Rant on Orthorexia, Moderation, and the Food Wars

Bottom Line Up Front: Knowing the strategies you must employ to achieve your goals is essential to getting the most out of life. For me, that means abstaining from certain foods. This is how I am fighting the war against the overabundance of unhealthy food on the battlefield that is our modern Westernized world.

So there I was, listening to a podcast when a profound statement came. It was something I had known for a long time. I had never heard of an actual framework for it though. I was kind of on the fence as to whether or not I had a problem truthfully. What is the problem? Not being able to moderate myself when eating certain foods.

The podcast was Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution, Episode 265 with Gretchen Rubin. Robb and Gretchen got into a discussion about orthorexia and how some believe caring passionately about your food is a problem. Orthorexia is an obsession with eating healthy. Is anyone who scrutinizes what they eat an orthorexic? I have a few thoughts on this I’d like to share.

First, obsession with anything is probably unhealthy. But…as disorders go, this isn’t the worst one you could have. What is the disorder that comes from eating tons of the unbelievably cheap, great-tasting, readily available, horribly unhealthy processed foods all around us called? Obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, then probably some form of depression due to lack of self-confidence, energy, and altered brain chemistry from all the toxic food they eat. You may be thinking that I am arguing on the extremes (orthorexics versus extreme consumption). Unfortunately, the majority of the US is overweight or obese and has or will develop these problems in their life. So the orthorexics are on the fringe, yes. The overweight are in the majority, the opposite of the extremes.

Second, Gretchen discussed how she herself either eats zero or ten cookies, never two. So she knows she is an abstainer. The opposite would be a moderator. She likes categorizing people as do I so this appealed to me. She loves cookies and she knows if she has one, she will have ten, so she usually chooses to have zero. I am the same way except I go from one to “the box” and sometimes one to “whatever is in the house”. I have excellent self-control. I pride myself on my discipline. This is one area of my life though that has always felt undisciplined. But the part that is valuable is that I have learned about me, so I know how to deal with myself. I know people who think this “treat meal/treat day” concept is unhealthy. Others think it’s totally normal. It makes as much sense to me to eat 14 cookies once per week as it does to my wife who eats 2 every day. For me to act “normal” and just have a doughnut on a random morning when someone decides to bring them into my office will indefinitely create a downward spiral for the rest of the day. In my head, if I ruined the day already, I may as well ruin it like a boss! So I usually avoid the doughnut.

I have heard many counter arguments to the concept of abstaining. Some dieticians, doctors, psychologists, etc. alike have said this can lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. Let’s set aside the definition of a healthy lifestyle for a second and remember again that the majority of the United States is overweight or obese. The overwhelming majority, as in 69%. The average American woman is now the size of the average American man in the 1960s.  The simple fact is that we are under attack from bad food all day every day everywhere. You can find some food in a bag or a box within walking distance at all times. Do you think that was true in the 1960s? A gas station today has as much food as a grocery store 40 years ago. Go in to pay for gas and you see a litany of cheap food that lights up your brain’s pleasure sensors like heroin or sex. Yes, sugar does that. Are we surprised that our grocery stores are ten times the size of the 1960s because the cereal, drinks, and chips aisle takes up 50 times the real estate? Are we surprised the majority of those in Westernized nations are choosing to eat these new foods at every meal and between every meal? These are the moderators and those without orthorexia apparently. How is this working out for our society? Isn’t normal what the majority is doing? The majority is overweight.

I will argue that we need people who care passionately about their food (NOT orthorexics) because maybe they counterbalance the majority somewhat and can turn the tide in this country. Someone has to do something because it’s out of control.

I will also argue that it isn’t “normal” to have cookies, cakes, or bread ever. Anyone hunting and gathering 15,000 years ago would find a piece of fruit as their treat meal. They would gorge on it because it wouldn’t be around long (growing seasons). Our bodies and minds are not equipped to deal with this processed food war waged against us. We are losing the battle every day. The war effort is not looking great.

We don’t allow minors to have cigarettes or alcohol, and no one can get illegal drugs. We do, however, allow processed foods (juice, chocolate milk, pastries, cake) and overly-prescribed medications for ADHD and depression in our elementary schools. It is not a stretch in my opinion to link Cheetos, Coca-Cola, and doughnuts to whiskey, marijuana, cigarettes, or pornography. All of them are highly pleasurable to consume, are often consumed to excess, receive positive feedback in our brain, and abusing them leads to significantly unhealthy outcomes.

Consider one more point. Do you hear anyone talking about a disorder that involves being obsessed with not smoking? How about one being obsessed with not drinking alcohol? Or one of those crazies who won’t do drugs! Not even a little bit of drugs! And there are some people who are so crazy that they won’t even watch porn. These maniac abstainers! I fully acknowledge being so obsessed with your food intake that it controls your life is bad news and definitely a disorder. But does the woman who won’t have a piece of cake at work to celebrate someone’s birthday have a disorder? You wouldn’t say someone has a disorder if they said no to drugs at a party or alcohol at a bar.

I was going to keep going here but decided to turn this second part into another article (you’re welcome). In the follow-up, we will get into the successful strategies to fight the prevalence of bad food around us all the time.

I am not sure if I feel better or more worked up post-rant…

QUESTION: How far can caring about something go before it becomes an obsession? How do you know?

References & Further Reading