Orthorexia: an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating

Do you find yourself saying ‘Oh sorry, but I can’t eat that’

Some food writers are obsessed with healthy eating, to an unhealthy degree

Some food writers are obsessed with healthy eating, to an unhealthy degree

 

Does eating make you feel good, or does eating make you feel guilty?

When you think about food, does it stimulate your appetite, or does it stimulate your avoidance mechanism?

Do you find yourself saying to people who offer you food: “Oh sorry, but I can’t eat gluten . . . or white sugar . . . or fat . . . or tomatoes . . . or dairy . . . ”

And is that list of forbidden foods growing bigger over time? Are you becoming orthorexic? A person with orthorexia nervosa is a person who is obsessed with healthy eating, to an unhealthy degree.

A friend of mine spent some time in the Caribbean working on super-yachts, catering to super-wealthy American families who would spend fortunes to hire the boats and the crew each week.

Before they arrived, the menus proposed for the week would be sent to the families. In my friend’s experience, over a few months of crewing, every single family planning the vacation then wrote back to outline all of the things they could not eat.

Food writers

The chef could never cook the same thing for any family party: everyone ate something different from the person sitting beside them on the great big gilded super-yacht.

We’ve had a lot of this stuff recently, as a succession of food writers have arrived with best-selling books about “clean” eating. Out goes the gluten and the sugar and the pasta and the bread and – as if by magic – in comes: health.

The strange thing about these writers, from Gwyneth Paltrow to Ella ‘Deliciously’ Woodward, to the Helmsley sisters, is that they are obsessed with healthy eating, to an unhealthy degree.

And here’s the strange thing about feeling good about food. If you look forward to eating, if you enjoy sharing food with your family and your friends, then it actually makes the food even better for your health.

You not only are what you eat: you are what you think about what you’re going to eat.

If your mammy ever told you that “Hunger is the best sauce”, that was because she knew what she was talking about. Building an appetite, then enjoying the ritual of cooking and eating what you cook, is all good for your health, because you get more from the food than the eater with orthorexia nervosa will.

Chillies and coconut

Forty years ago, a team of clinical nutritionists cooked a Thai meal of rice and vegetables, featuring fish sauce, chillies and coconut, for a group of women from Thailand, and from Sweden. The Swedish women “liked the meal”, but considered it spicy. The women from Thailand not only enjoyed their native cooking: they also absorbed 50 per cent more iron from the meal than the Swedes.

When the researchers offered the groups a purée of ingredients – this time giving the Swedes some familiar mashed potato, hamburger and string beans – iron absorption in both groups fell by 70 per cent.

Which is how restaurateurs know that we eat first with our eyes: offer us a gloopy mess, and our bodies react negatively.

The attitude we bring to the table affects how much good the food we eat does for us. Feeling good about eating makes us feel good.

John McKenna is editor at guides.ie

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