Obsession with eating well sets traps for some.
Setting aside the judgmental language in Peter Laufer's Sept. 21 response to The Register-Guard's Sept. 15 article on orthorexia, I would like to make one point strongly: Orthorexia is real. Orthorexia is a problem. It is a growing problem, and it is a problem that is fanned by our society's increasing obsession with "eating right."
It should be noted that orthorexia comes in many varieties. There is the restrictive kind, depicted in the article, where people allow themselves a smaller and smaller range of foods to the point of starvation. There is also a cycle of bingeing, where people's obsession with "right" foods alternates with indulgence in the "wrong" foods. Sometimes it manifests as overwhelming anxiety about eating; they may be eating well enough, but they are saddled with fear, guilt, self-loathing and decision paralysis.
What makes foods "right" for people with orthorexia varies a great deal as well. As depicted in the article, some people focus on "uncontaminated" foods. Some focus on "healthy" foods or "super foods." Some focus on "ethical" foods. Sometimes all of the above. Much as our cultural obsession with slimness and leanness has led to anorexia and bulimia, our cultural obsession with health and ethics has given rise to orthorexia.
It is a natural extension of human proclivity to believe that, if something is good, more of it is better, and an extreme amount is best. As much as we can pontificate about how misguided that is, it is difficult to have a sense of balance about food when we are constantly bombarded with dire warnings about what to eat, what not to eat, and how deadly or beneficial certain foods can be.
The headline on Laufer's column begins, "Healthy food is good." I agree that eating an organically grown apple, for instance, is likely better than eating a conventionally grown apple. But what if someone eats nothing but organically grown apples? It will kill them.
A recent Dr. Oz column included an exhortation to eat more beans. What if someone eats nothing but beans? It will kill them.
There is no such thing as a "healthy food"; all foods, in excess, are poisonous, and it is better to eat salty, fatty, conventionally grown food in moderation than to live in excessive fear of eating the "wrong" foods.
The point is that "healthy eating" is about balance and moderation, not about "eating only healthy things." That is not an indictment of organic foods or pure foods, as Laufer seems to fear. It is, rather, an indictment of an irresponsible culture of purity and righteousness.
Whether it is about eating organic food or eating more beans, such exhortation must be accompanied by a message of moderation and balance. Have we not had enough problems with extremism in this world?
After all, there is no such thing as a completely pure food. If you are not allergic to soy (as I am), you can substitute soy for meats, so you minimize your ecological footprint and attain other health benefits. But even organic soybeans are a water- and fertilizer-intensive crop often grown on deforested lands, sometimes on lands where cattle used to be, and who knows what contaminants the land holds from the antibiotics and such that had been fed to the cattle?
Then, to make them palatable to Americans, soybeans are processed at an industrial scale using a massive quantity of energy. Here in Oregon, soybeans are rarely local; if they do not come from halfway across the continent, they come from Brazil.
The point is that, still, soybeans that thus arrive at your table likely are better, health-wise and ethically, than beef, but it is by no means pure. It cannot be. That is true of all foods we eat, no exceptions. We need to accept that. Otherwise, we cannot eat anything. Compromise is part of life, whether you live in the paleolithic era or in the present.
Conversely, very few foods available in the markets today, however impure, are inherently and imminently poisonous. You will not die from eating one Big Mac combo meal, supersized or not, much as a diabetic will not die from eating a bite of a Twinkie. Hypertensives will not die from eating a dash of salt, and you will not cause the mass extinction of dolphins by eating one can of tuna. Conversely, many life-saving medications, including most homeopathics, are actually low-dose versions of poisons.
Choose wisely, but be flexible. Do not aim for perfection, but for "practical" and "good enough" and "making the world a little bit better."
It may in fact be better to eat a Big Mac from across the street than to drive five miles to get a bag of organic soybeans from the other end of town. It may be better to eat a conventionally grown fruit from Peru than to eat a bag of organically grown, locally sourced, kettle-fried corn chips with Himalayan rock salt.
It is often better to eat "wrong" than to eat "right" to excess.
In my practice as a counselor, I often see varying degrees of orthorexia, and very commonly, I see beliefs that easily can lead to orthorexia. It is a real struggle for my clients. Laufer has made my work that much harder. I am hoping this response will correct that.
Jordan Shin is a counselor in private practice in Eugene. She specializes in chronic mental health conditions, and also holds a doctorate in political science.