Orthorexia, Bacon Worship And The Power of Food Culture

by | Nov 2, 2009
By lepiaf.geo

By lepiaf.geo

Is it possible for healthy eating to become an unhealthy obsession?

Absolutely.

Orthorexia is a word turning up frequently in the media to describe an excessive focus on healthy eating and dietary restriction. Though the term is not yet an official psychological diagnosis according to the DSM-IV, it is being used by some clinicians to describe patients with eating disorders that resemble obsessive compulsive.

Paradoxically, orthorexics obsessed with health are not healthy and often shun food to the point of emaciation and starvation. But unlike patients with anorexia nervosa, the goal of orthorexics is not to be thin but to be “pure, healthy and natural,” according to Dr. Steven Bratman who first described the disorder in 1997. Suffers are frequently associated with a particular eating regimen such as veganism or rawfoodism.

That orthorexia has only recently been identified and characterized may be the best argument yet for Michael Pollan’s assertion in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that over the past several decades America has undergone “a national eating disorder.” Americans spend tens of billions of dollars per year on weight loss and fitness products, with only growing obesity and chronic diseases to show for it. We’ve shunned fats, sugars, starches and everything in between, and embraced each new diet trend with open arms and wallets. And perhaps not surprisingly, it appears some people are now taking it too far.

The irony is that as a condition like orthorexia has emerged as clinically relevant, we’ve also seen a notable health food backlash. Google searches for the word “bacon” have increased significantly in the past year, and books are being written from websites like This Is Why You’re Fat.

Google Bacon 2004-2009

Google Bacon 2004-2009

In other words, we have serious issues with food.

But why?

It is easy to be sympathetic toward all of these behaviors, even if their extreme forms make us a bit uneasy. For those interested in living healthy and being thin (the chronic dieters), the only guidance is offered by thousands of diet books and companies like Weight Watchers. Each of these systems has its own strict guidelines for success, while unfortunately few (if any) of them encourage us to behave in a way that we would naturally. Thus the dirty little secret of the diet industry is that the vast majority of them are ineffective for long-term weight loss.

This is why we now have a congregation of bacon worshipers. A growing segment of the population is tired of bland food and unsatisfying, ineffective diets. Bacon tastes good, and since we are all clearly dying of heart attacks anyway we may as well live it up. Right?

Even if this attitude is a bit fatalistic, at its core it reflects a desire to enjoy life. And anyone who counts themselves among the human race should acknowledge this as a sentiment that deserves respect.

But striking the perfect balance between health and gluttony is extremely difficult in a food culture where we are allowed to eat in our cars and in front of our televisions. The food industry has made sure that as far as food is concerned, there are no rules. So a bit of obsession seems like a necessity for someone that still holds the desire to eat whole, unprocessed foods from the bottom of the food chain. The healthiest foods, after all, cannot be found at your neighborhood supermarket. For taste, health and the environment, the best stuff is at your local farmers market.

But avoiding the supermarket, isn’t that orthorexic?

Not necessarily. Every day we take a little extra time to do things that are necessary and important, things like sleeping, doing laundry and brushing our teeth. We go out of our way to do these things because the alternative is simply unacceptable. Eating quality food isn’t an obsession so much as a life maintenance task that–like being clean–is not up for negotiation. Until we have farmers markets on every corner, a little extra effort will be necessary.

But delicious, high-quality food is not only about health. It is also about taste, enjoyment, community and life. Food is something that is worth building your days around, because when approached from this angle food improves your quality of life in every way. Eating like this is not a disorder, it is a culture. And it is something that we desperately need to rediscover.

When proposing the term orthorexia, Bratman suggested framing a diagnosis around two direct questions:

  1. Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
  2. Does your diet socially isolate you?

In other words, seeking healthy food only becomes unhealthy when it is devoid of enjoyment and social relationships.

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of attending a lecture at UC Berkeley given by Michael Pollan. Near the end of his talk Pollan proposed reestablishing food culture in America as “The Omnivore’s Solution,” the way to break our habits of both health food obsession and unbridled gluttony. He described health as “a set of relationships,” and encouraged his audience to think of food not as a product but as something we do.

Throughout history and around the globe food cultures are what have dictated when, where and how much we should eat, and countries that have worked to preserve their cultures have fared better against obesity and other diseases of civilization. For Americans though, food culture has been replaced by nutritionism and all-you-can-eat buffets.

This kind of thinking is often branded as elitist, but it shouldn’t be. Food culture does not cost money, it is a basic tenet of life that extends across class boundaries. It costs time, but this is a priority shift that is worth investing in. According to the latest Nielsen statistics, Americans are watching an average of 5 hours of television per day. Calculate in the cost of high-definition screens and monthly cable bills and your daily food investment will start to be put into perspective.

It is undeniable that food grown locally with care costs more than the subsidized, mass-produced products that fill your favorite supermarket. But despite our reputation, Americans have never been opposed to going out of our way for and spending a little extra money on food that tastes amazing and makes us happy. (If you don’t believe me I’ll redirect you once again to This Is Why You’re Fat.)

Is it such a stretch to say that we should be able to eat healthy and still enjoy our food?

I’d love to know your thoughts.

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28 Responses to “Orthorexia, Bacon Worship And The Power of Food Culture”

  1. I wonder if part of the problem is that we’re hardwired to prefer a feast-and-famine cycle.

    Go back far enough in our evolution, and you see people who would gorge on the meat from the animal they just brought down, then eat a subsistence diet of roots and berries until they got another one.

    Today, we’ll eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch all week, choosing dinner from a very small list of options, then splurge on the weekend. I know I could eat a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch every day for a week and not have a problem with it, but the same dinner three Saturdays in a row would bore me.

    This is very similar to the subsistence-gorge-subsistence cycle, but with a much higher set point for “subsistence”.

    I know people who go out of their way to vary their menus constantly. But after a while, “constant variety” raises the set point for everyday eating, and they never get the rush of a “special” meal.

    In a sense, the constant variety has the same effect as destructive or thrill-seeking behavior: You need to keep pushing it further to get the same effect.

    • Darya Pino says:

      It is an interesting idea and we do seem to think in extremes. However, I have read that it isn’t necessarily true that early humans had a “feast or famine” lifestyle. I’m not an anthropologist and don’t keep up on that literature, but it’s an interesting question.

      You bring up another interesting idea though, which is whether every meal requires redesigning the wheel in order to keep it interesting. I don’t think it’s necessary. Been thinking about doing a post on this for awhile now and I think you just inspired me. Thanks!

      • jeff clark says:

        I also questioned myself on why I was happy with eating the same thing for breakfast each morning, but would cringe on eating the same thing for dinner on consecutive nights. I forced myself to change breakfast daily and happier (and hopefully healthier) for it. check out my post Breakfast of Champions for some variety. I wrote about a year ago, and although my breakfasts have changed, I still insist on variety each day. Good reminder to update that post.

  2. Nora Lisman says:

    Great great great post.

    As a wellness counselor I meet a lot of people who veer dangerously close to the orthorexic line.

    I even find myself walking three blocks out of my way (I live in NYC) just so that I can go to a cafe that serves organic grass fed milk.

    One line I often say to clients or during a workshop is, “Is bacon bad for you?” and they all say yes… and then I say, “well, you know what else is bad for you? The ANXIETY that is brought on by obsessing about food.”

    As a culture, we have such an unhealthy approach to food. I think change starts by changing our relationship to our bodies. The more we can create a culture that buys into the mind/body connection, the sooner we will embrace the notion that our bodies need love, nourishment and pleasure. From this place I think people will naturally choose foods that are healthful and delicious.

  3. Rob Hueniken says:

    I really like your title including “bacon worship”. I think that sums up much of the general eating disorder of our culture. Something tastes good and people can’t moderate their eating. Like when you go to a buffet restaurant and people are walking by with a gigantic mound of shrimp or ribs (or bacon) on their plate. We need moderation and balance!

  4. Ooh what a great topic and a great post too!

    Being in the raw food sphere I hear a lot about obsessive food behaviors. That’s actually why I don’t preach the “100% raw” method. I mean, the anxiety and stress caused by fretting over food all the time is much worse than the food itself, in some cases.

    Besides, some people do much better on a healthy whole food diet that includes raw and cooked foods. It can be easier for them to prepare and deal with. It’s all a matter of balance, and seeing how you feel when you change the way you eat.

    I definitely buy my food at farmer’s markets, and that’s not because I’m OCD but because it tastes better, it’s fresher, and it’s better for my local peeps. Why wouldn’t you want to go out of your way for that?

  5. Eleanor says:

    This is a great topic, worth exploring! You’ve hit on the fine balance between caring about the quality of the food you eat and getting obsessive about it.

    Some experts consider any eating behavior that sets itself apart from cultural norms as disordered. But then look at what’s considered normal in our culture. Refined carbs, processed junk, factory-raised meat.

    On the other hand, the pursuit of a healthy diet really becomes a religion for some people, with all the moral implications. Consider the term “clean eating,” with its overtones of purity and superiority.

    No wonder there’s a bacon backlash! Everything we put in our mouths has cultural baggage attached.

  6. AWESOME POST!

    I second everything that Nora said above. I too am a wellness counselor, specializing on changing people’s relationship to food. Like you said, Americans have serious issues with food, and the reason I do my work is to help change that.

    It is NOT a stretch to say that we should be able to eat healthy and still enjoy our food. The French do it, the Italians, and many other cultures who have not yet fully adapted the American food culture (thank goodness…).

    When I lived in France, I saw people eating Bacon, cooking with Bacon Fat, using cream (heavy cream) and other so-called “bad” things for us. The difference is they use them sparingly and in moderation. And not every day. They fully understand the word “balance”, and they eat plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods direct from the farmer’s market (and without pesticides, GMO’s, etc)

    This American extremism is what has gotten us to where we are today. We can’t seem to balance anything….everything is at two ends of the spectrum. We can’t seem to find a happy medium — especially with food — like so many other cultures have for thousands of years.

    It’s just natural to them and part of their culture. It’s ingrained in them.

    This is one of the BEST posts I have read. Ever. Seriously.

  7. Scott says:

    GREAT post! You touched on a lot of interesting points here, and I can only see this issue becoming more and more important to us Americans as we continue our decline- the fall of our health is having more impact and is more irreversible than any economic or stock market crash, and yet so few people pay any serious attention to it! I really do believe that our health crisis is more critical than this little economic bump in the road, in terms of overall wellness.
    Another point, that you may have touched on is the change of culture for the 20-30 somethings. I obviously fall into this category; 50 years ago, someone of my age would likely at least be married, and likely also have a few kids; this family unit created home stability that nurtured a culture of healthier eating; everyone gathering around the table to eat together. But as a single guy with no real tight connections, there is no longer that family support to help create a healthy food culture; we used to quickly transition from the mother/father/bro/sis culture to the wife/kids eating culture, but so many of us are now left alone to fend for ourselves, alone on most nights. What are all of us single young-middle aged people to do?

    • Darya Pino says:

      You nailed it Scott, that’s exactly why I started Summer Tomato. I’ve figured out what works for me by trial and error and do my best to break it down here for my readers.

      But this is a place where we can all share what we’ve learned :)

  8. Karin says:

    Funny how on the Google bacon search chart, there are regular spikes at the end of each year….correlating with Thanksgiving and Christmas perhaps?

  9. Elaine says:

    As a dietitian, there is so much I love about this post but a standout bit of writing for me is this:

    “But delicious, high-quality food is not only about health. It is also about taste, enjoyment, community and life. Food is something that is worth building your days around, because when approached from this angle food improves your quality of life in every way. Eating like this is not a disorder, it is a culture. And it is something that we desperately need to rediscover.”

    Based on personal experience this past year — as well as too many years earlier in my career when I thought only about nutrients — I can say YES, I agree 100%. Outside of my full-time work as a dietitian, I’m immersed, or perhaps I should say grounded in food culture: growing vegetables in my small garden, cooking meals from scratch, taking photos of just about everything that comes out of my garden or kitchen ;-), sharing food stories with my kitchen companions on twitter and blogs. But all this activity is really more than just about “food” — it’s nature, connection, creativity, celebration, discovery…

    Because of my profession and personality, I may always have to guard against mild “orthorexia” but life’s experiences and some pretty savvy food bloggers (too many to mention here but the list includes you) have helped me appreciate food as a gift as well as a container for nutrients.

    Thanks for writing this.

  10. Sandra says:

    excellent article.

  11. What a well-written and well-thought-out post! And timely, too – tonight, as I put away leftover super-delicious roasted acorn squash and roasted beets, I thought to myself “if more people ate tasty stuff like this, they’d be sold on the value of healthful eating.” My dinner was so delicious, I was literally humming as I munched. And guess what? It happened to be mostly vegetarian, inexpensive, organic, low-calorie and overall, extraordinarily healthful. The best part though, is that I *enjoyed* it, and it was satisfying, which to me are what eating’s all about.

  12. duane marcus says:

    I have grown 90+% of the vegetables we eat for the last 3 years. I am now the manager of a local farmers market. We buy organic bread, cheese, and milk there. We are fortunate to have a giant market nearby that has every kind of fresh food imaginable, most of it is organic. I almost never buy food at a supermarket. Some days we eat only vegetables. Some days we eat meat. Whenever possible I choose organically grown food. Fortunately it is easy for us to do.
    However, when we have pot luck dinners or go out for drinks with friends, we eat what everyone else eats without any anxiety. On those occasions it is about breaking bread together, enjoying the company of our friends. And yes I do love bacon which we eat on occasion without a speck of guilt.
    Thanks Darya for a very thought-encouraging post. I am sharing it with my Facebook family.

  13. Great post, Darya. I and my colleagues have been working against this trend for almost 40 years now, and the encouraging news is that more people are waking up to what’s going on. As evidenced by the slow food movement, farmers markets, blogs like yours, and the like.

    The trouble is, there’s a deep fear that if we totally give up the diet mentality, which was created by years of dieting or even just hearing dieting advice as it has long stood in as healthy eating advice, we’ll completely lose in the battle against getting unhealthfully fat (or even fat at all — but that’s a subject for another time). And many of us might because we’ve lost touch with our bodies’ cues for eating or even just what truly feels good, again as a result of dieting or listening to dieting advice.

    The way out is as you describe — getting back in touch with what real healthy eating is and supporting real healthy eating culturally. Just as important, though, may be learning to trust again that our bodies will respond positively to healthy eating that doesn’t look like a diet. That’s a tough thing for many folks to trust. It’s just seems too indulgent to work, and while Americans tend to be pretty indulgent, we distrust that, too. Of course, that’s a reflection of taking indulgence to an extreme.

    Btw, we can apply this discussion to the general population’s resistance to physical activity, too. “Experts” took that to an extreme, too, and subsequently implanted a negative attitude about moving our bodies.

  14. Martin Levac says:

    To paraphrase Morpheus, think it’s food you’re eating?

    It might sound rhetorical at first but stop and think about it for a moment. Do you think that it’s food you’re eating? Or drinking, or injecting, or otherwise taking into your body for the purpose of nourishment? Do you believe that what you are eating right now is giving your body what it requires to sustain itself in perfect health indefinitely? If you do believe that, and if you fail to return to good health, or fail to maintain good health, or plainly and obviously grow sick, then isn’t it time to consider that maybe what you are eating isn’t actually food? Following the same logic, isn’t it time that maybe you consider that your obsession with food is merely a side effect of the non-food you’re eating, combined with your belief that it should keep you healthy?

    You see, there’s a whole boatload of things we eat, or drink, or otherwise take into our body, that aren’t food, and that don’t nourish us. Some might even be poisonous, immediately or over a long period. The things that are poisonous immediately are easy to spot. And we call the result “food poisoning”. But the long term poisons, those are much much more dangerous. They’re insidious in their effects. They’re so slow to act that we can continue for years to believe that they’re good for us. Until one point, 20 years later, we grow sick from it yet are absolutely oblivious to the actual cause of this illness. All the more so because we’ve been eating it believing that it was going to prevent the very illness that it caused. But the point is that it’s still food poisoning, it’s just not so obvious at first and for a long time yet.

    Do you believe that sugar is food? How much of it do you eat every day? How much of the other things, which convert to sugar when you digest them, do you eat every day? Do you believe that those things are food anyway? Do you believe that something which is obviously bad for you, i.e. processed grains for example, somehow becomes wholesome and healthful when it’s wrapped up in a neat little package, i.e. whole grains? I mean, think about it, they both come from the same thing, but one happens to be crushed into a fine powder.

    Finally, how much of those things, which you consider bad, do you really need to eat, and for how long, until you grow sick from them? Would you believe barely 90 grams per day? Would you believe that most of you eat over 200 grams of it per day? I believe it.

    You gotta eat something. It might as well be food.

  15. I’ve been trying to come up with a good response to this post all week, and all I can come up with is, “You’re right.” I do think a lot of people have serious issues with food, and it’s easy to get into either extreme mindset – either being so focused on a specific “diet” that it becomes unhealthy, or caring so little about “diets” that it becomes an anti-diet of sorts, defiantly eating whatever one wants without thought toward what it’s going to do to one’s body (which is apparently the mindset on “This is Why You’re Fat” -gross!).

    But really, it’s even more easy to just eat good, real food. If you ask me, all those diets out there, with their restrictions and measurements and the like, are a ton more work than taking a couple rice balls out of the freezer, throwing some lean chicken and lots of veggies into a saute pan, and making a yummy, filling stir-fry.

    Another commenter has already quoted you on this, but I love it so much I’ll quote it again:

    “But delicious, high-quality food is not only about health. It is also about taste, enjoyment, community and life. Food is something that is worth building your days around, because when approached from this angle food improves your quality of life in every way. Eating like this is not a disorder, it is a culture. And it is something that we desperately need to rediscover.”

    I whole-heartedly agree!

  16. David Gans says:

    When I was about to turn 50, with a genetic predisposition to diabetes and heart disease, my doctor sent me for tests at the Berkeley Heart Lab and told me to read EATING WELL FOR OPTIMUM HEALTH by Andrew Weil. The book really helped me to understand what was going on inside my body and made it easer for me to make the changes I needed to make. And one of the most important things I got from Weil’s book was the admonition to enjoy life. What’s the point of living a long time if you aren’t enjoying it? It’s okay to eat bacon once in a while. I’ve gotten a lot of similar advice from you, Darya, and I really appreciate it.

    That said, a good friend of mine is developing an irresistible confection: BACON BRITTLE. Top-quality bacon encased in a maple-based sugar shell. I have been very happy to help him by tasting his various prototypes – very sparingly, of course.

    • Darya Pino says:

      That’s awesome, I want bacon brittle. And I really respect Dr. Weil, I think he’s one of the few honest celebrity health professionals. I’m so glad the message is getting across :)

  17. Dee says:

    One needs to unlearn whatever they thought was food and way of eating…
    For me, I am unlearning the food practices of my mother and learning my own and now I’m confidently slim and beautiful whilst still eating the bacon. :-)

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