It seems normal and natural to call it an addiction, but the newly identified eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa seems more like a way to practice a secular religion-- while not thinking that one is doing so.
One suspects that practitioners experience something like a religious experience while treating themselves to severe malnourishment.
Orthorexia nervosa is an effort to purify one’s body through dieting, by only eating certain healthy foods. I suspect that the condition, like certain anorexia and bulimia, largely affects women.
You might ask yourself why so many women feel that they need to purify their bodies. The research does not offer a real answer, but if one asks how well these women have been treating their bodies in other contexts, perhaps one can conjure up an answer.
The Independent describes the condition:
The deluge of nutritional and health advice on the internet and in the media could be fuelling a dangerous but as yet unrecognised eating disorder called orthorexia.
Orthorexia nervosa, a term coined in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman, is a fixation with healthy eating, to the point where it becomes a crippling compulsion, described as “a disease disguised as a virtue”.
It differs from eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia in that the goal is not usually to become thin. In fact, ironically, sufferers are initially motivated by a desire to be well, and to consume pure, “clean” foods, often to recover from illness.
Consider the case of food blogger Jordan Younger:
Despite seemingly glowing with health, [Jordan] Younger was struggling. Her lethargy increased and her periods stopped. She also began to be anxious about her routine, panicking when faced with eating a meal she hadn’t planned, or something that didn’t fit in with her rules. Younger gradually began to realise that there was something distinctly unhealthy about her restrictive diet.
“I had developed many fears surrounding food,” Younger told The Independent. “I was becoming more and more limited in what I was comfortable eating. I even joked about it with friends, calling certain foods, like eggs, ‘fear foods’ because I had stayed away from them for so long. It was easy to hide behind the shield of veganism when I was at a restaurant with friends or even grocery shopping for myself. Anything not clean, oil-free, sugar-free, gluten-free and plant-based I dismissed because it wasn’t within my dietary label.”
Apparently, this is a special kind of virtue, special way to adore one’s body. It enacts the vegan notion that vegetable food is good while animal products are bad. By eating only vegetation and throwing away all your leather belts and shoes you will end up on the side of the angels. Unfortunately, you will also end up malnourished.
The article says:
While a diet focussed on natural foods is far from a bad thing, it is when this becomes so obsessive that it can be damaging to health. Some sufferers begin by cutting out a food group, such as grains or animal products, but can eventually end up on a diet so restrictive, containing such a limited number of ‘safe foods’, that they become malnourished.
Unfortunately, orthorexia is socially acceptable. The article might have noted that anorexics receive a lot of support from their fellow sufferers.
One of the problems with orthorexia is that in some ways it is more socially acceptable than other disorders. Stand in any gym locker room and you can overhear a woman admit she allowed herself a piece of fruit that day, or a man bemoan messing up his macros. Instagram has 26 million posts with the #eatclean hashtag (with the implication that anything outside of this is dirty), and food diary apps allow you to micromanage your food intake with no lower calorie limit.
Recovery takes a long period of time. When an individual subjects her body’s digestive system to that level of abuse, it does not just snap back over night. Amazingly, when Younger shared her struggle to recover with others in a public forum she was attacked:
Younger eventually began a long process of therapy and shifting to a more balanced way of eating, reintroducing eggs, fish and organic chicken, and renaming her brand The Balanced Blonde. It was no easy transition, as she faced a huge backlash and even death threats from some of her fans.
People were not reacting badly because they were worried about Younger’s health. They saw her act as a betrayal, on the order of apostasy. It’s almost as though they saw her as having deconverted from the true faith.