My name is Jules and I’m an orthorexic.
I first came across the word “orthorexia” in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food. The word describes a compulsion to worry about the quality, rather than the quantity, of the food you eat.
Sometimes this compulsion (which has been linked to obsessive compulsive disorder) leads to starvation and death. Hmm.
Okay, well, I’m not there yet, but some of the symptoms of orthorexia are not unfamiliar to me: worrying about eating in restaurants or consuming foods that others have prepared for me; feeling compelled to tell people that what they are eating is bad and why, and thinking all the time about whether I should eat what I am about to eat.
Up to now I haven’t secretly eaten at home before going out to dinner, where I’d claim not to be hungry, but I’ve come close.
Like most orthorexics, I developed my obsession at a time when I was unhappy with my weight. Yet I eat very well: locally produced food whenever possible; fresh veggies; good fats.
I get exercise, sun and fresh air, too – all year long. I walk a lot. When it comes to fitness, I’ve done it all: power-walking, running, aerobics, swimming, Nordic walking, working out at the gym, working out at home, and hot yoga. No letup, forever and ever, world without end, amen.
I’ve tried diets: Weight Watchers (twice) and Atkins. I lost pounds with both. On Atkins I got scared by the conventional wisdom that saturated fat would kill me. On Weight Watchers I lost hair along with the body fat.
After each of these diets I gained back the weight – and, yes, even more than I had lost.
I have worked myself into a frenzy over different foodie websites: Weston A. Price, Cheeseslave, Food Renegade, Livestrong, Kelly the Kitchen Kop, Mark’s Daily Apple. I’ve bought, read and reread books on nutrition: Eat Fat Lose Fat; Why We Get Fat; Good Calories Bad Calories; Wheat Belly.
Recently, though, I came across this quote by way of 180 Degree Metabolism: The Smart Strategy for Fat Loss by Matt Stone (it’s an e-book – my obsession grows). Stone found it in a book by Courtney Martin, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: The Frightening New Normalcy of Hating Your Body.
“The cruel irony is that although we become totally obsessed with the daily measures of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we are (refused dessert = good; didn’t have time to go to the gym = bad), there is no finish line,” Martin writes. “Spontaneity is crucial to health. Listening to when your body is hungry, and for what, is a mindful act [that’s] anathema to most young women. In fact, the majority of those I interviewed for this book don’t even know how to identify when they are hungry or when they are full. They have so intellectualized the rights and wrongs of feeding themselves that they can’t feel a damn thing.”
Will I lose the ability to break bread without guilt or worry? Admittedly, I have stressed and obsessed more than most people do. But it seems that none of us can enjoy what we eat any more, we’re so busy talking about whether it’s bad or good for us.
We hear too much about food, and too much of what we hear conflicts with the rest of what we hear. We change our minds and our strategies constantly. We have strategies for eating. How absurd is that?
Food fixation is so much a part of our culture that we can’t sit five minutes in a restaurant without hearing someone remark that they should have had more exercise and less food. Or how they can have that dessert because they worked out this morning. How they had only had a salad all day so they can have pork bellies tonight.
How many of our grandparents had conversations like this? I don’t know about yours, but I can answer on behalf of my own: precisely none.
I once tried to determine the best meal I’d ever had. It wasn’t easy – some have been unforgettable – but I quickly realized that every memorable meal on my list had been with people I love, with laughter and wine, and no sense of worry or regret.
So what does it all mean? I have a hundred ideas about what has taken us so far off track about food, but nothing that hasn’t been said already by Gary Taubes, Sally Fallon, Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, Jamie Oliver or Dr. Oz – one often contradicting the other.
The noise is deafening. Do we blame the food production industry? Advertisers and marketers? The beauty industry? Doctors? Nutritionists? Exercise gurus? The Internet? Ourselves? Or all of the above.
I’ve read the books. I understand, as well as a layperson can, the benefits of exercise and of eating real food prepared well. I know what I need to do, and I’m doing it. So I can stop reading and obsessing now. Right? I can only try.
From this day forward, here is my vow: I will not read another blog, book, article or ad about nutrition, or how this or that food is going to kill me, or make me look younger, or help me live forever or finish a marathon. Because I am quite certain that, at this rate, worry might kill me long before the wrong food does.