We're Nervous About Our Orthorexia
It's not easy to be a health food junkie. Frankly, it's a lot of work. We know it, because we are health food junkies and have been for many years. In fact, we have been practitioners for over 20 years. During that time we have both lost more than 25 pounds and seen our cholesterol readings drop from over 200 to under 150 because we were following a vegan diet.
As health food junkies, we eat
We don't consume any products derived from animals.
When we purchase any processed food, we spend time reading the label for ingredients and Nutrition Facts to avoid animal-derived ingredients that are included in many food items. We also read the labels to look for unhealthful ingredients we may not want to eat.
We thought we were doing just fine until the year 2000 when Dr. Steven Bratman brought a new kind of disease to the American public in his landmark book, Health Food Junkies: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating. The new disease was orthorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that focuses on eating healthy foods. In Greek "ortho" means "right" or "correct" and "nervosa" means "obsession" or "fixation." This condition is not to be confused with anorexia nervosa, where people starve themselves to maintain what they consider an ideal body weight.
In his book, Bratman proposes a 10-question test to determine whether you suffer from orthorexia nervosa. "If you answer yes to two or three of these questions, you have at least a touch of orthorexia," he writes. "A score of four or more means that you are in trouble. And if all these statements apply to you, you really need help. You don't have a life--you have a menu."
So we decided to take the test and share our answers. We were advised to give ourselves one point for each "yes" answer.
1. Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about healthful food? (For 4 hours, give yourself two points.)
We would have to say "no" but add that we might earn a 1/2 point here because we may spend half that time thinking about healthful food.
2. Do you plan tomorrow's food today?
Yes. We shop for fresh fruits and vegetables once or twice weekly, and as we do, we think about what foods and recipes will be on that week's menus.
3. Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
No. We know that our totally plant-based diet is virtuous and darned pleasurable because it's good for us and the planet. It also causes no harm to animals. At the same time we feel we would not focus on food choices that are solely virtuous and not pleasurable.
4. Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?
No. To the contrary, while our health has improved so has our quality of life. We take few medications and spend very little time in the doctors' offices. We take no medications for high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, arthritis, stomach acidity, or constipation.
5. Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
Yes. Even though we have followed a vegan diet for many years, we realize that this dietary program is no guarantee of optimum health. Vegans can suffer from chronic diseases if they eat junk food regularly. During the last few years we have made an effort to reduce sugar, salt, and fat in our diet. We have tried to eliminate oil in cooking and have cut back on processed food and eliminated sweetened drinks.
6. Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?
No. We don't go to fast food restaurants and steak houses like we once did, because they serve unhealthy foods. We don't visit restaurants that do no not offer vegan options. The food we are eating is right for us. Others may feel we are making sacrifices even if we don't share that view.
7. Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food? Do you look down on others who don't?
Yes. We feel that we are eating a healthy diet that has helped us avoid many health problems. We believe others would avoid many chronic diseases if they followed our "ortho-diet."
8. Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
No. We never feel guilt or self loathing about our diet because we don't stray when it comes to eating animal protein. We do occasionally eat processed vegan foods but don't feel guilt or self-loathing when we do.
9. Does your diet socially isolate you?
Yes. Some of our old friends don't invite us to dinner or want to go to a restaurant with us. On the other hand, we have made many new vegan friends who are delighted to eat at our house and break bread with us at a vegan restaurant.
10. When you are eating the way you are supposed to, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?
Yes. We do have a peaceful existence knowing we are causing no harm to animals and the environment. We definitely have total control of our lives, and we like it that way.
Adding up our score, we realized we obviously needed help because we had accumulated too many orthorexia points. We had to have a plan of action to combat this serious disease that had overwhelmed us. Our first thought was to seek professional help. We began by googling "orthorexia nervosa treatment."
The web search for our treatment and healing of our disorder turned up Casa Palmera in Del Mar, California. Their web page tells us:
"Although one may not think that 'healthy eating' is an actual eating disorder, such extreme concentration on food is unhealthy and should be treated before certain consequences take place."
Timberline Residential Treatment Center was an option we discounted quickly because they only take women and girls aged 12 and up. That would leave poor Reuben to fend for himself. Timberline promises "A Realistic, Supportive Approach to Nutrition."
"Our eating disorder treatment staff focuses on creating an environment where a woman can feel safe expressing the emotions related to food, and realize that she is not alone with her illness, or in her struggle to cope with her feelings. Our nutritional philosophy focuses on supporting women as they seek this awareness and helping them develop confidence in their ability to make healthy choices about food."
After examining these treatment options and others, we decided that we would have to go it alone in coping with our condition. After much deep thought, we decided that our own brand of orthorexia nervosa suits us just fine. We will continue being health food junkies and enjoy the support of our thousands of friends in the vegan community.
Some readers will accuse us of making light of a serious eating disorder that affects some people. What we object to is the creation of a disease that would include sincere vegans and all others with a desire to make healthy food choices.
Orthorexia nervosa reminds us of numerous reports that many young women turn to a vegan diet for weight loss and to cover up their anorexic behavior. Notice that Timberline focuses on women who appear to have more eating disorders than men.
Society does not need orthorexia nervosa or any disease for correct eating. Using a Latin name only serves to give this so-called disorder more credence. We realize there are many people who suffer from eating disorders and who truly do need help, but labeling people who want to nourish their bodies with healthy food options as orthorexic is going a bit too far. Now that Dr. Bratman has created the disease, we wouldn't be surprised if some pharmaceutical company develops a pill that offers a cure.
For our readers who want another view on this subject, we recommend Christina Pirello's article, "Stigmatizing Health: The War Against 'Health Nuts.'"