Thursday, April 23, 2015

My beautiful, so-called "eating disorder"


    I was relieved recently to be diagnosed with yet-another psychiatric disorder. It's about time! I've had the same ones for quite a few decades now, and I was beginning to get that "not quite fresh" feeling that we ladies are warned about in those squalid hygiene commercials.
    To make matters worse, I love my "disease," which the doctor called "alarming."
    I am obsessed with eating healthy foods, and only healthy foods. I care more about the virtue of what I eat than the pleasure I receive from eating it. I continue to refine and make more strict my rules for ingestion, although I think I've taken that about as far as it can go. I gladly sacrifice experiences I once enjoyed to eat the food I believe is good for me.. I feel an increased sense of (badly needed) self-esteem because of my well-conceived, conscientious diet, and I reluctantly admit that I disapprove of what most people eat. If I had a social life, my diet would "isolate" me, because I refuse to eat at restaurants anymore, or even at someone's house. If I didn't make it, I don't trust it.   When I am eating the way I am supposed to, I feel a peaceful sense of self control. I would feel guilt or self-loathing if I strayed from my diet, but I never do. I'm not even tempted anymore.
    These factors prove that I have an extreme case of orthorexia, according to "Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating," by Stephen Bratman and David Knight.

     I "really need help," the authors say. "You don't have a life, you have a menu." That's ridiculous. Actually, orthorexia represents progress for me. I went from being obsessed with my weight to being obsessed with my health. Isn't that a good thing? When I moved to New York at the age of 21,  I tried both anorexia and bulimia -- behaviors that I thought I had brilliantly invented. Anorexia was too difficult (although it was exhilarating), and bulimia was too gross. Alcohol was my salvation. It made me happy, and it didn't make me fat. A quart of whiskey per day, supplemented by my daily bag of carrot strips and apple slices, kept me rosy cheeked and energetic for almost 10 years. I became a "health nut" -- a vegan and a jogger -- while I was still a rip-roaring alcoholic. I didn't see any contradiction in this. Alcohol wasn't poisoning me. It was my lifeblood. A few chugs of bourbon and suddenly I was free of psychic and physical pain. My eyes cleared. I was able to function fabulously in both my personal and professional lives.

    When that whole regimen came tumbling down on me, and I wound up in a drunk tank, I promptly focused all my attention on dietetic purity. I haven't looked back since, and I'm going stronger than ever after more than 30 years.
      I used to fly a great deal for my work. I always ordered a vegetarian meal. As the stewardesses made their way down the aisle with their large cart, handing out the food trays, the cabin was pretty quiet except for the drone of the plane's engine. But when they reached me, and unveiled my platter of lovely food, there was inevitably an eruption of "oohs" and "ahs" among my fellow passengers. Their food was gray and brown and white, with perhaps a bit of pale iceberg lettuce and some cooked-to-death string beans. 
   Mine was a stylishly arranged landscape of bright colors, varied shapes and appealing textures. It looked like a work of art. Everyone around me was leaning over, standing up, peering around the seat to get a better look. They all wanted to know what I had ordered. Their breaded chicken breasts with mashed potatoes and beige gravy didn't look so good anymore. If the movie "When Harry Met Sally" had been made by then, I bet there would have been a lot of people quoting the famous line: "I'll have what she's having." I assume that few if any became vegetarians on the spot, but their overwhelming reaction to the contrast between their meals and mine proves to me that some small part of us is instinctively drawn to this kind of food. 

    The columnist Ellen Goodman wrote several years ago: "I am sitting at the breakfast table taking my medicine. This drug is a cup of coffee.... but now it has been declared good for what might eventually ail me. On my place mat is a bowl of antioxidants formerly known as blueberries. These round little health capsules have been scientifically evaluated as a barrier against mental decline and cancer. I am pondering an egg, which is praised for its carotenoids - lutein and zeaxanthin - essential for healthy eyes."
    So what's the problem? Now we can enjoy food on two levels: as a delicious pleasure and as an intelligent, well-reasoned lifestyle.
    For the first few years, I yearned to have a burger, some Fritos, a cream-filled pastry. But I evolved, or some would say devolved, into someone who saw such foods as pollutants. I wouldn't even have a tiny slice of cake on my birthday. I wouldn't lick the knife that had been used to cut a lemon meringue pie. At cocktail parties, I stuck to the crudites and fruit platter, shunning all those crisp h'or dourves, grilled scallops wrapped in bacon, and magnificent cheese platters. I rejected white bread, white rice, white pancakes and white potatoes. It didn't bother me. Eating them would have bothered me.
     I love my diet. It doesn't cause me anxiety, and I don't feel deprived. My breakfast of oatmeal (protein and soluble fiber), dark cocoa (antioxidants and polyphenols), soy lecithin (with choline -- a great brain food), cinnamon (glucose control), wheat bran (insoluble fiber) and unsweetened soy milk (protein, calcium and isflavones) gives me great pleasure, and part of that pleasure is the mindful awareness of what each of those ingredients is doing for my body. Does that sound sick to you? 

    I feel proud that I have developed a diet that consists entirely of "super foods." It is a beautiful diet, consisting of colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains (many of them rather exotic, such as amaranth, triticale, quinoa, spelt and buckwheat), beans and legumes, tofu and tempeh.  

    It is glowingly virtuous, from my perspective. This is a good feeling. Why is a strong devotion to healthy eating any different from a strong devotion to any other pursuit? That's how we get concert pianists and tech visionaries.
    I am especially ecstatic about the bounty of greens from our garden: Tuscan and curly kales, arugula, Swiss Chard, spinach, bok choy and pak choy, and mustard, turnip and beet greens. These foods are alive! I am intensely aware of the nutrients that each of my foods contains, and visualizing what they are doing for me doesn't make me neurotic. It makes my delicious food more delicious. 

    So many people whose religious beliefs have them regarding their bodies as "temples" deface those temples with "food" that seems expressly designed to damage their bodies and shorten their lives. How is that not an eating disorder? How is it not disrespectful to their Creator? They are in denial, repressing the truth in order to gorge on pizza and cookies and super-size Coke. And I'm the one who's sick?

    A raft of articles has appeared over the past few years about the "dangers" of orthorexia. There are those who do make it dangerous by not being well-informed about what a balanced diet must contain.    
    "When healthy eating becomes a disease in its own right," authors Bratmak and Knight conclude, "it is arguably worse than the health problems that began the cycle of fixation." 
    But healthy eating isn't a disease unless it becomes disabling, creating anxiety and fear. It doesn't have to be that way. It can be a joyful choice. It is "controlling," which people think is terrible, but it's actually liberating to be controlled by "an obsession with righteous eating." To denigrate this is like saying that a devotion to religious principles is a "goodness disorder" 
"Triumph of the Virtues" by Mantegna
     How can you be "too Christian"? What is wrong with a voluntary commitment to virtue? I feel proud of the choices I make. It's not a prison: It's the Garden of Eden, and I am thrilled each day to partake of its treasures. Why would I want an eclair, when a banana or a baked yam satisfies my sweet tooth and floods me with wellness?

    I am so committed to this diet that if I were on death row (unjustly, of course) my final meal would consist of three baked yams, a bowl of sliced mangoes, a box of Grape Nuts, fresh raspberries, and a carton of unsweetened vanilla soy milk. I had considered a German Chocolate cake and a bottle of champagne, but I just couldn't stomach the thought of what it would do at the cellular level.
Mangoes create a wave of Nirvana in the mouth.

With cereal and soymilk, and then off to Paradise.
     Orthorexia has taken on a life of its own on social media, according to a report last month on ABC News. The hashtag #orthorexia has over 40,000 tags on Instagram from around the world.
    Jordan Younger of Santa Monica became a vegan sensation on Instagram, with almost 90,000 followers to date, obsessively chronicling her meals on her blog “The Blonde Vegan,” until her restrictive diet dissolved into Orthorexia, according to the ABC coverage.
    “When it turns into an obsession rather than something that you’re doing because you’re passionate about it, and you’re excited about it, it just takes over your mind,” Younger said. 

    Obviously, that's not good. I'm sure there are many compulsive people for whom food, or anything else, can become an unhealthy obsession. But eating intelligently can be an obsession without becoming unhealthy. 
    “I think one of the biggest signs of someone who is suffering from Orthorexia is when it’s so obvious they already have such a healthy lifestyle yet they’re constantly setting goals to be healthier,” one expert was quoted as saying. I disagree. When I hear new data on the benefits of a particular food, I use that information without freaking out about it. When I learned about the benefits of fermented foods such as kimchi, and flax seeds, and "healthy fats" (olive oil, avocado, nuts), and purple foods, I happily incorporated them into my diet. Why shouldn't I want to be even healthier? Why is it not stupid to ignore this information?
Purple foods are rich in multi-tasking anthocyanins.
    It is particularly ironic that in a country where most people have unhealthy lifestyles and diets, we are now "alarmed" about those who strive to eat mindfully. It makes me wonder if all those worried "experts" aren't feeling a bit inadequate for all the compromises they make in their own diets. They don't want to feel guilty about eating ice cream and burgers; they want those of us who reject these foods to feel guilty. This is one area of my life in which I feel positively guiltless. I am proud that I chose this path, and that my commitment hasn't wavered. I wish I were this virtuous in other areas of my life -- such as being more of a social activist, and being a more patient, pleasant, productive human being -- but we all have to have something to hold onto, and I'm holding tight (to my little bosom) my ardent devotion to health.

     The National Centre for Eating Disorders in the UK said it had received 6,000 calls about orthorexia over the past year. It has not collated figures previously but said this represented a ‘concerning rise’ in the number of inquiries.
    NCFED psychologist Deanne Jade’s estimate that one in ten women is affected by the disorder is based on her own findings over a career lasting 30 years. One in 20 men are also "afflicted." No official figures have been collated yet as it is only in recent years that orthorexia has been identified as a health concern.
    The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1997 by the previously mentioned doctor and author Steven Bratman, who combined the Greek ‘orthos’, meaning ‘correct or right’, with ‘orexis’ – appetite. 
Meat and dairy products are not necessary to health,
and they have side-effects. Isn't meat disgusting? Yuck!
    "Removing dairy products from the diet can lead to a deficiency in calcium, which is needed for strong bones and teeth as well as the proper function of muscles and the nervous system," he claims. "Avoiding meat deprives the body of an important source of protein and iron. Protein contains amino acids, the body’s building blocks, which help cells to grow and repair. Lack of iron causes anaemia, lack of energy, breathlessness and poor concentration," he writes.
    This is just a silly rant by someone who wants to consume dairy and meat. There are numerous sources of both calcium and protein that are more assimilable, and that don't have the drawbacks, of meat and dairy. Some of the healthiest people on Earth consume neither, including elite athletes.   

    "Can you enjoy a bowl of ice-cream without the guilt?" asks Australian newspaper Daily Life.  "Do you drink red wine instead of white because it contains more antioxidants? How often do you eat something just because you like the taste of it without thinking about how much good it is doing you? More of us are planning our meals around the nutrients they contain, rather than eating for pleasure....With the rise in nutritionism and slavishly following the latest so-called healthy eating trends, are we becoming increasingly miserable and forgetting that food is something to be enjoyed?"
Gross! No thank you! I'll just eat the banana.
     I am anything but miserable when I'm plowing into my stew of pinto beans, fresh greens, peppers, tomatoes, onions, carrots and garlic (seasoned with turmeric, caraway, cumin, coriander, cardamom and cayenne) over brown basmati rice. I am flooded with a feeling of glory. For dessert, I put ruby grapefruit, orange, red grapes and banana into the blender for a rich, creamy slice of pink heaven. No soda for me, thank you, except for club soda with a wedge of lime. 

    Jada Pinkett Smith is one celebrity who admits she does not eat for pleasure, according to the Australian newspaper. She told Essence magazine that her grandmother had taught her "you don't eat for taste, you eat for nourishment."
    My priority is eating for nourishment as well, but high quality food has great taste, and it doesn't need the slew of chemical additives and artificial flavor enhancers to make it palatable.
Kale with garbanzos, peppers, garlic and olive oil. I am not feeling deprived.
    "The increasing obsession with health...presents exactly the same as an eating disorder but the primary motivation isn't getting thinner, it is being as healthy as possible. It is an ironic obsession with health. People lose insight and can't see that their fixation is unhealthy. Obsession and inflexibility are not healthy," one dietitian is quoted as saying.
    Once again, I disagree. We applaud ultra dedication and discipline in other areas of life. That's what leads to success and mastery. The same can be said of our eating habits.     
    "The orthorexic feels a sense of moral superiority over other people," the expert  adds.

    Why is she attempting to demonize us? We don't feel morally superior. We are, as a fact, nutritionally superior. We are probably inferior in many ways to those who live more carefree lives. I know numerous people who live on junk food who are happier and live fuller lives than I do, and who are "morally superior" to me in a variety of ways, but it's not because of their diets, or mine. These critics are getting as carried away as they claim orthorexics to be. 
    I am also carried away in my consumption of nutritional supplements. I am not concerned about that -- it's one of my few extravagances. I'll describe my "alarming" regimen in my next post.