults we hold for them a vestigial fear of their judgment and a vestigial desire to conduct ourselves in a manner that pleases them. They, in turn, feel more than most people the carte blanche to “advise us” (at best) and “meddle in our conduct” (at worst). We write off this shaming because it usually comes from a good place: they care about us, and don’t want us to make ourselves sick or dead. That’s a noble sentiment, and it wouldn’t be out of place if we spent every weekend in a Robfordic haze. If we were doing meth or snorting lines of Charlie Sheen’s very special tiger blood, people (parents and otherwise) have a right to speak up. That stuff wrecks you and it wrecks you quick.

But when it gets to the point that family or friends criticize you for the occasional stop at McDonald’s, or even trumpet their own dietary successes or proclivities as a means of shaming yours, it ceases to become counsel and crosses over into fearmongering.

Let’s be clear: fearmongering is not always a bad thing. There’s a long tradition of showing drunk-drivers those grisly public service films full of dismembered teenagers, and the number of young offenders “scared straight” by harsh but temporary punishment is considerable. But we should treat fear the same way we treat sugar: it’s necessary for survival in small amounts, unavoidable in low doses, useful in moderation–but it has saturated the world around us and all the things we consume. We consume too much of it, and it makes us sick. We should ration it out; too much isn’t good for us.

Do you live the carefree life of Hisham II (ھشام‎), the wealthy boy Caliph of 10th-century Moorish Spain? Do you live far away from the troubles of your country, in a garden palace filled with beautiful women and nightingales, with not a care in the world? If so, maybe there’s room for a little fear in your diet. Maybe you should make mindfulness of what you eat a priority. Maybe it’s, in computer builder’s terms, the “performance bottleneck,” the thing that would improve your quality of life the most to fuss about.

But what if, gentle reader, what if you’re not a 10th-century Caliph? What if your daily life is full of fear? What if you lock your doors and windows, and raise kids who play full-contact hockey, and worry about that engine knock, and approach your mail with anxiety, and have a friend with cancer? What if your dog is sick or your life partner wants to “take a break and see where things go?” What if your money situation, your job situation, or the neighborhood or culture or world you live in, is already driven by fear? What if you’re a woman, and genderqueer, and a visible minority? What if your society is beset by terrorism–and the terror is working, even if the bombs are not? What if your Prime Minister is Stephen Harper, and you live in northern Alberta, in that boreal forest twice the size of Ireland that’s currently being reduced to a reeking black pit of ash of the same size, climate, aesthetic, and stench of evil as Tolkien’s Mordor? What if your teeth aren’t their whitest? What if, like Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie, you’re already “as pretty as they can make you?” What if the next Avengers movie isn’t as good as the first? What if abortion is criminalized in Texas? What if you get a B on next week’s final?

My dear reader, if all of the above applied to you, the amount of fear in your life would be astronomical. If fear were sugar, you’d be the fear equivalent of that woman who died after drinking 7.5 liters of Coke a day for years (full disclosure. She also smoked 30 cigarettes a day and ate virtually no solid food). You are the kind of person who might actually die just from drinking too much fear.

Thankfully the average person doesn’t go to such extremes in either case. But we do, on average, consume too much sugar. And we do consume too much fear. But I’m going to make the bold claim that we can afford a little more sugar more easily than we can afford a little more fear. Is sugar a killer? In the same way that fear is?

  • Fear, not sugar, fuels workplace shootings.
  • Fear, not sugar, is why our governments rob Apollo to pay Ares.
  • Fear, not sugar, is what makes a concentration camp inmate with two biscuits strangle an inmate with one biscuit to death in order to get a third. It’s not that the biscuit was sweet; it’s that the man was afraid.

Thankfully, we are none of us concentration camp prisoners. But we don’t live in Moorish garden palaces fanned by our harems either. We exist in a middling life, filled by fear and sugar to moderate excess. Some of us deny our fear by eating junk, and some of us multiply it. The catch about orthorexia is that having the disorder doesn’t actually make us eat any healthier or live any longer, any more than anorexia actually gives us the sexy bikini bodies we delude ourselves into thinking it will.

We delude ourselves about a lot of things.

Let me tell you about a good friend of mine who shall remain unnamed. I mean that in both senses of the word: he is a good, i.e., a close friend; and in spite of our different stances on many issues he is one of the most basically decent people I have ever met. He thinks a lot about good and evil, and about what it means to be good. We’ve had a lot of alignment talks. And we’ve eaten a lot of meals in restaurants.

Occasionally, he’ll wrack himself over a menu like a superhero over an impossible choice: save the busload of orphans, or let them die to catch the supervillain and stop him from probably killing two busloads of orphans? After an inner struggle of Gandalf-versus-Balrog proportions, he’ll settle things and say, “All right, I can have the fries. I was good today.”

Good. He was good, because he’s avoided junk food.  I can agree that it’s probably good to avoid junk food. But the wording subtly suggests that he as a whole person was good. Had he not avoided junk food, he would have been bad. Or “ungood” at least. Maybe…evil?

It hurts to see someone I would call an uncompromisingly good person wrapped up in the orthorexic mythmaking of the organic raw food industry (and it is a big corporate industry, just like Big Cow) to such an extent that the core of his being–at least, his very alignment–is determined in his subconscious by what he orders. “You are what you eat,” the proverb says. Sounds wise and helpful, right? But let’s extrapolate: if you put in nothing but crap, you are nothing but crap. Extrapolate further: if you eat this donut, somehow you have just become a more worthless person. This is vicious, hurtful thinking, and we think it all the time.

“Come to the Dark Side,” says the internet meme. “We have cookies.” Admittedly, cookies are pretty tempting. But “Temptation” itself is a word we used to use for really, really things…stuff like selling your soul to Satan, or stealing a forbidden treasure, or sleeping with your brother’s wife (closed monogamous marriage presumed)…you know, big stuff that threatened the whole social order or caused grievous harm and pain to others. We are pretty serious about our hyperbole when it comes to snack time, aren’t we? Is it any wonder people develop a neurosis about this stuff?

Neidlinger’s second comment about the “little gods” in us is another powerful one. Does anyone reading this even know what the standards are for “Organic” food when you pay more for it? Here’s a fun thought exercise: every time you read the word “Organic,” try mentally replacing it with “consecrated,” and picture your ego as the little god it’s consecrated to. As Quackwatch tells us, in most places there are no or very few rigid “standards” for the Organic label. At best–at very best–you are paying for for food that has ritually prepared for you in a manner pleasing to you, avoiding the practices and substances you deem unclean or forbidden. Except that, like many gods, you’re not being very clear to major food corporations about what your demands really are, nor are they being entirely upfront with you about what they’ve done or haven’t done to ensure the blessing of your premium dollar.

Before you sink your teeth into that organic beef, consider that even Organic beef is genetically modified. Same with virtually all corn consumed today. This genetic modification was just done the old-fashioned way, with selective inbreeding. Even honey, one of our longest-lived and most untouched natural foods, endured genetic tampering at the hands of the Pharoahs. Do you really think there would have been a magical creature called the “honeybee,” if we hadn’t, over the last 8,000 years, kept and bred wild bees until a new species emerged that dramatically overproduced the honey its hive needed to survive? Raw organic honey is one of the healthiest, purest, most natural foods we have available to us (insert shameless plug for the amazing Cottlestone Apiary honey here), and an excellent healthy substitute for high-fructose corn syrup. If you are going to indulge in sugar, raw organic honey is the healthiest (and tastiest) thing you can have. But even with our purest, most natural food, the ancient tendency of mankind to screw with nature has entered the equation. And I will be so bold as to claim that our honey is the better, not the worse, for that first generation of tampering.

But does even very good food, like honey, make us good people? Do lesser sweeteners such as refined sugar–or worse yet, dreaded aspartame–make lesser beings of us? Aspartame is now a “proven” carcinogen, after all–proven inasmuch as multiple studies confirm that lab rats forcibly injected with grotesque amounts of the stuff sometimes develop tumours. But the key here, as with anything else, is moderation. If you too are mainlining Aspartame at an equivalent rate of up to 2,083 soda cans a day, your chances of a long healthy life probably aren’t very good either. But this is a long, long way from anyone’s reasonable expecations of moderation. At moderate, and I will venture, even excessive levels within the range of “normal Western excess,” the fear of our food can have as much or more of a detrimental effect on us as the food itself.

You will note the number of fantastically extreme cases I’ve had the chance to talk about today. That’s because moderation doesn’t make headlines; extremes do. The woman who dies because she drinks 7+ liters of Coke daily is newsworthy; the people who drink vastly lower amounts (even un-advisedly high amounts like two or three cans a day) and live into their 70s are not newsworthy. On the other side of the coin, those few people who smoke and drink and live to be 100 are newsworthy. But the people who smoke and drink and live to 80 are not. Because 80 isn’t a very X-TREME age anymore.

It used to be an X-TREME age, of course. When Edgar the Aetheling, the last king of Wessex, died in 1126 at the age of 75, that was kind of a big deal. Most of his Anglo-Saxon subjects didn’t live anywhere near that long, even though they subsisted entirely on a sugar-free, locally farmed, organic diet, entirely free of chemical pesticides and added sweeteners (though they did, studies show, die with excellent teeth). Even barring plagues and arrows to the eye, the Anglo-Saxon life was not long, in spite of regular indulgence in organic food, good exercise, regular walking, and lots of time spent outdoors–all things variously offered as solutions for what is wrong with our children (the other solution, naturally, is to decide that they have the latest behavioural disorder).

Of course, we can argue that we have doctors and science and medicine, and these things make all the difference. But it doesn’t matter so much why we live, on average, ten or twenty years longer, and a grade of quality or two higher, than healthy well-off medieval people. What is significant, I think, is that we do outlive them by at least this much–and moreover, that this doesn’t seem to be enough for us.

The rationale for nutrition of all sorts takes many well-argued twists and turns, but comes to a dead stop and the same conclusion every time: a longer, healthier, better life is what we want. We want to live a long, long, long time, and then (only because it’s inevitable) suddenly drop off at the end, painlessly and inexplicably. We want to die of “natural causes,” forgetting, of course, that pneumonia, heart failure, most cancers, and even viral illnesses like HIV are all, in a sense, natural causes. “Unnatural causes,” if you think about it, encompass only a very small family of malicious or accidental deaths: suicides, murder and war, falls from a trapeze, car accidents, hypothermia, death by fire or drowning. Even “eaten by lions” is, in a sense, natural, unless you were being a derpy idiot and drunkenly slipped over the guard rail at the San Diego zoo.

Disease and sickness suck, and we should indeed try to avoid them, the same way that we try to avoid getting hit by cars or eaten by lions. But there’s a difference between someone who drives defensively and avoids driving when impaired or even sleepy, and someone who refuses to get in a car altogether for fear of an accident. It is, after all, the number one killer of North American teenagers: by a certain logic teenagers should not set foot in a car ever. But their decision to drive and ride in cars can’t just be chalked up to teenage feelings of invincibility. We shouldn’t climb mountains either, technically… though if you stay at base camp, of course, you’d be criticized for being lazy and less “healthy.”

Where does all this lead us? We have a whole extra decade of being a senior citizen to look forward to that the Anglo-Saxons did not. What will we do with that extra decade? Will we play some shuffleboard, or finally write that novel, like we told ourselves we were going to every decade for the last seven decades? Or will we sit unvisited and cranky in a yellow-wallpapered room, eating our resentful children’s inheritance and awaiting our natural death which, thanks to the brilliant advances in medicine, will come even more uncomfortably slowly? What has our seven decades of orthorexia bought us? A few extra months of Wheel of Fortune reruns?

I’m not saying we should “eat, drink, and be merry” (Ecc 8:15) “for tomorrow we shall die” (Ecc 22:13). I’m not saying we should do what the terminally ill André the Giant did, and indulge to ridiculous excess because you’re going to die anyway and it just doesn’t matter. But I think we should be mindful of how entrenched we are in a life of fear and shame, a life of the ego, when it comes to the things we eat. Feel free to quote me on this one: “The Buddha does not crave cheesecake; but, having chosen the cheesecake, neither does he regret it.”

Healthy food is great; but a healthy attitude to healthy food is better yet. Remember that we are omnivores: a human being can survive for 15 years on a diet of absolutely nothing but Chicken McNuggets. That doesn’t mean it’s healthy; it does mean the human body tolerates a ridiculous range of things. Unless you have very specific dietary problems, like Type 2 diabetes or celiac disease or extensive allergies, most of you could survive quite well on a vegan diet, or a meat-heavy “paleo diet” (news flash: the paleo diets aren’t historically accurate), or a gluten-free diet. We can survive for about a month on no food at all, given adequate water and minimal activity; we can survive much, much longer on a “radically deficient” diet (mcnuggets) as long as there’s the right balance of calories in and calories out. These unhealthy extremes aren’t anything we should ever do, but we as a species are capable of them. If there’s a zombie apocalypse, we can make it for a month on nothing but expired Twinkies and Fresca, and for another month on tree bark and locusts, and for another month on nothing but that runaway horse we trapped–and for good measure, a week or so eating nothing but the big pile of newspapers we hid under while the zombies went by. This is the kind of insale adaptability a “bad diet” must contend with. Those people who make the news for junk-food based malnutrition, as the above examples show, have to go to pretty extreme lengths to overcome the wonder of human omnivorosity.

In light of this, we all live moderately healthy but flawed dietary lives. My diet today consisted of eggs benedict with potato scones, a plate of fresh fruit, two cups of tea (one with delicious Cottlestone Apiary honey, one in a restaurant with assy-tasting refined sugar), half a Grilled cheese sandwich, some fat-free but rather sugarized frozen yogurt, a Caesar salad, some tomato soup with crackers, some milk, and a KitKat. This is not a perfect diet, or even a balanced one. But I trust myself to crave the things I was lacking tomorrow or the next day. Today looks like it was not bad on protein, but low in iron; if everything is working as it should, I’ll be craving something high in iron tomorrow or the next day. I’m already thinking about a spinach salad, and yes, I’m thinking about it slathered in a sweet onion dressing that’s store-bought, not organic, probably made with HFCS, and probably not good for me. Am I worried about that?

I am worried enough about the dissertation revisions I didn’t make while writing this article–and about whether the cable I ordered today will actually connect my computer to my TV as designed. I’m worried about whether I’ll get enough sleep tonight–for me, sleep rather than diet is where my anxieties about body and health should lie if they’re going to actually be productive, positive anxieties. We all pick our battles, and knowing which ones to pick helps us stay [almost] undefeated in life.

Finally, I’m anxious about death in a vaguely existential way. Writing this article makes me remember that in spite of all our obsessions over fitness and health, dietary and otherwise, the death rate is holding steady at 100%. Technically, it’s only about 91%, as a frightening 9% of all the humans who have ever lived are alive right now. On the other hand, the death rate among Led Zeppelin and Queen are both as low as 25%… so if you really want to cheat death, the best thing you can do, statistically speaking, is to join a legendary British invasion rock band. This is why decisions based on statistics are often silly.

Depending on how much refined sugar we eat and how much delicious nitrite-filled bacon we pack into our colon (news flash: a serving of celery contains more nitrites, by a factor of close to 100, than a serving of bacon), we might live twenty years more than Edward the Confessor did — or only fifteen. We might die at 76 of colorectal cancer, rather than hanging on to 79 to die of brain cancer. Or it might all be moot when we all die at 49 of Downwind Athabasca Lung.

There’s nothing wrong with working out and eating right to feel good, or even to look good. But in our eagerness to tell ourselves we’re not just eating right for the shallow reason of being slim and sexy, we tell ourselves we’re eating right so that we can be the masters of our own fate… so that we can have some measure of control over when and how we die. This is when we cross into the realm of silly human hubris. As Hamlet tells us, there’s only one way to assert managerial control over when and how we die…and it’s not pretty. We have no power to extend our contract–only to cut it short. If you shake the hourglass, whether with drugs, booze, BASE jumping, or a career in the military, you can make the sand pour faster. But there is nothing in this world you can do to push the sand in the bottom glass back into the top.

This is virtually all we should fear–and that fear should inspire us. Existence for each of us, at least as each of us, is finite. At the rate we’re going with the planet, I’ll be pleasantly surprised if we make it as a species to my natural terminal age. And if we do, what will I have done with my time? All we have to choose, Gandalf tells us, is what to do with the time that is given to us. And I’m going to try and eat right, and get exercise, but I’m not going to give up the hours I gain keeping painstaking charts of how I do it.

I hope I will be able to say that I quested after immortality–maybe even that I achieved it. But there are many, many ways to acheive immortality. Living more and more and more years is among the poorest of them.

As my fellow guitar-playing academic Dr. Brian May once wrote for Connor McLeod–but really, he was speaking to Freddie, a brother in arms and a dying friend–who wants to live forever?

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