The woman had a deeply concerned expression on her face as she looked me up and down. She was a fellow swim mom and we'd been friendly for a couple of years, and she'd been watching while I ran around the gym with the kids at a team Christmas party. I was feeling better than I had in a while, smiling and a little winded as I approached the food tables where she was sitting.
I noticed her frown right away and then was knocked flat by her words...
"Are you okay? I mean... you just don't look well. I'm concerned about you. You're so... thin."
I was thin. And I wasn't particularly well. The only thing my stomach could tolerate was mushy Special K cereal and I was dog tired. My belt was pulled to the tightest notch but I had been feeling okay that day. In fact, I had been feeling pretty good. Until she opened her mouth.
My problem was undiagnosed autoimmune disease but I didn't know... and she didn't know my suffering. On the surface I just looked skinny, I guess.
I had no idea what to say but I felt the back of my eyes start to burn with tears and some mean words threatened to pour forth in a hot second. I wanted to comment on the chocolate-covered Oreo in her hand and her recently expanded girth.
But I didn't. I just... died a little on the inside.
I didn't have anything left. I felt sick, tired, ugly, and hopeless. She won. I don't know what the prize is in that situation but she won it. I was defeated.
Several years later, I experienced a great healing through a dietary transformation. And wouldn't you know it, that woman (or rather her internet counterparts) took right up where she left off... winning the battle over minds with ignorance and phony concern, but for no good purpose.
The new food shaming battle cry? Orthorexia.
Orthorexia is defined as obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. Welcome to the latest trend in diagnosing the confidence out of every human being we don't know or understand. Several of the common symptoms can be loosely applied to countless mentally healthy people, including myself... but the topic is pay dirt for writers and fodder for the vultures... so it continues.
I can no longer decline a dessert at a gathering without someone questioning my mental health. Awesome.
I looked up the symptoms of Orthorexia as defined by a clinic that deals with eating disorders. While I absolutely believe that there can be a serious mental health disorder defined as orthorexia, I think the internet in general is using the term all wrong.
Let's look at what criteria I found on a professional mental health website...
"A person with orthorexia will be obsessed with defining and maintaining the perfect diet, rather than an ideal weight."
This one confused me because I wouldn't call myself "obsessed" but I am pretty serious about maintaining the diet that keeps me free of pain and sickness. The alternative is horrible so, I don't know, maybe some professional would call me obsessive? I'd rather go without a meal than eat something that causes my body to attack itself. Call me crazy. And maybe you would.
I admit that having a great diet feels terrific and I really don't have to worry about my weight at all. It's one of the most freeing experiences to simply not have to worry about cutting off my broccoli intake or feeling like I ate an inflatable brick following a donut binge. If that makes me mentally ill... I'll take it?
"She will fixate on eating foods that give her a feeling of being pure and healthy."
Oh wow... I'm so busted. Totally orthorexic. Let's see... I eat multiple times a day and have to plan for those meals, prep, cook, and eat them, and clean up after them. Plus shopping and snacks. I'm pretty fixated. But probably not as fixated as I used to be on cookies... Oreos in particular.
"An orthorexic may avoid numerous foods, including those made with:
- Artificial colors, flavors or preservatives
- Pesticides or genetic modification
- Fat, sugar or salt
- Animal or dairy products
- Other ingredients considered to be unhealthy"
Busted again! I avoid all of those things except healthy fats (of which I consume a large amount), salt, and meat. But yes, I avoid unhealthy foods. Is that really one of the criteria for diagnosing mental illness?
"Obsessive concern over the relationship between food choices and health concerns such as asthma, digestive problems, low mood, anxiety or allergies"
I think that word "obsessive" needs to be defined clearly because there are some people who would probably call careful behavior "obsessive" and others who have a totally different picture in mind. Depending on the definition, this could apply to me. If I go by a clinical definition, then no... I'm not obsessive. But if I read this within the very loose context of criteria used by these professionals, then yes, I suppose I come awfully close.
My health conditions can be debilitating and even potentially fatal. I am strongly interested in the relationship of food to my healing process and...
I really couldn't care less if that bothers an internet therapist.
"Increasing avoidance of foods because of food allergies, without medical advice"
Because if a food makes me sick, I should keep eating it unless a medical professional tells me not to? That's just stupid talk. I'm not even going to get into the 15 years that I was failed by countless medical professionals (including allergists). I sought and paid for tons of medical advice and learned one important thing along the way that they never told me...
If it makes you sick, don't eat it.
"Noticeable increase in consumption of supplements, herbal remedies or probiotics"
The majority of American adults take supplements regularly. It's a $40 billion dollar industry. So at least we are all in this together.
"Drastic reduction in opinions of acceptable food choices, such that the sufferer may eventually consume fewer than 10 foods"
This can be tricky, especially at the beginning of a dietary overhaul when a person's body is reacting in an inflammatory way to everything and there is an uncertainty about what is okay to eat and what will bring on symptoms.
At my sickest point, I was not eating more than 10 foods and it took some time for my stomach to be able to tolerate more. I was not mentally ill but I was very physically ill and the number of foods I was consuming was a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself.
It took a while to figure it out and to heal.
So I don’t agree this is always a helpful assessment of mental illness. Circumstances vary greatly. Show me the average American diet and I will show you countless people who have a very limited palate. Does that make them mentally ill? Probably not... it likely means they have a crappy diet.
My point is that you cannot make an accurate health assessment of another human being from an internet article, nor should you try.
I don’t understand the motivation behind some of the hate, although I think I do understand a little based on the articles' contents and comments. People who are deeply interested in outing others as orthorexic usually fall into one of the following categories:
- They tried to change their diet but were unable to stick to it
- Feel defensive about the food they feed their families if it's not very healthy
- Tried a dietary change for health reasons and found it unhelpful
- Are afraid that they won’t be able to eat Oreos in public without criticism
- Can't afford to eat what the real-food experts are peddling.
- Know someone who annoys them with their disruptively healthy eating and wants to change them
- Have a real concern about someone they love who is exhibiting symptoms of obsessive compulsive behaviors and real mental illness that interferes with health and relationships.
Using the criteria I shared earlier, you could certainly say that I might be orthorexic. You’d be wrong but the internet has a way of making people experts over other people’s health so...
What I’m waiting for is the list of criteria to internet-diagnose someone with Oreo-rexia; defined as obsessive behavior that interferes with the desire for a healthy diet.
- Eating ice cream with a spoon straight from the carton.
- Bullying good friends into eating junk food with you even though you know they are on a diet.
- Eating dessert food (including caramel lattes) more than once a day.
- Shaming sick people into giving up their pursuit of healing food by implying that they are mentally ill.
Of course we know that Oreo-rexia is just a word I made up to make a point. And orthorexia, while apparently a real illness, is often used by armchair mental health professionals to make their own point. But...
It's a red herring... a distraction from the real issue... which is that the trends toward healthy eating make people uncomfortable and upset.
"Others eat in a way that I don't understand, agree with, or find necessary in my life... and it's suddenly become very important to me to identify people with a mental illness called orthorexia."
Either that or those clickbait articles simply pay the bills.
Do humanity a favor today and encourage someone who is trying to make healthy changes in their life. And don't make it contingent upon your feelings. It would make me feel amazing to be able to eat a bunch of Oreos without thinking about anything other than calories.
I understand that you don't get it.
I understand why.
I forgive you for the wounds you unknowingly inflict.
But... I also ask you to stop.