Healthy eating sounds like it’s a given that it’s good for you. Not always. Healthy eating can stimulate orthorexia nervosa. It’s the psychological term for an ‘unhealthy obsession’ with healthy eating. It literally means ‘ fixation on righteous eating’.
Those who write the ‘Bible’ of psychiatric disorders, DSM-5, don’t recognise orthorexia nervosa as a clinical diagnosis. However, doctors and dietitians say it’s not unusual. It also appears to be more prevalent among vegetarians and vegans. At heart, it’s about a fixation on food quality and purity.
Australian cardiologist Dr Ross Walker has a medical practice in Lindfield, on the upper north shore of Sydney. One of his areas of expertise is preventative cardiology. Walker has published seven best-selling books on preventative cardiology. He also lectures nationally and internationally on the topic. Here’s what he says about whether healthy eating is really always good for you – Marika Sboros
By Ross Walker
Two and a half thousand years ago, the father of medicine, Hippocrates stated, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Of course, that was back in the days where food was very simple. There was little interference by human beings apart from catching or preparing natural foods.
Food over 2000 years ago was, of course, a vital part of existence. It was certainly not the major pleasure it is nowadays. Constant food advertisements and television shows elevating celebrity chefs to superstar status bombard our modern world. Not to mention the quick-fix easy foods that take the strain out of food preparation.
With any major life pleasure, there is always the shadow, the underbelly, which in this case often leads to the excessive belly. But, apart from the obvious and increasing problems of obesity, could there possibly be a problem with so-called healthy eating?
My favourite medical website for excellent general review of modern medical issues is Medical News Today. It has “nailed it” again with two superb articles on orthorexia nervosa and food addiction. I thought I would review some of the key points from these articles and give my own perspective.
Orthorexia nervosa is defined as a pathologic obsession with healthy eating which may lead to social isolation, psychological disturbance and often physical harm. I had previously told the story of Prof Roy Walford who wrote the book, The 120 Year Diet. Walford suggests that if you consume a daily diet of 1500 cal of pure plant food with no coffee, alcohol or meat you will live to 120.
Walford had a small group of loyal followers around the world who call themselves calorie restrictors. They don’t have an ounce of body fat. They are constantly cold, tired, miserable and often depressed but live with the delusion that they will live until 120. The average age of death in the modern world for males is around 80 and for females around 84.
A few years back, Walford died at the ripe old age of 79. That was after having lived that miserable existence of disciplined restriction for many years.
Medical News Today quotes the case of a 29-year-old female who progressed through the steady slope of vegetarianism to veganism. She became a raw foodist, finally only consuming fruit, then losing her hair and becoming quite ill.
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They quoted French nutritionist, Sophie Ortego, who had a patient who was “a pure, unbending vegan”. She even “refused to take B12 supplements preferring to lose her sight rather than betray her commitment to animals.”
Orthorexia nervosa is not actually medically recognised and many people believe this is more a phobia than a food disorder. Many people in the field believe orthorexia nervosa has occurred because of the fear of modern issues. Among these are mad cow disease, the use of pesticides in modern agriculture along with antibiotics given to domestic livestock, genetically modified foods and corporate farming.
Many people who go down the slippery path of orthorexia nervosa believe that going organic and vegan will help prevent the toxicity of western lifestyle.
The other article Medical News Today presented was on food addiction. This is where the need to eat becomes compulsive and uncontrollable and may be in response to an emotional disorder, stress, sadness or anger. Experts have also linked food addictions to cravings. Typically these are chips, lollies (candy), white bread, chocolate pasta or ice cream.
Food addiction may lead to other disorders, such as obesity, bulimia or binge eating.
Regardless, there is no doubt that food is a vital part of our existence. If you don’t eat, you die. But, not achieving a balanced, nutritional program may have serious consequences.
In a modern world where a solution to obesity is bariatric surgery rather than drastic lifestyle changes, we need to review deeper issues. Among these are why a significant proportion of human beings are obese, experience anorexia and/or bulimia. Or even more recently, why they have these new obsessions with healthy eating, veganism or some fad diet.
It is my experience as a doctor of 40 years that I have never met one person (and I’m not excluding myself from this observation) that has life in balance. We all struggle in some way. This struggle may lead to overeating, undereating, an addiction to some substance (cigarettes, alcohol or illegal drugs), anger, anxiety, depression or somatic symptoms.
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It is my opinion that any issue around food, whether it be any of the problems discussed above, is purely a manifestation of much deeper emotional factors. We are all the sum total of our various life experiences, genetics and upbringing.
Until we recognise the reason why we have whatever obsession, phobia, addiction, or any other issue for that matter, we humans will continue to make the same mistakes. We will continue the same patterns.
Albert Einstein was once quoted as saying “there is no more certain sign of insanity than to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result”.
Rather than seeking a medical solution to your problem or starting on yet another diet or bizarre eating program, find out the real cause of the problem. Fix the cause and start an entirely different, healthier pattern.