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New Eating Disorder, New Fears

What does an obsession with "pure" food say about us?

Another kind of eating disorder is on the rise, according to representatives of mental-health organizations in the US and Britain. This time, it's orthorexia nervosa -- a compulsion to eat only "pure" or "healthy" food. Based on the Greek words for "correct" and "appetite" -- though "correct" in this case is a bit ironic -- and identified by Colorado physician Steven Bratman, orthorexia can manifest in a staunch refusal to eat any meat, fats, carbohydrates, cooked meals, and/or the contents of entire food groups.

"The drive to eat only the healthiest foods can lead to sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods being eliminated from the diet," according to today's Daily Mail. "Foods tainted by pesticides or that contain artificial additives such as MSG are often also ditched. One orthorexic is reputed to eat only yellow foods."

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As a journalist writing about food and restaurants, I've felt intensely drawn to raw-food and other alternative regimens, but never had the conviction (or the cash) to really go that far. But we've all seen it: the passion, the pronouncements, the holier-than-thou preaching at the potluck.

Bratman, who first named the disorder in his 2001 book Health Food Junkies, asks at his web site: "Has your diet made you socially isolated? Is it impossible to imagine going through a whole day without paying attention to your diet, and just living and loving? Does it sound beyond your ability to eat a meal prepared with love by your mother -- one single meal -- and not try to control what she serves you? Do you have trouble remembering that love, and joy, and play and creativity are more important than food? Have you gotten your weight so low that people think you may have anorexia

"If you recognize yourself in these questions," Bratman ventures, "you might have orthorexia." His homepage links to BeyondVeg.com, a hub for reformed "veterans of vegetarian and raw-food diets, veganism, fruitarianism, and instinctive eating." Essays at BeyondVeg charge vegetarianism with reducing the human sex drive, warn against taurine deficiencies, and so on.

Time and again, we've seen how a fixation on some physical state of "perfection" -- health, in the case of orthorexia and hypochondria; slenderness, in the case of anorexia -- becomes a mental trap. In the case of anorexia and now orthorexia, these fixations sometimes become international trends, charted in books and the mainstream media, inspiring new treatments and countless support groups. But these trends also reflect moments in history and the underlying fears that infuse them: Anorexia became a big issue just after early-'70s feminism had putatively flung open the doors of independence and anything-is-possible for young women and girls. Faced with this prospect, many trembled in the threshold, frozen with fear, calculating calories and pounds and the familiar geometries of their own flesh rather than brave the untried, scarily infinite unknown.

Is orthorexia really a problem? Some of the readers posting comments at the Daily Mail say it's not: "YEAH RIGHT, more like propaganda from some pharmaceutical company planning to sell a new drug to cure this newly-invented 'condition,'" mocks Sara in Milano, Italy. Obsession with pure food is a luxury of privileged populations in a world where millions of the poor  need all the nourishment they can get and can't afford to fret about carbs, assert other readers. But if it's real, and if it's really a new wave, then what does orthorexia reflect about this moment in history? Is "pure" food the would-be "fountain of youth" for a culture that dreads old age? And/or is it survival instinct gone into overdrive in a time of terror?

 

Anneli Rufus is the author of many books, including Party of One: The Loners' Manifesto and Stuck: Why We Can't (or Won't) Move On.

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