I used to enjoy eating. It was virtually effortless: open fridge, grab food, take a bite. Nowadays, every time I open my refrigerator or pantry, a loud internal debate ensues—over the sugar content, the nutrient value, or the inflammatory risk of all my possible choices. The crazy thing is that these very items were already carefully scrutinized by me at the store. I bought local and organic, where possible, and spent what felt like hours investigating labels. So, why the debate? Why am I questioning my own choices? And why do I feel like I never have anything to eat?
I used to enjoy eating. It was virtually effortless: open fridge, grab food, take a bite.
In January, Mary Elizabeth Williamson wrote an eye-opening article in salon.com that resonated with me. It was called, “We’re Clean Eating Our Way to New Eating Disorders,” and in it she discusses a word I had never heard before, orthorexia. She references writer Heather Hansman, who explains that orthorexia differs from other eating disorders in that the obsessive focus is not on how much or how little one consumes, but the perceived virtue of the food itself. I couldn’t believe there was a word for what I recognized was a developing problem for me and my friends.
I decided to start a discussion about orthorexia with friends and students at the yoga studio where I teach. Almost everyone I spoke with admitted to worrying a lot about their “healthy choices.” They were concerned about consuming too much of this and too little of that. Are they getting enough vitamins, and are those vitamins being properly absorbed? What should they feed their kids? I know people who avoid food almost altogether out of fear. We’re all just trying to do the right thing to stay healthy. If you feel you can’t eat the food or drink the water, then that not only affects your health, it affects your happiness and your experience of living.
I can’t open my newsfeed without being bombarded with articles warning of the dangers of eating what most Americans would consider healthy foods—things like almonds and kale. I remember 20 years ago when fat was the enemy. Now fat is our friend and carbs are going to kill us. We have gone from whole grains to no grains. We are told to eat more fruits and vegetables, then we’re warned that they might be toxic.
I'm married to an environmental scientist. We often have discussions about the dangers in our food. Recently, I told him I read that kale can be toxic and he replied, “Hmmm, that’s interesting. I haven’t heard of anyone dying from kale.” We like to measure risk. He reminds me that we are living in a time when regulations over food have never been higher, water has never been cleaner, and manufacturers are held far more accountable for what they produce—meaning how they produce their goods and what they leave behind on the land, in the air, and in the water. I’m reassured when he points out how fortunate we are to live in the time and place that we do. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that Americans are living longer than ever before. The average age for women is now 81.2 years and for men is 76.4 years. And in the last 12 years, there has been a 15.7% drop in overall mortality. So, why are we so freaked out about our food? I can hear the kickback as I type this—GMOs, pollution, global warming—but whom do we believe?
There is so much information available to us, and yet it is often contradictory. You can find a study to support almost anything. There is always a new trend, often negating the previous one. It's overwhelming. But maybe we already know what works for us. The bombardment of media and access to information has taken a front seat and, as a consequence, we've lost the gift of intuition and one of our basic human abilities—to think logically. Our natural instincts are whispering somewhere behind all the noise, but we have stopped listening.
On a primal level, taste has the power to give us pleasure or warn us of poison, but we’ve created so many emotional attachments and aversions to our food that we’ve veered off in a completely new direction and we’re stressed out and confused! We read everything we can get our hands on, we seek out information, we have the information validated by other sources, we chat about it with friends, yet we're disconnected from the wisdom of our bodies.
I decided to dig around to see what I could find on food fears. I read articles and scientific documents and listened to podcasts on the subject. It was surprising to learn that our need to feel “control” over our lives could be a factor in the current food obsession. Steven Novella, MD, and writer for the website Sciencebasedmedicine.com, explains that our need to avoid certain foods we deem “bad" in any amount “derives partly from a desire for simplicity and control.” It's hard work sorting all this information out. It’s hard not to believe what we read. We want to trust our sources. The problem is, our minds and emotions have important roles to play in all this too. The moment you deem a food “bad,” BOOM, you’ve "poisoned" it. If you don’t feel good about what's going into you, your mind can turn it instantly against you. (And you thought you didn’t have superpowers.) Lisa Turner, food writer for Huffington Post, writes, “When we fear food, it's not really the food we're afraid of. It's our uncontrolled reaction to it.” Our ethical connections to our food matters. The nutritional knowledge we've acquired matters, but we're often missing a very important part of the equation: Our connection to what our “gut wisdom” is telling us.
Just because giving up gluten changed your mom’s life does not mean it will change yours.
The smarter we get, the more disconnected we’re becoming from ourselves. Many of us know moderation in all things to be true. We’ve experienced overindulgence and we’ve learned our lessons. Aristotle made this point back around 330 B.C.E. He taught that the keys to a happy life are balance and moderation. In yoga, we learn the tenet of moderation in the eightfold path. How do we get that balance back? Would we rather believe a stranger than rely on our own personal experience? Maybe instead of basing our food choices on the latest fads and headlines we should look to own our lives and experiences for guidance. Like, for instance, you remember that you have trouble sleeping if you eat chocolate after 3 p.m. Or that too much broccoli gives you gas. Or depriving yourself of dessert makes you feel depressed. And maybe we can all remind ourselves that what works for one person may not work for every person. Just because giving up gluten changed your mom’s life does not mean it will change yours. I have friends who thrive on raw vegetables, but I digest them better when they’re cooked. We need to listen to our bodies and eat what feels right for us. What if instead of trying to convince others that our way of eating is "the best way," we each listened to our own body and encouraged our friends to do the same? When we begin to pay attention to our own bodies and what they need, crave, and enjoy, we have the possibility of regaining balance in our lives. Then we can read the studies and listen to other people’s experiences all we want—with interest, but also with a grain of salt (or pink Himalayan salt, if that works better for you!)