The pursuit for the healthiest diet continues. Just as I was finishing writing this blog post, a new study came out suggesting that both low-carb and high-carb diets may shorten lifespan. In the 1980s and ‘90s, we were following the low-fat trend. These days, the ketogenic diet and the very-low-carb diet are all the rage. And if you think there is controversy about the right amount of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins you should eat, the conversation can get downright ugly if we start talking about specific items like gluten. Research continues to look for insight into the best diet for humans. But the relentless focus on diet and health may lead some people to obsessively seek a perfect “utopian” diet, a condition called orthorexia.
The difference between healthy eating and orthorexia
Orthorexia, although not yet recognized as a disease, is the obsessive fixation on healthy food and healthy eating. People with orthorexia are often on a stringent diet and may have anxiety about how much they eat, how certain foods are prepared, and where those foods came from. This behavior has hints of obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia nervosa. Some people feel very guilty if they do not follow the rigid plans they originally designed to have a healthy diet. Their lives are too focused on healthy eating, and they hardly ever have dinner with friends. They prefer starvation to eating “impure” foods. The result is social isolation and hours spent preoccupied and anxious about what to eat. It is important to note that people who choose to eat a specific diet for religious or environmental reasons, or to protect animal welfare and agricultural sustainability, are not considered to have orthorexia.
Cultural shifts about healthy eating
Growing up in the ‘80s, I hardly knew anyone who had dietary restrictions. Today it is very common to know people who strictly avoid certain foods. There are several theories to explain this new phenomenon: exposure to more toxins and chemical products in our foods; the advent of genetically modified organisms; the modern, more hygienic way of living (which is also blamed for the rise of allergies, asthma, and autoimmune diseases). But others think it may be partially related to the increased recognition and awareness of healthier habits and the significant influence of social media, blogs, health magazines, and clinicians who pontificate ideas of what is right and wrong in the nutritional world. All these factors, added to the avalanche of contradictory studies published almost daily about what we should eat, create the perfect storm for those who may have anxiety about health and avoiding illness.
When the quest for a healthy diet leans toward orthorexia
For those who have documented medical reasons to do so (for example, food allergies or celiac disease), a restricted diet is essential and sometimes lifesaving. But if you do not have much reason to support a restricted diet, and a rigid eating pattern negatively impacts your life and relationships with friends and family, consider looking for medical help, ideally a mental health clinician with whom you can talk about your concerns and underlying fears. Relaxation training, behavior modification strategies, and medications may also help with obsessive and compulsive thoughts. Try to avoid reading blogs and books from people who have radical opinions regarding specific food items. The information era has brought great advancement in publicizing tips about a healthy lifestyle, but the broadcast of extreme views may not be so healthy. Of course, eating a lot of sugar, flour, and red meat every day, all day, will not help you live a long and healthy life, but it doesn’t mean you can never touch them.
Most of the population will never need to avoid specific foods. If you suspect you might have a problem with a specific food item, before you make a final decision about eliminating it, first consult with your doctor. The aspiration to eat a healthy diet is not a problem in itself, but when these thoughts are excessive it may undermine the original goal. Food is one of the great pleasures in life; it is connection, it is culture, it is something to cherish. We should avoid going overboard toward notoriously unhealthy items, but we should be able to eat the most comprehensive diet possible. For most of us, eating nutritionally dense whole foods, mostly vegetarian and non-processed, rarely causes problems.
Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 NIV
The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Philippians 4:4 NIV
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Romans 12:12 NIV
When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought me joy. Psalm 94:19 NIV
The Lord has done it this very day; let us rejoice today and be glad. Psalm 118:24 NIV
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. Habakkuk 3:17-18 NIV
You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Psalm 16:11 NIV
Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:8-9 NIV
I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. Isaiah 61:10 NIV
Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete. John 16:24 NIV
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 2 Corinthians 9:7 NIV
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