In a recent interview, “Domestic goddess” Nigella Lawson takes on what she refers to as the current cultural obsession with “clean eating.”
To put it bluntly, $10 cold-pressed green juices and quinoa bowls are a lifestyle choice — it doesn’t make you virtuous. “There is a way in which food is used either to self-congratulate — you’re a better person because you’re eating like that — or to self-persecute, because you will not allow yourself to eat the foods you want,” the 55-year-old British chef and author told the audience in London this week.
The Yahoo News article also interviews Nutritionist and National Eating Disorder Association spokeswoman Sondra Kronberg who say that she has noticed that eating disorders nowadays are about purity and morality. “Instead of going to church or synagogue, people are saying, ‘Treat your body like a temple,’” she explains. “Eating ‘purely’ has taken the place of spirituality.”
Eating disorder specialists refer to this trend as “orthorexia” –the disordered obsession with “eating right.”
I address orthorexia in my book Broken Gods: Hope, Healing and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart. Aquinas considered what we call “orthorexia” a form of gluttony he called, “studiose” or, basically, a preciousness about food. In Broken Gods, I argue that all forms of gluttony (both mindless overeating and orthorexia) are distortions of the Divine Longing for Well-Being. Well-being requires us to develop temperance and seek authentic balance in our lives between our physical, emotional, relational and spiritual selves, but all forms of gluttony toss this aside, and instead, tell us that we can achieve salvation/well-being/deliverance from all of our problems through eating (either by overindulging or by being precious about what we eat).
As with the other deadly sins and the divine longings they mask, we can only achieve healing by recognizing the godly intention behind the desire and finding grace-filled ways to meet the need that is driving it. Change is always challenging, but this approach is the more loving alternative the self-shaming and merciless recriminations we usually put ourselves through.
Dr. Stephen Bratman developed a 10-item questionnaire to help people determine whether they are falling into orthorexia. The following are his questions along with his explanation for why these issues point to a possible unhealthy relationship with “eating right.” A scores of 4+ points indicates the need to seek an evaluation for possible orthorexia.
1) Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about food? (For four hours give yourself two points.)
The time measurement includes cooking, shopping, reading about your diet, discussing (or evangelizing) it with friends, and joining Internet chat groups on the subject. Three hours a day is too much time to think about healthy food. Life is meant for love, joy, passion, and accomplishment. Absorption with righteous food seldom produces any of these things.
2) Do you plan tomorrow’s food today?
Orthorexics tend to dwell on upcoming menus. “Today I will eat steamed broccoli, while tomorrow I will boil Swiss chard. The day after that I think I’ll make brown rice with adzuki beans.” If you get a thrill of pleasure from contemplating a healthy menu the day after tomorrow, something is wrong with your focus.
3) Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
It’s one thing to love to eat, but for an orthrexic it isn’t the food itself; it’s the idea of the food. You can pump yourself up so giddily with pride that you don’t even taste it going down.
4) Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?
The problem with orthorexia is that healthy food doesn’t feed your soul. If you spend too much energy on what you put into your mouth, pretty soon the meaning will drain out of the rest of your life.
5) Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
Like other addictions, orthorexia tends to escalate, demanding increasing vigilance as time passes. The diet of yesterday isn’t pure enough for tomorrow. Over time the rules governing healthy eating get more rigid. And if you are an orthrexic, you get a grim pleasure from this.
6) Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?
Because of it’s confused scale of values, orthorexia leads to a crazy allocation of interest. Have you fallen into this trap? Will you turn down an invitation to eat at a friend’s house because the food there isn’t healthy enough for you? Do you find that obsessive thoughts of healthy food occupy your mind while you watch your child perform in a play at school?
7) Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food? Do you look down on others who don’t?
One of the seductive aspects of orthorexia is that it allows one to feel superior to other people. After all, healthy eating is everywhere extolled. Orthorexia seems to be right up there with good work habits and a clean life. In this, orthorexia has an aspect that can make it harder to shake than other eating disorders: While anorexics and bulimics feel ashamed of their habits, orthorexics strut with pride. “Look at those degenerates,” the mind says of everyone else, “hopelessly addicted to junk.”
8) Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
If you are an orthorexic, you feel guilt and shame when you eat foods that don’t fit the anointed diet. Your sense of self-esteem is so linked to what you eat that tasting a morsel of forbidden food feels like a sin. The only way to regain self-respect is to recommit yourself to ever-stricter eating, to despise yourself when you stray from the path of food righteousness.
There are times in life when it’s worthwhile being ashamed. When I’ve lost my temper at a child, betrayed a secret, insulted a friend behind his back, I’ve committed an actual error worthy of actual guilt. But eating pizza is fairly low on the scale of moral lapses. No one on her deathbed looks back and says, “I’m filled with regret that I ate too much ice cream and not enough kale.”
9) Does your diet socially isolate you?
Once you’ve reached a certain point, the rigidity demanded by orthorexia makes it truly difficult for you to eat anywhere but home. Most restaurants don’t serve the right foods, and even when they do, you won’t trust that it’s been prepared correctly. Even your friends inexplicably fail to cater to your personal preferences.
A common strategy is to bring your own food in separate containers and chew it slowly, looking virtuous and soulful while everyone else gulps down garbage. Or, like a solitary alcoholic, you can decline the invitation and dine in the loneliness and comfort of your own home.
10) When eating the way you are supposed to, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?
Life is complicated, unpredictable, and often scary. It is not always possible to control your life, but you can control what you eat. A heavy-handed domination over what goes onto your fork or spoon can create the comfortable illusion that your life is no longer in danger of veering from the plan.
How’d you do? Remember a score of 4+ means that you may have an unhealthy relationship with “eating right.” To learn more about how to overcome our tendency to achieve salvation through food (either by mindlessly overeating or being overly correct about what and how we eat) check out Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about how you can work with a professional, Catholic counselor by telephone to achieve authentic balance in your life.