On the spectrum of obsessions and eating disorders, orthorexia resides, at least in the minds of most people, in a blurry end zone somewhere between the inconvenient and the slightly ridiculous. They can’t really see how a fixation on eating healthy is anything more than overindulgence in self-discipline. I suspect some may even think that in confessing his condition (men seem to be more prone than women), the orthorexic is playing a joke on them, or making a ploy for pity as hollow as the magnate’s claim of the burdens of wealth or the model’s cross of beauty. “Oh, you’re obsessed with eating well, how awful for you!” they might say, with a hint of a smirk on their face. In a society in which three out of every four adults are overweight, the orthorexic’s fixation on eating healthy is arguably an affront to even mention as a problem.
I only write about it because I find it an intriguing case study in cultivating a fixation. Yes, obsessions can or perhaps must be nurtured and, like a greenhouse seedling, in as controlled an environment as possible. Because in the end, it’s all about control, or rather, the illusion of control.
Technically orthorexia is not even listed as an eating disorder, though the diagnostic signs are easy to recognize. They include an inordinate amount of time spent thinking about food; a tendency to connect feelings of self-esteem to the quality of food one eats, and growing social isolation because of the perceived need to control what one eats. (More can be found in the abbreviated self-test for orthorexia here, in case you’re interested). Even if it were an eating disorder, it would be a relatively benign one. With the exception of a very small minority on the fringe of extreme macrobiotic and raw food diets, most orthorexics know too much about nutrition to develop health problems. We don’t get sick, we get lonely.
As far back as graduate school I’ve been careful about eating healthy. I must have been the only student in my department, if not the school itself, who had a copy of the American Heart Association cookbook. (Just for the record, there is no history of heart disease in my family and as a long-distance swimmer in his mid-20s there was no reason for me to be concerned about the food I ate, other than to make sure I ate enough of it.)
That’s one of our words, by the way, “careful”. We are always on the alert. Threats lie concealed everywhere around us, contaminants are everywhere. There’s margarine snuck into a baker’s spinach pie, the chickens are pumped with antibiotics, and egg yolks are hidden in a sauce. One of the reasons we don’t eat out often is that we don’t trust the chefs and owners of the restaurants we visit. Even when they assure us that the fish is not farmed and the olive oil is cold-pressed extra virgin, we don’t believe them. We are like the jealous husband for whom the lover’s oath of innocence is but one more indication of deceit.
But back then in school and even for years afterwards, eating healthy was just part of the routine of my life, a quiet habit I had acquired that demanded of me nothing but a relaxed watchfulness, hardly a fixation. It didn’t affect my relations with friends or alter my life in any way.
Food was still a means of cementing rather than straining bonds. Matthew and I often had friends over for dinner, and they told me I was a good if somewhat unconventional cook. In retrospect I think they enjoyed my cooking in the way they might a meal at an ethnic restaurant whose cuisine was unfamiliar, perhaps interesting, but not something they would want to eat on a regular basis. “For something that doesn’t taste much like food, it’s actually quite good,” a friend once joked.
It was only years later, long after Matthew and I separated, that food started becoming, well, complicated. It began with a book, a kind of triathlete’s training bible. The training chapters were very hard-core stuff. I wasn’t good enough to merit the book and I felt a bit of a fake reading it. But the chapters on nutrition resonated with me, perhaps because it was something I already was familiar with and could accomplish without too much effort, unlike the task of shaving time off my 10k. It was simple. High-quality protein, whole grains, bucketfuls of fresh vegetables and fruit, olive oil, nuts. It all came down to eating clean, and it was the way I had more or less been eating most of life.
I took it seriously, as I did my training, even though I knew I was always going to be a middle-to-end-of-the-pack triathlete. It didn’t matter. I trained because I was hooked on the endorphins, and ate well because it made me feel disciplined. And discipline was good, I thought. I could set a goal and achieve it, unlike with the rest of my life, which I felt was careening out of control. It was something I could master and complete each day, a dietary version of the monk’s canonical hours of prayer.
I took it very seriously. My pantry and refrigerator soon began to resemble the larder of a medieval kitchen. Except for the tubs of yoghurt and a tin of harissa, no item of food contained more than one ingredient. I was eating 3 kilos of nutrient-dense fiber-rich food a day and shitting like a horse. I always seemed to be eating or thinking about what I was going to eat. Five or six meals a day, not big ones, of course, but not little snacks either. Eating clean meant I had to bring three of these meals with me to work, which meant I spent a lot of time planning, shopping for and preparing food. I spent time finding food as well, tracking down sources for organic oil-cured low-salt olives, wild sea bass and organic meat.
I also spent a lot of time reading about food, what’s good for you and what’s not. That’s another one of our words. Good. Not in delicious good but good-for-you good. Orthorexics turn food into a question of morality. Steven Bratman, an alternative physician who coined the term in an essay he wrote for the October 1997 issue of Yoga Journal, notes that for orthorexics the virtue of eating healthy is more important than the enjoyment we get from eating. We delude ourselves into thinking we are better persons because of what we eat. As he notes, we are “seduced by the righteousness of eating.”
If virtue is the satisfaction the orthorexic derives from food, virtue measured is doubly satisfying.
I was already tracking my training with a heart-rate monitor so logging my food intake seemed at the time a logical step. I thought it might help my training or at least explain why I’d sometimes get leg cramps at night. Maybe I wasn’t getting enough magnesium.
It became an end in itself.
Food was no longer a matter of sustenance but a substance to be measured, a source less of enjoyment than of macronutrients, vitamins and trace elements, a matter of numbers. Flavor ceded its place to scores, indexes and ratios: nutritional completeness, inflammation factors, glycemic load, ratios of sodium to potassium, and omega-3 to omega-6 fats. I had eating goals just as I had ones for training, daily ones like saturated fat and cholesterol intake and RDA targets and inflammation scores, and longer-term ones, too, like the HDL, LDL, trigylcerides counts in a blood lipid profile, the orthorexic’s equivalent of the triathlete’s splits . Blood tests were the race day.
Orthorexics are always making distinctions. There’s clean food and unclean food. And there are people who eat clean and those who do not. We are like some ancient tribe that defines the other, the heathen, not only by what they believe but also by what they eat. Like that tribe, we, too, have a complex hierarchy, even if not always articulated, of otherness, gradations of the unclean. We reserve our scorn not for the denizens of fast-food restaurants and the middle aisles of the supermarket—they don’t know better, we say—but for the religionists with rival claims of purity, the adherents of macrobiotic and Paleolithic diets. We are cults competing for the privilege of being the chosen people. It’s us versus them. The rational orthorexics and the crazy ones.
Naturally I belonged to the first category, I told myself when I began to sense that something was not quite right. The first sign was the realization that I had acquired a reputation among my friends as a finicky eater. They’d mention a food and ask me if I ate it or worse, just assume that I didn’t. “Oh, you don’t eat this,” they’d say, as they ran they down the items on the menu as we were ordering in a restaurant.
I had never seen myself as a problem eater. “Oh, I eat practically everything,” I’d say, and I actually meant it. But I was thinking of the kinds of foods most people don’t enjoy eating, things like okra and turnips and eel, all of which I liked, along with other such problematic foods as sea urchins, kale and blisteringly hot chilies. I ate them all, the odd, the bitter and the slimy. How could I be a picky eater?
But there was a very long list of things I wouldn’t eat, and these happened to be the things that most other people like eating, like burgers and Chinese take-away, the uncomplicated everyday food that marks the everyday gatherings of friends: the post-movie souvlaki and election night pizza, ice-cream on the beach and a morning’s breakfast of scrambled eggs and bacon. Birthday cake and home-baked pie. The food that binds.
Oh, I ate meat occasionally, when I could find organic pork and free-range chickens, and I cooked Chinese at home where I knew exactly what each of the “Seven Treasures” in the stir-fry were. And I made omelets, too, but only from organic eggs. It was always easier to eat at home where I could control everything—the oil I used to cook with, the salt I didn’t use, the kind of fish I grilled instead of fried—and so I wound up spending more time at home, in an empty house with a well-stocked larder.
But the control I could exercise at home mattered less as time went on. It wasn’t even much of a challenge anymore. I slowly became aware that my fixation on eating healthy was making my life poorer not better. And then I got injured, enough to sideline me from my bike and the track for months. I hated losing the workouts at first and was almost certainly depressed for a time as I went through the process of endorphin withdrawal (I could still swim but the highs I got in the pool were never as good as when I ran or biked).
With the loss of most of my workout I lost the motivation to eat clean. It was like that Jenga game where you have a remove a block from a tower and put it on top without the tower falling. I stopped running and cycling, and the tower collapsed. And then I suddenly found myself with all this free time and I wanted to spend it with friends. Not all of it, of course, I’m too much of an introvert for that, but certainly more than I had before the injury, and that required a compromise in terms of what and where I ate. It was one I was now more inclined to make.
I still eat healthy most of the time (I doubt if that will ever change), but I’m a lot more relaxed about food. Eating well is assuming its rightful place, a part of living well and not of being good. And I’m rediscovering some of the foods I’d sworn off. Funny, you think you’re so over this salt, nitrate and saturated fat thing, and then a friend fixes you a salami sandwich and wham, it all comes back to you! How good bad food can be.
Image: Mario Sironi “The Fishmonger” 1927