Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Orthorexia: A New Religious Practice

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.

It explains:

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.


Ares Olympus said...

re: One suspects that practitioners experience something like a religious experience while treating themselves to severe malnourishment.

I think I understand the sentiment, but it seems to need some clarity. What is a "religious experience"? Oh, good Wikipedia knows.
A religious experience (sometimes known as a spiritual experience, sacred experience, or mystical experience) is a subjective experience which is interpreted within a religious framework. The concept originated in the 19th century, as a defense against the growing rationalism of western society. William James popularised the concept.

Many religious and mystical traditions see religious experiences (particularly that knowledge that comes with them) as revelations caused by divine agency rather than ordinary natural processes. They are considered real encounters with God or gods, or real contact with higher-order realities of which humans are not ordinarily aware.

Skeptics or scientists may hold that religious experience is an evolved feature of the human brain amenable to normal scientific study. The commonalities and differences between religious experiences across different cultures have enabled scholars to categorize them for academic study.

That doesn't exactly help. We might contrast to Fasting, which is considered a religious practice that isn't exactly healthy, at least if performed for more than a couple days.

Perhaps another approach is to consider Jonathan Haidt's liberal and conservative moral values.
Moral Foundations Theory is a social psychological theory intended to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. At present, the theory proposes six such foundations: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity; however, its authors envision the possibility of including additional foundations.
Various scholars have offered moral foundations theory as an explanation of differences between political liberals and conservatives and have suggested that it can explain variation in opinion on politically charged issues such as gay marriage and abortion. In particular, Haidt has argued that liberals stress only three of the moral foundations (harm, fairness, and liberty) in their reasoning while conservatives stress all six more equally.

Values and their opposites:
... 6. Sanctity/degradation/purity: abhorrence for disgusting things, foods, actions.

We might imagine this compulsion is related to "purity", which is a value that liberals don't generally value as important. But if that value is felt more unconsciously, or a lack of purity is experienced, without a known cause, then perhaps causes are invented, or identified, such as food. But if the invented cause has nothing to do with the feeling, then whatever short term relief is experienced in the deprivation needs a new level of imagined purity, and maybe that's how the dark slope happens? At any rate, its also something one can feel control over, however far it has to go before the participant wants to admit a problem.

So perhaps a true religion is the answer, and the feeling of impurity is a sign that other changes are needed somewhere else?

It seems worth exploring. OTOH, Carl Jung might point in other directions and suggest feelings of impurity have more to do with an overactive imagination and superego, and the answer isn't to keep pushing more and more of the world outside of one's self, but to claim more from our messier aspects of the body, and not try to run away into spiritual purity that might ultimately leads to death as the only way out.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares Olympus @September 2, 2015 at 7:57 AM:

"We might imagine this compulsion is related to "purity", which is a value that liberals don't generally value as important."

You mean like on issues of abortion, school choice, gun control, climate change, etc.? You mean there's no standard of loyalty and purity on those issues?

You are astonishingly naive. Looks like you need some clarity... here's a Wikipedia reference for you:

Ares Olympus said...

IAC, I don't know why you're arguing here. Do you object to Jonathan Haidt's work? It would seem to put conservatives in a higher light than liberals.

Its not "all or nothing." but seeing weakness in liberal perceptions of certain values. Its says Liberals have more "blind spots" to their moral reasoning in regards to loyalty, authority, and purity.

Does that make you feel better?

Sam L. said...

Breaking from a fad IS apostasy to the faddists.

KCFleming said...

The reason women do this more than men must surely be the man's fault.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Ares: "Its says Liberals have more "blind spots" to their moral reasoning in regards to loyalty, authority, and purity."

Whose morality?