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.
- 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!
- Self–harm: 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.
- 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.
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.