I DRANK A MUSCLE MILK TODAY!
What did those artificially flavored synthetic chemicals in the watery-soup of a proteinaceous muscle-building drink do to my body?

Years ago, specifically, say, 5 years ago, when I was super into whole foods only diets and did not eat out, drink alcohol, consume artificial things, the idea of consuming Muscle Milk never crossed my mind.

But after burning out my adrenals from lifting too heavy too often, and after being so rigid in my diets that I was not a normal person and achieved no health benefit from doing so, I’ve learned something really simple about food: it’s not that simple and it’s not THAT important. Yea you feel good when you eat healthy foods, but we don’t know what’s healthy.

Most people’s ideas about a healthy diet is something that is catabolic: it breaks down tissues in the body because of the low calorie content. A healthy diet should actually have a good balance between anabolic and catabolic substances. You don’t need to eat salads and granola: that’s something you should eat if you’re 100 lbs overweight.

That being said, I chose between the lesser of two evils today. It was either drink some Muscle Milk because that’s what’s available at the gym, or eat nothing because I don’t have time to get an actual meal. I’d much rather make my own whey protein shake because it tastes way better than Muscle Milk but the nutrients in there gave me energy.

I walked into my lab class feeling energized. My stress levels were lower too (stress hormones go up after intense quick workouts!).

If I hadn’t taken this, I would have been less healthy. I would have been stressed. No meditation wouldn’t help. I need calories. The protein isolates helped my muscles recover.

The findings we’ve made from reductionist science has allowed a product like this to be successful on the market. I bet you I could drink it every day (not worth it though imo) and not have any issues!

If you understand this you’re golden. If it disturbs you, perhaps you’re too rigid with your food habits. Perhaps you wonder if having something artificial will take a year off your lifespan. It won’t. It won’t because food is not that powerful. But eating bad foods day after day and living OUT OF BALANCE will take quality years away from your life.

By drinking the Muscle Milk, part of me achieved a healthful balance, and I felt great.

Social media gets blamed a lot as a cause of eating disorders and body image issues. A study published in March this year examined this in detail among adolescents in Israel. I will summarize the paper here.

We can’t just blame social media for body image issues without blaming ourselves I’d like to preface this with however. We are the ones internalizing the messages then acting on it. But when we are exposed to media, we may act out on it and let it influence our lives without thinking about it. It surely happened to me when I was a chubby (as I thought) teenager. What about people who instead of having a negative body image, develop a positive body image due to social media? I will talk about that in a bit.

So this study examined people with disordered eating and not eating disorders. Disordered eating is characterized by a preoccupation with weight and food and results in caloric restriction, heavy exercising, and the use of laxatives or diuretics to control weight. I remember for me green tea was my favorite back in the day and I got into that primarily to lose weight (even though I thought the health benefits were interesting as well–I wouldn’t have drank it if it didn’t also have weight loss potential).

The risk factors for disordered eating pathologies (DEPs) and eating disorders (EDs) include the following:

  • body dissatisfaction
  • disturbed body image
  • low self-esteem
  • low sense of empowerment

The researchers wanted to look at how being on Facebook and watching TV shows like Gossip Girl influenced these teenagers’ body image. The whole idea here is that comparing yourself to others is a huge factor in developing any one of the four risk factors I described above (social comparison theory). Again, as I mentioned already, I kept thinking about those “inspiration” photos on instagram and how there are also people who feel inspired and develop a positive body image.

I posted on my instagram two weeks ago about a study (full-text not available without subscription) from Poland that found that teens with better body images exercised more. That confused me a little bit because I thought having a negative body image made people want to work out. But along the way, perhaps the image changes and people feel better about themselves.

To me that’s pathetic but it’s the reality and it will not change. People exercise to change their bodies, not to become healthier (it’s accepted as a nice side effect but it’s not the primary reason!). That’s the generalization and it’s not true for everyone, but true for a lot of people. It’s merely a cosmetic tool in this unfortunate light.

And so those people who develop a positive body image perhaps reach their ideal body. But I think the ideals themselves aren’t that attractive. That’s another story but I have mentioned this on instagram how many “before” pictures of bikini competitors look a lot better than the “after” photos because extreme leanness in females is a turn-off for most men.

I bring that up just as a counterpoint, because I’ve found that this world of eating disorder research seems to be completely separate from discussions on fitness and exercise. They’ll say for example that the harmful media images present people with “unattainable” physiques. Well that’s not entirely true in my opinion; some of them are indeed attainable. My problem with them is that they’re not as attractive as people think and that people aiming to look like that may already have a healthy and very attractive body. They may be unattainable for some due to differences in bone structure however. These worlds are also at odds because body images issues to the ED world is bad but to the fitness world it might be the precursor to a positive transformation. Anyway.

Let’s move onto the findings of this study (fairly straightforward). They had five hypotheses, which I’ll sum up. They first predicted that people with worse empowerment, or ability to critically think about their media exposure and not be influenced by them basically, will have a poorer body image. Next, media exposure was predicted to correlate with more disordered eating and poor body image. They also predicted that chiller parents, basically parents who don’t try to control their kids’ media exposures but are open about discussing them with their kids, have kids with better empowerment. Then lastly, the combination of low empowerment, poor body image, and harmful media exposure predict disordered eating pathology.

Results

They found basically that all of that was true. Watching TV, reading magazines, and being on Facebook was associated with poor body image AND disordered eating. Looking for the presence of both of these things was a strength to this study, because it’s not enough to just say that consuming media results in poor body image. Seeing what people are doing with that information is the next step in showing some level of causality.

What are we to do with the results of this study?

The results aren’t mind-blowing, but it’s the first study to examine these three variables together. But is the solution to cut out Facebook and social media? As the authors pointed out, the comparison among immediate peers like friends results in feelings of poorer body image. A survey conducted by The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt found that 32% of respondents said they felt sad when comparing facebook images of themselves versus their friends.

The explanation for that could be that media images of thinness are often associated with happiness, success, and of course beauty.

If kids are obese and overweight and they want to change themselves that’s great. The problem is, and the reason why I choose to think about this topic, is that being thinner won’t enhance the appearance of most of the people wanting to be thinner. For males, becoming more muscular won’t always make them more attractive either. Will it sometimes? Yes of course; since we’ve fully internalized on a global scale now that muscles look good on men, having some extra muscles can make you look better and indirectly improve your confidence that way. But it’s certainly not necessary for you to be a more attractive or strong man.

For women, the skinny ideals might not even be attractive, but maybe less attractive. Thigh gaps aren’t attractive to all men, and if they are, it might be due to the media influencing them. There is a subjective and objective component in all this but certain traits like body fat indicate our reproductive potential. Having too little of it can indicate less reproductive potential. And that’s why this is important to me, because social media is ruining beautiful women by making them think they need to be skinnier.

Conclusion

Comparing oneself to others on social media can result in poorer body image and disordered eating pathology. One’s sense of empowerment, or ability to analyze peer pressures and influences of the media, is a critical way to prevent disordered eating behavior when exposed to media. This is why the body positive movement is good in my opinion; although there are people who are obese who support the movement as well (who may or may not be unhealthy), the idea of building confidence from within is HUGE for feeling good. I was insecure as a teenager because of my gynecomastia, but after spending years actively working on my confidence, I feel better in all situations.

Strive for a better body if you truly want to; but just think about your ideals and whether or not they’re extreme and influenced by the types of pictures you are exposed to!

 

 

Actually, eating whatever you want does not imply you’re truly letting go of being a restrictive food zealot. You could want to eat only fruits, vegetables, and other “healthy” foods. You could convince yourself that that’s what you want because of X, Y, or Z; losing weight, becoming more healthy, living longer, preventing cancer, etc. And that’s not difficult to do; it’s not difficult to want to be thin or any of those other things which are often the root cause of wanting to eat only “clean” or “pure” foods (orthorexia) or eat less.

What you really need to do if you want to restore sanity into your diet and lifestyle is to deliberately eat foods that you thought were “unhealthy” and now condition yourself to think it is healthy. It is healthy because it will do X, Y, and Z. Some potential reasons are: improve immunity, strengthen bones, improve fertility, restore curves to the body (female), strengthen erections, improve mood, increase mental acuity, improve metabolic rate (Matt Stone style), warm hands and feet, free yourself psychologically, be more social, enjoy food more, relax, etc.

In order to do this you have to just put it in your mouth (PIIYM). This soda below I discovered recently for example is something that you may want to put in your mouth. Not everyone likes herby sodas but wow I do.

But do you need to put really bad things into your mouth? No. You don’t need to eat a McDonald’s burger that is made with soybean oil. But psychologically it will help, because that’s really the same argument for not putting anything you perceive as being “bad” into your mouth. Have I eaten McDonald’s? No but I make burgers myself and love bbq sauce. Just keep in mind that the suggestion I made here doesn’t apply to everyone with disordered eating. Anorexia patients are told to eat every few hours to avoid any period of fasting. PIIYM applies though in that scenario.

Talk soon and stay hungry my friends.

In this post, I will briefly cover the ugly in orthorexia. Many people develop a narrow-mindedness in their efforts to lose fat or look more muscular that they become biased, causing them to reject ideas that contradict their philosophies. Ex-orthorexics who are focusing on recovery however will eat up words like these as if it’s therapy, so please do share this post among those who you think could benefit.

I’m covering the ugly of orthorexia today because it’s important to realize what the obsession with eating healthy food does to people. It’s beyond just orthorexia; it’s anorexia, bulimia, ednos, disordered eating, partial-syndrome eating disorders, and orthorexia. Orthorexia can cause death (any of Dr. Bratman’s posts are a must-read). Before death, there are things that can happen to your health that bring you closer to death. Obviously, taking steps closer to death isn’t healthy, thus orthorexia is not healthy, when it takes you there slowly. No one is recommending we eat a standard american diet; these words are written to educate.

My worst health problems due to orthorexia and obsession with exercise and food was premature graying of hair. It started when I was twenty when I noticed just one hair, but now it has increased and there are a few that I can spot without too much effort. This isn’t healthy, and it comes with adrenal issues and a lowered body temperature. In my case, I believe excessive maximal exercise for the past six years (which involves a lot of adrenaline, intense music, caffeine or other pre-workout supplements, and feeling amped up all the time; all of which are stressors) started to hurt my health. The mantra of squats, deadlifts, and HIIT led me to pursue the most intense exercise, which definitely helped me stay lean while eating whatever I wanted, but took more recovery which I failed to take.

I also ate very “clean” for the first few years before realizing I needed to eat more. Only within the past year have I started to truly eat more food of all kind and only over the past few months have I deliberately exercised less, forcing myself to stop. Orthorexia is painful to reverse from my experience because it becomes an addiction. Orthorexia is defined as being obsessed with food but many may have obsessions with exercise as well. Their health will decline once their body is unable to adapt to the stress they place on it. It’s only a matter of time. That’s my experience but here is what one group of researchers (Goldfield et al., 2006) has to say about it:

“Large-scale surveys reveal that male body dissatisfaction has increased dramatically during the last 3 decades, from 15% to 43%, making current rates almost comparable to those found in women (1). There is converging evidence from cross-sectional and experimental research that exposure to the exceptionally thin beauty standards for women as advertised in the media, as well as exposure to the lean and muscular male ideal, increases body dissatisfaction and negative affect in both women and men (2-6). Female body dissatisfaction typically manifests in feeling too heavy or fat with a concomitant desire to be thinner (7), while most young men seek to be leaner, yet larger and more muscular (4). These expressions of body dissatisfaction are consistent with standards of attractiveness for each sex. The high prevalence of body dissatisfaction is concerning, given that body image issues are often the driving force underlying disordered eating, compensatory bulimic behaviours, full-blown eating disorders (8), and use of AAS (9).

In response to this hypermesomorphic somatype portrayed as the masculine ideal, many adolescent and young adult men are engaging in serious weight training or bodybuilding (10). This may have important implications for psychological health, given that activities or sports that require overinvestment in body shape and physical appearance have been noted as a risk factor for developing disordered eating or eating disorders (11)” (Goldfield, et al., p. 161).

They bring up a great point: body dissatisfaction often causes disordered eating. Accepting your body the way it is, even if it isn’t the way you’d like it, and being happy, is the hallmark of recovery imho. Ceasing the pursuit of extremely low body fat levels, ripped abs, the thigh gap, or other goals related to a low body fat is important for the health-obsessed individual who became obsessed due to body dissatisfaction.

The best way to get over those desires imo is to feel attractive from within (accepting your body however it is) and to realize that extremely low body fat isn’t attractive. If it was, why would it take so much effort and discipline to get there? We can be lean and have some abs and muscle definition without much effort and maintain that, but to be super lean like a fitness model or worse, like a bodybuilder, takes so much effort that after the diet period ends, the individual gains weight back rapidly, sometimes resulting in a higher body mass than ever before. That isn’t healthy either.

Attractiveness is tied to fertility. A very low body fat usually means lower fertility. Some people are leaner naturally and those cases are different, but for people who had to diet extensively to get there, lower fertility results in less attractiveness. Fewer pheromones will be secreted and sex drive will be lower. For whatever reason I thought that being super lean would make me more attractive; I had gynecomastia (I still do) and wasn’t confident in my own skin. This led me to pursue extreme diets advocated by people with similar issues.

What I’m saying here is that being super lean is ugly, physically. It’s a tough thing to say but I’m going to get it out there. The lean fitness models, the square-shaped-crossfitting females: unattractive from a biological standpoint. The health problems that ensue, which I’ll cover in a separate post, display the ugliness in the stressed orthorexic’s physiology as well. Having some fat on the body is sexier and indicates a higher fertility.

So that’s all I have to say about orthorexia for now. What do you think? In the next post I will cover biological attractiveness in more detail so stay tuned.

References:

Goldfield, G. S., Blouin, A. G., Woodside, D. B. (2006). Body Image, Binge Eating, and Bulimia Nervosa in Male Bodybuilders. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 51(3), 160-168.

 

In my last post I discussed the bad of orthorexia, and I cited a few examples of orthorexia alive today in 2014. I’d like to discuss the degrees of orthorexia in this post however to answer a pressing question: how much is too much when it comes to thinking about the health consequences of food? If orthorexia exists on a continuum, where on the continuum is it healthy to be concerned with the health consequences of eating? Here we go.

When orthorexia is not bad

I believe in the next fifty years we will be observe the fate of orthorexics clearly. We will observe if their health deteriorates at a slower rate than average, and if they can live to one hundred and twenty years as many of them wish to. If they are able to do this, then you can argue that orthorexia is not bad, because greater health is achieved.

But how can we know now if orthorexia can be good in some contexts? The National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) article on orthorexia mentions how there are more important things to life than food . . . but SO WHAT? So what if someone wants to be obsessed with their food in the attempt to live to a hundred and fifty years old? In the biohacking community, greater health is associated with greater productivity; so a longer life means that they can accomplish more and get more out of life than someone living “normally.” This rationalization however only applies to a small population of orthorexics however, as most of them experience worse health.

This is when it all gets really philosophical. Everything is “bad” when it ruins your health or impairs your life in other ways, but they can be good in other ways right? A bodybuilder who lowers his testosterone and body temperature but achieves the physique of his dreams may believe it was. With this mentality you can argue that any thing is bad for us. I’d like to share a story of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, and a workaholic, as an example. From Destiny of the Republic:

“Even when he had fallen in love with Mabel, her family had assumed that he was nearly ten years older than he was. Six years later, as he hunched over the induction balance, his face seemed to be set in a permanent scowl of concentration. No one would have guessed that the dour scientist had only recently celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday” (Millard, p. 219).

I admire Bell’s workaholic spirit, but this quote brings up really important idea. Bell invented a device that was met with great enthusiasm at the time, and he worked very hard to achieve it. He made “no excuses” and took “no days off” and was never satisfied. When he did rest, he played the piano late into the night with the same ferocity in which he attacked his work. These traits are exactly what orthorexics aspire to, without looking ten years older than they currently are (that would be the worst nightmare ever). They want to eat the perfect diet to be the best they can be and, and, and . . .

Well that’s the difference. Bell worked hard because his head was teeming with ideas and he couldn’t stop. Orthorexics “work hard” to achieve something that may not be their original idea (low body fat or live to 120). I argue that society has inadvertently programmed into the orthorexic his or her mission, destroying free will (although humans have been interested in immortality for a long time). But that aside, it’s up to the orthorexic to answer what the point of taking “no days off” and “making no excuses” really is. In my frank opinion, there is no damn point, because that mentality usually involves dieting strictly to lower body fat to below attractive levels. But if the point of paying strict attention to food involves improving sleep quality, improving mood, productivity, etc., it doesn’t seem bad at all. Also, some people pay strict attention to their diet for medical reasons. In this case, it’s still arguable if the changes were justified.

So here are some guidelines I came up with for evaluating where you or other orthorexics you know lie on the scale of orthorexia. I came up with these guidelines based on my personal experiences with orthorexia, and observation of others. On one end of the scale is “healthier orthorexia” and on the other end is “unhealthy orthorexia.” There will be an overlap between the unhealthy and the healthier orthorexia’s, but in general someone with clearly unhealthy orthorexia will not be doing what the person with healthier orthorexia is.

Unhealthy orthorexia:

  • Adamant: Refusal to admit that beliefs may be unsubstantiated and eating normal foods may not cause the problems they are believed to cause. Individual has stubborn, rigid beliefs.
  • Psychosocial stress: Stress is caused by being in an environment not conducive to the orthorexic’s food plans, such as at a dinner party. This stress prevents the orthorexic from being able to live healthfully.
  • Feelings of superiority: The orthorexic feels superior to others for following a healthier eating plan, refusing to admit that his or her ideas may not be completely substantiated.
  • Denial: Refusing to admit that something is wrong with his or her health. Refusal to admit that beliefs are unsubstantiated as well.
  • Desire to control: Many orthorexics and anorexics feel positive when they have control over their diet. This psychological aspect of eating has nothing to do with health.
  • Defensiveness: The orthorexic may rationalize his or her beliefs immediately without considering possibilities that implicate the diet to be faulty.
  • Body dissatisfaction: Having unrealistic perceptions of the body: too skinny, too fat, etc. This orthorexic may go on a diet despite already being slim!
  • Selfharm: If goals are not met, the orthorexic may hurt his or herself as a form of punishment. At this point, orthorexia may start to turn into a real eating disorder.
  • Time-consuming thoughts and habits: If practices related to eating healthy and thoughts about eating healthy take up a significant portion of the day, the orthorexic may be overdoing it.

Healthier orthorexia:

  • Spirit of experimentation: This orthorexic is on a strict diet out of experimentation. Biohackers fit in nicely here.
  • Ability to let go: The willingness to experiment often requires the ability to let go of previous beliefs. If this ability is present, the orthorexic may be healthier mentally and physically.
  • Not defensive: The orthorexic will be able to admit that further exploration is needed before coming to a conclusion. When presented with an opinion that contradicts the orthorexic’s beliefs, he or she will listen, because experimentation and continually learning is key.
  • Healthy body image: This orthorexic isn’t dieting to maintain a super-low body fat and doesn’t look at himself in the mirror and think he’s not lean enough every morning. The goal is health rather than thinness as in anorexia nervosa.
  • Social, without stress: This orthorexic can politely decline offers of “unhealthy” food or drink and still be comfortable in social situations without experiencing psychosocial stress from his or her strict habits.
  • No guilt: If a food rule isn’t followed, or in the spirit of experimentation a Krispy Kreme donut needs to be eaten to raise the metabolism, guilt will not be experienced.
  • Acceptance of others: This orthorexic will not judge others for eating “unhealthy” foods.
  • Acceptance of uncertainty: This orthorexic will be comfortable knowing that his or her approach isn’t certain to result in perfect health, and that it’s ultimately just a fun experiment. Being able to accept that his beliefs are uncertain, the orthorexic will be less likely to get defensive or experience psychosocial stress
  • Medical condition: strict diets are often prescribed to treat certain medical conditions. In these cases orthorexia isn’t present, because the strict diet was prescribed to improve health and thus doesn’t fulfill the criteria of orthorexia (an unhealthy fixation on eating healthy). Sometimes people who are interested in healing themselves with food go to extremes however become orthorexic in the process.

I cannot call any level of orthorexia healthy, because we simply don’t know yet if paying strict attention to food will confer the health benefits the orhorexic believes it will; that’s why I called it “healthier” orthorexia. And well, healthy orthorexia doesn’t exist; a strict diet that is healthy however may. Honestly, I’m in the latter group, although my experimentation involves eating a lot of foods the average orthorexic would not be able to fathom consuming (refined sugars, pastries, white rice, etc), in which case I don’t have orthorexia. I’m still experimenting though and want to be able to be as productive as possible in a day, minimize stress during stressful tasks, recover faster from stressful events like intense exercise, sleep optimally, think better, and age gracefully. Eating these forbidden foods is my form of experimentation. I want to do this because I believe that if I can be healthy, I will do more of the things I love in my life. I have realized however that many of the foods the orthorexic, such as my former self, believes are unhealthy, aren’t unhealthy: eating starches and sugars, meat, pork, peanuts, donuts, soda, may not be as bad for us and may even promote health . . .

Wait so can orthorexia be worth it?

Well, there’s a difference between being overly obsessed with your health and making small changes in the diet to improve health for a specific reason. But that’s at the heart of this idea: understanding how much is too much. If we can observe biohackers living exceptionally long, high-quality lives, paying strict attention to their diet, I might listen. The problem is our diet isn’t the ONLY thing that affects our health or the aging process. Genetics, exercising, the environment, and our mental health can be equally if not more important. Some people with worse genetics or environment growing up may have to focus on their diet more in the future due to the health problems they’ve accrued, while others with healthy genetics can stay slim and just live normally eating whatever they want in moderation and live long happy lives. One common problem that Dr. Bratman explains in his must-read essay on orthorexia (remember this is the guy who coined the term) is an exaggerated faith that their diet is the ultimate factor driving our health. This is what the NEDA may be referring to when they say there is more to life than food; there is also more to health than what we eat.

See, there are many interesting things people can do to be healthier, through food and other lifestyle modifications but it’s difficult to quantify what difference it makes long term. I know that the research shows bright light before bed can hurt sleep quality but what if I just go to bed later and still look at bright lights after sunset? The problem may arise when we get stressed out over a bright light in the evening that disrupts our control over our circadian patterns. When this desire to control is thwarted, the added stress could arguably negate benefits we hoped to achieve. I went to bed super early and did the no lights thing for a while, but my sleep quality wasn’t optimal because of adrenal issues I faced from being orthorexic.

Conclusion

Orthorexia in my humble opinion is unhealthy when it consumes us to the point where our preoccupation with food prevents us from living our lives in the way we want and causes poorer health. I guess this definition can be understood both objectively and subjectively. If you are orthorexic by someone else’s standards, but you are living the life you want, and you feel great, and aren’t seeing your health suffer, then who cares? You won’t have the social life that society may wish you had in order to fit in, but you will have the social life you want. You also may be able to live to 256 years of age like Li Qing Yuen, who drank goji berry juice and took chinese herbs and lived in the mountains (joking, but same idea).

In conclusion, I think orthorexia is dangerous for a few reasons: it can hurt people’s health, cause orthorexic health gurus to “inspire” a younger generation of orthorexic and eating disordered individuals, mislead already healthy people about “healthy” eating with unsubstantiated beliefs, and it can lead to an unsatisfying life. I can’t stress this enough but the perfect diet just doesn’t exist. Orthorexics are often perfectionists, so I think this realization can help them and normal people avoid going to extremes. But dietary changes can improve our health, and even improve medical conditions, so some cases of orthorexia may seem more warranted than others.

In the final post of this series, we’ll cover some of the ugly aspects of orthorexia and disordered eating. Stay tuned.

 

How bad is orthorexia? The simple answer is this: any planning, thinking, worrying, counting, tracking, biohacking, etc. involving food that does not hurt your mental, physical, and emotional health isn’t bad for you. But in most cases, it does hurt, and understanding when that happens is the point of this discussion. In this post we’ll cover mostly the bad side to orthorexia.

Henceforth, orthorexia, disordered eating, and partial syndrome eating disorders will be synonymous, but I will only use orthorexia, even though there are some major differences. People with orthorexia don’t binge and purge or maintain an extremely low body weight, but they have similar traits to people with eating disorders and may be playing the same mental games with food; so in discussing orthorexia we’re also discussing other eating disorders. I will also discuss health obsession in general, which involves more than just an obsession with food. Let’s get started.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia is a term coined by Dr. Bratman in 1997 that means “correct diet.” He was an alternative medicine doctor who praised healthy eating like it was gospel. He realized though that most people just didn’t know what they were talking about, and that it was possible to have an unhealthy outcome from trying to eat healthy foods. He named the condition after the unhealthy relationship with food that people developed, which often involved attempting to eat “clean” or “pure” foods. The reason it’s unhealthy is because it can interfere with people’s social lives, interfere with their own lives, and ironically result in poorer health. People with orthorexia tend to interpret research on healthy eating with a bias, due to several reasons: body dissatisfaction, the desire to be immortal and achieve superhuman health, or to be in control of their lives, among other reasons. Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with orthorexia openly voice their lifestyles. From my personal observations of myself when I had orthorexia and of others today on social media sharing their orthorexia with the world, I strongly believe body dissatisfaction and a desire to be thin for women and lean but muscular for men is the most significant reason normal individuals become orthorexic. In contrast to anorexic patients however, a greater emphasis is placed on health and the quality of the food rather than the quantity. The mentality drives people to think that only the cleanest and best foods will result in “optimal” health, when in reality their bodies may have optimal functioning in a variety of environments.

Different manifestations of orthorexia in today’s online health communities

  • The biohacking circles display a lot of orthorexia, and from just my observations, they tend to follow a ketogenic diet, which may not be sustainable long term. These individuals want to maximize their quality of life by maximizing their health. Cold showers, hormetic theories of ageing, grassfed butter, and minimizing advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in their bodies are a few of their passions. Most of these people don’t exercise that much, as they believe too much exercise can increase free radicals in the body and accelerate aging. They’re not just obsessed with food, but with everything that affects their health. Like patients with eating disorders, high self-oriented perfectionism may be common.
  • Paleo: Often devout low-carbers, paleo dieters overlap with the crossfit and biohacking circles. They usually don’t follow a diet that would be considered paleolithic by our paleolithic ancestors, but they still eat lots of bacon, eggs, sausage, and low carb products anyway, while believing that carbohydrates are unnecessary in our diet.
  • Veganism: Not all vegans are orthorexic, as many are more concerned with the ethical and sustainability aspects of our diet, but many vegans from my observation, like the biohackers, want to live long and healthy lives, while maintaining a slim physique. They tend to believe that all animal products are unhealthy for humans, and all protein can be obtained from plants. Their heroes are endurance athletes like Brendan Brazier and any vegan who decides to workout and has a decent physique. I started in this crowd with the raw foodists, the ultimate clean eaters, who only ate algae, seaweed, B12 supplements, raw fruits, vegetables, and nuts, while becoming more and more gaunt.

Traits among the orthorexic

  • Perfectionism: this is actually a trait found in all eating disorders. It involves setting very high standards and becoming upset when standards are not met. Unrealistic expectations ultimately lead to these people’s downfalls. I’m a perfectionist, but only recently stopped looking for the perfect or optimal diet. There is none.
  • Ability to rationalize any belief: orthorexic individuals may sound very knowledgeable, but they may be searching for information that confirms their hypotheses. Biohackers will argue that sugar consumption increases advanced glycation end products which can increase diabetes risk or the oxalates in spinach can wreak havoc on your teeth, and vegans will try to show that saturated fat causes insulin resistance and cite Dr. Dean Ornish’s research as evidence.
  • Food rules and avoidance: common in other eating disorders as well, this trait involves avoiding “forbidden” foods that one believes may hurt their health or other rules regarding the consumption of food, such as filling up the stomach only 80% during meals like the Okinawans. Some people are very good at explaining why certain food rules are beneficial, but their views may not consider long term effects that have any basis in longitudinal studies (many of which don’t exist and won’t ever thus the discussion is pure speculation).
  • Impaired social life: Orthorexics may still have a social life, but not in the same way as other people. When I had orthorexia I never felt as if my social life was impaired, but in reality, I couldn’t do a lot of things that people do. I didn’t want to do them, so it worked out fine. Others however may feel tempted to socialize and may feel awkward denying ice cream, pizza, and other foods at parties and other social events.
  • Logical fallacies involving fat shaming: Orthorexics may discount nutritionists or other health professionals with real credentials for being overweight, and be more likely to believe a hippie’s advice if they have a more attractive physique. They may also be more likely to trust someone who displays impressive feats of athleticism, like a fruitarian doing an L-sit, something that five-year olds can do with some practice.

When orthorexia becomes bad:

Socially: For Dr. Bratman, the man who coined the term, orthorexia became an undesirable way to live when he realized that he was thinking about eating sprouts during normal conversation. When food becomes so important that you miss out on living the way you want to, it obviously signals that something needs to change. When I studied abroad in Peru freshman year of college when I was on the raw food diet, I consumed less food than usual because I tried to eat only fruit. I lost some weight and was hungry because I couldn’t deviate from my raw food plans and enjoy the local cuisine. I never went out to eat either during my diet, except once at an overpriced raw food “restaurant.” Let’s call it a health-freakaurant instead. Not being able to do what others did however did not bother me one bit. For others however, social life is an important part of health and being unable to have a healthy social life with fellow human beings may cause psychosocial stress. I have a feeling though that most orthorexics don’t really care what others think and are committed to making adjustments in their social life to maintain their focus.

Poorer health: Just as obviously, when your hair is thinning or you feel as if your health is suffering, you may eventually realize that your diet isn’t perfect after all. Some people hurt their bodies so much from dieting that they need a recovery plan to restore their health back and are often put on hormones carelessly by their doctors. Hypothyroidism, amenorrhea, low testosterone in males, weight gain, lethargy, brain fog, cracked lips, cold hands and feet, and low body temperature are just few of the symptoms that people who diet excessively often develop. Of course it’s up to the individual person to accept that their health is deteriorating and change. Oftentimes, orthorexics will rationalize a symptom as being a good thing and ignore reality. Raw foodists for example believe that their amenorrhea means that the body is completely detoxified and no longer needs to eliminate toxins from the body through regular periods.

Misguided beliefs: People should be free to do what they want, I guess, so it’s hard to argue against a fruitarian mother who seems to be starving her child. Misguided beliefs are a core element to the diverse orthorexic lifestyles out there however. This is a huge point of contention to any orthorexic, because the orthorexic can rationalize most of his beliefs, but when he fails to do so, he’ll ignore what he does not understand anyway. It’s so difficult for me to explain this, but I haven’t met a single orthorexic or biohacker, vegan, or any health-obsessed nut who can convincingly explain to me that their lifestyle is going to improve their health. I thought I knew it all when I was vegan, and even my future self wouldn’t be able to convince me that I was a moron. Sure, some people will have reasons for doing things that are warranted, but when it comes to diets, usually they’re extreme, and these are never warranted. In addition, the extreme dieters have subconscious reasons for continuing their diet that aren’t easy to identify.

Ketogenic diets (essentially zero carb diets except for vegetables) for instance are popular among the biohacking and anti-aging enthusiasts because they believe a lot of age-related diseases are related to impaired insulin signaling; thus by reducing insulin in their bloodstream as much as possible, they may avoid those diseases and live much longer. This belief is unsubstantiated because weight gain can still occur in these diets easily, which can increase fasting insulin levels and prediabetes. Oops.

And of course, as I mentioned, excessive “clean” eating eventually can result in adrenal fatigue, infertility, lower thyroid function, and other health problems that shorten peoples lifespans. The misguided beliefs were the cause of that.

Well, that’s the bad and part of the ugly. In the next post I’ll cover the (potential) good of being orthorexic, but more realistically, the benefit of being concerned with diet at all. Changes in diet can improve our health in many ways; the problem is that going to an extreme as in orthorexia can hurt it. So how much is too much? That’s what we’ll ultimately get to in the next post, and where things will start to get complicated and philosophical. Cheers.

 

Just because someone has disordered eating habits or an eating disorder doesn’t mean their beliefs on health, exercise, nutrition and so on will be incorrect; but that is indeed more likely due to strong biases to be slim or super healthy and avoid as many advanced glycation end products (AGEs) as possible. People with eating disorders have several traits in common, traits that the general population can develop as well; you may even have some. Disordered eating has no specific definition, but generally it involves having symptoms of eating disorders but not a complete diagnosis. I had disordered eating habits for three to four years; I would go to whole foods and open up a package of 85/15 ground beef and eat it raw (with some barbecue sauce on some days) because I believed that was healthier than eating regular food in the store and more cost-effective. I did that on multiple occasions. It wasn’t that bad, but I could convince myself of anything if I twisted the facts enough. I was simply following in the footsteps of others who came before me, without realizing it.

The information in this post is important because it discusses a big picture idea. I could be discussing the health benefits of chia seeds for instance and how the magnesium and fiber help to regular blood sugar (well they do; I feel focused when I drink chia seeds and it seems to help avoid a carb coma after high carb meals like chocolate chip pancakes) but here I’ll be discussing WHY people are discussing these things and HOW they’re discussing them to help us better extricate facts from biases. The specific biases here are important because they often lead people down a path to poorer health than if they just ate normally and didn’t think about anything related to health. Unfortunately, in the process they “inspire” many others to follow in their footsteps, continuing to reinforce stereotypes about hard work and body image which aren’t true. So, eating disorders.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders should not be taken lightly: they are often comorbid with depression, anxiety, social phobia, and obsessive compulsive disorder and have the highest mortality rate out of any psychiatric condition. They exist on a continuum, but there are four different diagnoses: anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), and binge eating disorder (BED). AN has the highest mortality rate, because it involves being significantly underweight with amenorrhea. Extremely low bone mass may be present as well such as in the female athlete triad. Bulimia nervosa involves repeated bouts of uncontrollable binge eating concurrent with purging or other extreme methods to lose weight. Both AN and BN involve judging self-worth almost exclusively by shape and weight. EDNOS is the most commonly diagnosed eating disorder; it involves characteristics of both AN or BN with the same level of severity but differs in some way. BED involves uncontrollable binge eating, without the attempt to lose weight afterwards. So, eating disorders are pathological ways of eating that involve extreme attempts to lose weight.

What is disordered eating?

An excessive preoccupation with food or exercise to achieve a certain goal is very characteristic of of disordered eating. Obsessive or odd habits that people form may often cause them to develop an eating disorder. The hard part here is deciding what is “disordered.” Someone with disordered eating will think everyone else has disordered eating because they’re eating burgers, wheat, inflammatory casein proteins, refined sugar, cooked food, etc. The psychologists who eat “normally” and may not know the last thing about nutrition may not understand all the reasons the disorderedly eating individual has to back up his or her diet. People with disordered eating habits never think there is a problem. I doubt any of them would make it past a few sentences of this post.

Who develops eating disorders or disordered eating?

About 24 million people: females mostly, but around 10% of men have eating disorders as well. BED is more common in men than in women. Longitudinal studies over two decades ago found that 35% of normal dieters develop pathological dieting, a fifth of whom develop an eating disorder (Shisslack et al., 1995). Who knows where that statistic is now. Often it starts with an innocent attempt to lose weight, and then it progresses into an unhealthy obsession. For more info go here

I was definitely in the 35% of people who develop pathological dieting. The reasons scientists believe so many young women and some men attempt to lose weight in unhealthy ways is a pressure to be slim in society. Being slim somehow has been associated with better work ethic and morals than someone who is fat. It’s definitely not that simple, as eating disorders have a biological basis as well but that’s the consensus, among the sociologists and psychologists at least. For me, the desire to obtain a six pack was the cause.

How to tell if someone discussing nutrition, health, or fitness has disordered eating habits

We can tell when someone wants to be lean or live to a hundred and twenty years, but the underlying reasons are often masked. Traits that often manifest in these individuals and are discernible from their behaviors however are the following:

  • Perfectionism: the quest to find the perfect diet, or perfect health. Hint: there is no ONE perfect diet, there will be MULTIPLE perfect diets for the SAME individual imho. Perfectionism may cause people to weigh out their food, count calories, track their eating and exercise habits, track calories burned from exercise, eat “clean” foods only, and sell snake oil. Perfectionism can be healthy as a trait, I certainly have it, and it may seem like these people work very hard and are very motivated, which they are, but in the context of health, the pursuit of a perfect diet never has good unbiased evidence behind it. There certainly are diets we do better on, but there is a point where small changes won’t make any difference.
  • Obsession: They’ll say that obsession is a word the lazy use for the dedicated. HINT: it’s pretty easy to become obsessed with your diet when the motivation to lose weight and be sexy or live to a hundred and twenty is so strong. They may sound very passionate, provide uplifting spiritual messages, make perfect sense, smile a lot, and make you want to do what they’re doing.
  • Dedication: Despite the rainy weather, or having a cold, or other excuses, no excuses are allowed. Even if you pulled your hamstring, you still complete the race. Crossfit has a lot of dedicated people who are likely shortening their life spans. Hint: it’s not difficult to become dedicated either; it’s actually mindless imo.
  • Food rules: Sugar for example, a topic I covered in my previous post, could be dangerous if you believe it is. Sugar avoidance, among other food rules, are generally wrong. Even if I say, okay, trans fats are DEFINITELY bad for you, I’m sure there’s variation in people’s abilities to digest and metabolize them. Naturally occurring trans-fats in grass-fed dairy and meat however is health promoting. Are ALL food rules bad? No; it’s just that in today’s society, the vast majority of people believe in unsubstantiated ones due to the reasons mentioned above, especially perfectionism. As long as you don’t become obsessed with it, some food rules are okay.
  • Forbidden foods: Not just food, but other lifestyle habits are frowned upon due to evidence that gets twisted to fit the preconceived notion. Chronic cardio for example: yes too much cardio is bad for us, but a thirty minute aerobic jog is not. Often times these forbidden activities develop due seeing things as black and white. It’s fun I guess to develop an extreme attitude? I’ve done it plenty of times and have to stop myself these days when I become too excited about a health-related topic.
  • The pursuit of aesthetics – Fat nutritionists are frowned upon. Good looking ones are trusted. The disorderedly eating individual will attribute the success of their own diet to changes in body shape and/or increased physical fitness. Their before picture may not be that bad, and their after picture may be worse: too lean for example.

And there you have it. I’ve seen a lot of people who once had strict food rules realize their instincts were telling them to stop, consequently developing a more positive body image and flexibility in their thinking. I’m one of these people. However a past version of me did all the above and more. I didn’t just make these things up by the way. It was actually a big epiphany for me when I read an article discussing perfectionism among people with disordered eating habits. I read that and thought: “that’s me!” Even though I had gotten over many food rules, I was still wanted to perfect my diet in some way. I like the idea of attaining perfection and still aim for it in as many areas of my life as I can. I’ve realized however that with lifestyle and exercise there is a lot of variability, so there is no one perfect lifestyle for anyone imo. If you want to learn more on perfectionism and disordered eating see Brown et al., 2012. Check out the perfectionism and eating disorders questionnaires on Psychology Today to learn more about yourself as well.

Conclusion

Eating disorders and disordered eating exist on a continuum. Even if an eating disorder isn’t present, someone with disordered eating habits could develop one and may have a problem. A disordered eating habit is one step in a possibly dangerous direction. Labeling something as disordered is subjective however: I don’t eat as normally as others do, but is normal healthy? Defining what’s normal or disordered is at the heart of this issue. A Western diet isn’t “normal” for our species: is one step in that direction dangerous as well?

Not at all, and forming some food rules isn’t necessarily either. Going to an extreme, as healthy as it may seem, usually doesn’t have any evidence to support it and often causes us to fight our instincts. Preserving the yin and yang of our bodies’ rhythms while having food rules is okay, even though the perfectionist part of me wants to say all food rules are now bad based on this research. It is so easy however to take a food rule too far or exercise too much and this is where the problems arise. Having a positive body image, letting go of unhealthy perfectionism, and having an open mind to experimentation can help you avoid disordered eating, especially after seeing someone else display its traits. I hope this post helps people put others’ health advice into a more holistic perspective. I created this blog to help people avoid confusion; and good marketing tactics featuring slim attractive bodies is unfortunately one good method by which people develop unhealthy eating habits. How will you be body positive today?

References:

Brown, A.J., Parman, K.M., Rudat, D.A., Craighead, L.W. (2012). Disordered eating, perfectionism, and food rules. Eating Behaviors, 13 (4): 347-353.

Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3): 209-219.