I used to enjoy eating. It was virtually effortless: open fridge, grab food, take a bite. Nowadays, every time I open my refrigerator or pantry, a loud internal debate ensues – over the sugar content, nutrient value or inflammatory risk of all my possible choices. The crazy thing is that these items were already vetted by me at the store. I bought local and organic where possible, and spent what felt like hours carefully scrutinizing labels. So, why the debate? Why am I questioning my choices? And, why do I feel like I never have anything to eat?
In January, Mary Elizabeth Williamson wrote an eye-opening article in salon.com that resonated with me. It was called, “We’re Clean Eating Our Way to New Eating Disorders”, and in it she discusses a word I had never heard before, orthorexia. She references writer Heather Hansman, who explains that orthorexia differs from other eating disorders in that the obsessive focus is not on how much or how little one consumes, but the perceived virtue of the food itself. Williamson also quotes an article written last summer by popular health and food blogger Jordan Younger, who made headlines when she announced that she was, “transitioning away from veganism” as she realized that she had, “started fearing a LOT of things when it came to food,” and had been struggling with orthorexia. I couldn’t believe there was a word for what I recognized was a developing problem for me and my friends.
I decided to start a discussion about orthorexia with friends and students at the yoga studio where I teach. Almost everyone I spoke with admitted to worrying a lot about their “healthy choices”. They were concerned about consuming too much of this and too little of that. Are they getting enough vitamins and are those vitamins being properly absorbed? What should they feed their kids? I know people avoiding food almost altogether out of fear. We’re all just trying to do the right thing. If you feel you can’t eat the food or drink the water, that not only affects your health, it affects your happiness and your experience of living. One friend admitted that after becoming vegan she avoided going out to eat with friends because it was likely she wouldn’t be able to order anything at the restaurants they chose. She says it was a very lonely time.
I can’t open my newsfeed without being bombarded with articles warning of the dangers of eating what most of Americans would consider healthy foods – things like almonds and kale. I remember 20 years ago when fat was the enemy. Now fat is our friend and carbs are going to kill us. We have gone from whole grains to no grains. We are told to eat more fruits and vegetables, then we are warned they might be toxic. Wait! Is that blueberry you’re about to put in your mouth, organic?
I am married to an environmental scientist. We often have discussions about the dangers in our food. Recently, I told him I read that kale can be toxic and he replied, “Hmmm, that’s interesting…I haven’t heard of anyone dying from kale.” We like to measure risk. He reminds me that we are living in a time when regulations over food have never been higher, water has never been cleaner and manufacturers are held accountable for what they produce, how they produce it and what they leave behind on the land and in the air. I’m reassured when he points out how fortunate we are to live in the time and place we do. The CDC reports that Americans are living longer than ever before, the average age for women is now 81.2 years and men is 76.4 years; and in the last 12 years there has been a 15.7% drop in overall mortality. So why are we so freaked out about our food? I hear the kickback as I type this, GMO’s, pollution, global warming, but who do we believe?
There is so much information available to us, and it is often contradictory. You can find a study to support almost anything. There is always a new trend, often negating the previous one. It is overwhelming. But, maybe we already know what works for us. The bombardment of media and access to information has taken a front seat and we have lost our gift of intuition and one of our basic human abilities – to think logically. Our natural instincts are whispering somewhere behind all the noise, but we have stopped listening.
The smarter we get, the more disconnected we’re becoming from ourselves. Many of us know moderation in all things to be true. We’ve experienced overindulgence and we’ve learned our lessons. Aristotle made this point back around 330 B.C. He taught that the keys to a happy life are balance and moderation. In yoga, we learn the tenet of moderation in the eightfold path. How do we get that balance back? Would we rather believe a stranger than rely on our personal experience? We need to listen to our bodies and eat what feels right for us. My aforementioned vegan friend chose veganism for ethical reasons. She says it is what is right for her soul, and no study will convince her otherwise.
Maybe, instead of reading the latest study, you can remember that the last time you ate chocolate after 3PM, you couldn’t sleep. Or, too much broccoli gives you gas. Or, depriving yourself of dessert makes you depressed. What works for someone else, may not work for you. Just because giving up gluten changed your mom’s life, does not mean it will change yours. I have friends who thrive on raw vegetables, I digest them better when they’re cooked. We each need to listen to our own body, and encourage our friends to do the same.
When you begin to pay attention to your body and what it needs, craves and enjoys, you will gain balance in your life. Then, you can read studies and listen to other people’s experiences all you want – with interest – but also with a grain of [iodized] salt. (Or, Himalayan salt, if that works better for you!)
And, remember, even the gods had nectar.