Have you noticed that some people have become a bit obsessed with clean eating these days? Due to the cunning/disturbing marketing technology of Facebook, you, or indeed your friends, have only to look at one or two related websites or make a few fitness based posts, before all sorts of ‘recommended’ stuff comes up on your news feed. I regularly get loads of info from different personal trainers and diet people that I’ve never heard of, both on Facebook and in my junk email.
According to these folk, the only way to eat well is to make all your own food, and there are many rules: eat small meals 5-6 times a day, alcohol is out, beef must be grass fed, fruit and veg must be organic and it goes without saying that processed food is the work of the devil. And don’t get them started on sugar. While I imagine that eating this way will make you feel pretty healthy, I found this particular list a bit disturbing:
Are they implying that spinach and strawberries are in some way dirty? How bizarre and frankly, a load of rubbish. During the week I heard for the first time about a problem which is not an ‘official’ eating disorder but is gaining increased recognition as such: orthorexia nervosa. The word comes from the Greek for correct or true, and the term refers to an extreme preoccupation or obsession with avoiding foods that are perceived to be unhealthy. The phrase was coined in 1997 by an American doctor (who is also a practitioner of alternative medicine) named Steven Bratman, who developed the condition himself. His website is full of interesting ideas, information and case studies; particularly worth a read is his engaging original essay, in which he describes his own experience and diagnosis.
For many people, going on a diet or adopting a new ‘healthy eating system’ (useful substitute phrase for those of us in dieting denial), is a regular feature of life, especially we greedy types who love food and have a tendency to get chubby. Others have ongoing special diets like veganism, which may seem extreme to some, but are just a fact of life for those who follow them, and in no way an obsession. So what makes someone orthorexic, rather than a compulsive dieter or an everyday, happy vegetarian?
According to Bratman, it is where ‘eating healthily has become an extreme, obsessive, psychologically limiting and sometimes physically dangerous disorder.’ As the majority of people who diet don’t become anorexic, so most healthy eaters don’t become orthorexic. It is more about underlying anxieties in the person with the condition. Instead of worrying about weight, like bulimics and anorexics, orthorexics obsess about the purity of food, gradually reducing the types of food they can eat until their life completely changes. They can no longer eat socially, and develop actual fear of ingesting certain foods (e.g. carbs). There are stories of people becoming seriously malnourished as a result of their health food obsessions.
But with so many unqualified people calling themselves health and fitness experts on the internet these days, I wonder if there isn’t a greater chance of people developing orthorexia by stealth than other eating disorders. The message about clean eating is highly seductive, because it makes sense, especially to people who have been trying to lose weight and keep it off for years. And for people who are into exercise, it matches their desire to keep their bodies clean and pure. Following any fit people on social media means you are constantly advised to eat clean, and not to put any junk into your body; the definition of junk varying from guru to guru. If you have endless Instagrams of fit gods and goddesses telling you the ‘right’ way to get a lean, muscled body like theirs, surely the temptation to follow their amateur diet plans is strong? And bloody difficult for most people juggling life.
If you are worried about your own relationship with healthy eating, you could take the Bratman test. He suggests that if you answer yes to four of more of these questions, you need to relax your thinking about food. If you answer yes to them all, his advice is that you might want to consult a mental health professional. Here are the questions:
- Do you think about your diet plan for three hours or more a day?
- Do you plan your meals several days ahead?
- Is the nutritional value of your food more important than the pleasure of eating it?
- Has the quality of your daily life decreased as the quality of your diet has increased?
- Have you become stricter with yourself lately?
- Does your self-esteem increase when you are heating healthily?
- Have you given up foods you enjoy in order to eat ‘the right ones’?
- Does your diet make it difficult for you eat out, thus distancing you from family and friends?
- Do you feel guilty when you stray from your diet?
- Do you feel at peace with yourself and in control when you eat healthily?
What I find interesting about this, is that anyone who has ever followed a slimming plan such as the weightwatchers, will pretty much answer yes to numbers two, five, six, seven, nine and ten, based on advice from the organisation and the motivational stories that they promote. People who get very overweight (and I speak from experience) tend to have lost control of some aspects of their lives and have low self-esteem. It is not so much the healthy eating that gives them increased self-esteem but the weight loss.
So what’s my point caller? Well, first of all, many of the people advising on nutrition and diet on Instagram and other sites have no qualifications in these areas whatsoever, and are eating for a body that is aesthetically pleasing above all else. That doesn’t mean they are healthy inside. No offense to models, but I’m not going to take advice from people in an industry rife with eating disorders and very underweight people.
In the developed world, we are obsessed with the body beautiful, for both men and women. The type of people who win their heats at the Crossfit regionals and other ‘amateur’ competitions are serious, athletes or trainers. I don’t think it’s realistic for most people who work in average jobs to think they can look like Jessica Ennis or the likes by following a diet and going to the gym a few times a week. Unless their true dream is to become a professional athlete, and they spend every non-office based second working at that goal.
Re the test above, the majority of people who want to lose weight and get healthy shouldn’t be too worried if they tick more than four of these boxes for a short period of time. But if you find yourself losing the will to live as you bring a Tupperware box of protein snacks to a party, then think again. Especially if you start boring your friends to tears with your smug tales of clean eating while they tuck into a pizza. Everyone needs a pizza once in a while.
Surely the most achievable goal for ordinary mortals is to eat well about 80% of the time and exercise as much as you can because it feels good and keeps you physically and mentally healthy? Now and again, you might cane it because you’re training for some crazy race in an attempt to become a Spartan Queen, or to run a marathon. But with jobs, children and social lives, keeping the joy in life is more important than looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
My current tip for forcing myself to do evening burpees is to pour a cold glass of wine and not allow myself to drink it until I’ve done my 30. A bowl of kale would not give me the same motivation.
Until next time,