Health is not often what people think it is, especially in places like Santa Monica, where more people tend to jog, practice yoga, and eat kale than guzzle beer and smoke cigarettes. While jogging and yoga and kale are all good for you, they alone do not create health. And there are people who are happy and healthy who never set foot on a yoga mat, a treadmill, or a vegan restaurant floor.
Orthorexia, “the obsession to only eat foods one considers healthy,” was a term I learned back in 2008, when I realized that my whole “in the name of health” dieting was really just an eating disorder in disguise and was actually making me incredibly unhealthy, on every level. Like all the raw food books told me to, I avoided dairy, sugar, wheat, gluten, meat, trans fats, and processed food. I juiced raw vegetables and consumed greens, avocados, quinoa and herbal tea. I got very thin. For about ten seconds, I felt I had made it. I was a size 2! 115 pounds! I had shiny clear skin! A feeling of lightness! But wait… why did it soon feel so unbearable? Why was I freezing cold, extremely moody, and without any sexual desire for my handsome boyfriend at the time? Why could I not stop obsessing like a madman about every single thing I put into my mouth? Oh, and why wasn’t I getting my period? I was eating so healthy! So organic and raw! I was full of vitamins and nutrients! The truth is, I was starving, not only for calories, but for a wide variety of nutrients that come from a balanced, relaxed diet. And even more than that, I was starving for freedom from the obsession to eat “healthy” and avoid “bad” foods.
Today, I eat very differently. I would even call it… normal? I still enjoy vegetables and quinoa and avocados, but I also (gasp!) eat a lot of dairy. I love it, and it feels good in my body. I eat sugar. Peanut butter. Sometimes gluten. I drink my coffee with cream. If I feel like having cereal or pizza or a cheeseburger, I have it. I don’t find myself craving tons of junk food that often, but when I do, I give it to myself, and I like it. I don’t really crave meat either for whatever reason, but when I do, I eat it. I don’t restrict anything completely. Even the “evil” processed foods. Every now and then I’ll drink a Diet Coke or eat a bag of chips or those sour candy gummy things, because they just sound so good. And you know what? They are. Do they make up my daily diet? Nope. But I don’t worry if I have them. And my body is much happier and my health much better. I have peace of mind and relaxation around food. I pretty much eat when I am hungry and stop when I’m full. Sometimes I eat fast, sometimes super slow. I try to practice mindfulness and awareness around eating, but not that much. I just give myself a big break about it all. I don’t feel guilty for eating certain foods. I don’t restrict or control and I don’t binge. And I also don’t think about it all that much, which is unbelievable, because it used to be all I thought about.
I read Dr. Lissa Rankin’s book recently, Mind Over Medicine, and she explains how health is so much more, far much more than what we put into our bodies. Yes, it can be nourishing to eat our fruits and vegetables or give up a food if it is really making us sick, but more important than any diet is our mental and spiritual well-being and the stuff that actually makes up our lives. She talks of people who eat pizza and lie on the couch but who have rich inner lives and happy social and work lives, and how their health is far better than those who eat organic and clean and get lots of exercise but are miserable everywhere else. She discusses how obsession alone can raise cortisol levels and increase stress, and stress is far more toxic to the body than a plate of fries. More and more diet recovery books and blogs are big on letting go of all restriction, no matter what. More doctors are writing about how gluten intolerance might be more psychosomatic than because of any physical problem, that being vegan doesn’t actually help you live longer, that the occasional processed food isn’t harmful to the body. The body is strong, smart, and unbelievably healing on its own, and our minds are far more powerful to heal or harm us than what’s on the plate.
We live in a culture of extremes. People either want to eat vegan and raw or live off of McDonald’s and Marlboro Reds. It’s easier in a way to do one or the other, especially when you have an obsessive mind, because there is something so terrifying about letting go and eating moderately and without rules. There is something far more challenging about listening to our bodies naturally (not too closely) and giving them what they want, rather than following a diet plan or rigid list. Rules can help us feel safe and contained, and following them can help us feel like good people, but when it comes to food, it’s really just food. When I first read about orthorexia, the writer was a man who had been recovering for a few years, and one simple statement was so profound to me. It went along the the lines of, “something as simple as lunch shouldn’t be so scary and stressful and able to ruin our lives.” And I remember thinking, holy shit. That’s true. It’s just lunch. Just food on a plate. Why am I letting this completely dictate my life? Why are any of us?
Food obsession can be a tremendous distraction from having to really look at our lives and experience our feelings. In fact, it might be the strongest distraction out there. It is also widely socially acceptable, if not encouraged. What do you hear in the lunch room? Are people talking about their latest diet? A new food they’ve given up? A supplement they’ve added that is changing their lives? Is someone getting props for losing weight? For giving up dairy and sugar? Probably. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that, necessarily, but food isn’t that magical. Nor is the lack of it. And anyone will tell you that losing weight in and of itself won’t actually change how you feel on the inside. You might get compliments or enjoy loser clothing, but real happiness and contentment comes from inner work. (Weight actually tends to stabilize naturally, when we focus on healing deeper issues.) Our self worth doesn’t come from how clean of a diet we have or a number on a scale. It can for a moment, but it is hollow and fleeting. It was for me. More important for our health is our relationship with ourselves, with others, with our daily work and creativity, our spiritual lives and connection, our thinking. And yes, food should be enjoyable. Sometimes it really is! It can be quite delicious and comforting. And some people derive a lot of satisfaction from cooking and entertaining. But the idea is balance. Allowance. Letting go. Restriction is restricting, constricting, and starts to be exhausting and alienating. It won’t make you healthy, not deep down inside.
Eating disorders are real, and orthorexia can be just as serious as anorexia and bulimia. I have nothing but compassion to those still suffering – I know what a monster it can be – and I pray you find your way to recovery.