Good Food / Bad Food

New York Magazine recently featured a piece on orthorexia nervosa, the unhealthy obsession with eating only healthy or “correct” foods. The term isn’t officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and some are skeptical that it has diagnostic criteria unique enough to warrant a separate designation, but I think it can be helpful in describing a specific kind of extreme attitude towards healthy eating.

beet leaves | MindBodyPlateWhile the behaviors of orthorexia may overlap with anorexia or bulimia, it’s the motivation behind the behaviors that are different. In the case of anorexia or bulimia, the underlying desire is to achieve thinness or weight loss; in the case of orthorexia, the desire is strictly (and paradoxically) to achieve optimal health.

So it doesn’t surprise me that those who are recovered from eating disorders are particularly susceptible to orthorexia. After overcoming a dangerously rigid set of unhealthy eating behaviors, it makes sense that one might get caught up in an equally rigid set of “healthy” ones.

there are no bad foods | MindBodyPlateWhether it’s in the DSM or not, I’m glad orthorexia is getting this kind of attention in the mainstream media. Ferocious commitment to dietary health is widely accepted and even encouraged in our culture, especially as we become more and more preoccupied with the “war on obesity”. As such, it’s important that we encourage mindfulness and dietary moderation with equal fervor.

The slippery slope of orthorexia is exactly why I spend ample time with my clients exploring how we improve our health & wellness and make more positive food choices without relying on the labeling of certain foods as inherently ‘bad’. As soon as we label foods good or bad, we enable the kind of extreme thinking that can lead to orthorexia.

foods are not inherently bad | MindBodyPlateWhat are your impressions of orthorexia nervosa? Should it be considered its own eating disorder? I’d love to know what you think.

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No Juice for You!

Orange wedges dropping into water

A few months back, I had the pleasure of visiting my sister in Napa Valley, where she works as a pastry chef in a popular, historic bakery. I spent most of my mornings in the bakery’s café area, mindfully enjoying a cup of tea and a bit of breakfast, perhaps reading or just taking in the sights and sounds of the affluent small town. On one such morning, I witnessed an event so unexpectedly horrific that I still think about it every time I see fruit juice.

A mother (or otherwise maternal figure) walked into the bakery with two healthy boys of about five or six years. They approached the register, at which time the boys noticed an open cooler full of Odwalla juice. “Juice!” they squealed, “Can we get juice?”

Source: State Library and Archives of Florida

Source: State Library and Archives of Florida

“No, we’re not having juice this summer,” the mother replied, “and let me tell you why: it’s filled with sugar. Besides, you don’t want to waste your Sweet Treat before nine in the morning on a drink.”

This piqued my interest. Though she was in a bit of a crabby mood, it seemed that this mother was sharing the logic behind her decision and trusting her boys to understand its nuances. I really appreciated that. I’m also not a huge fan of fruit juice, especially for kids. I continued to eavesdrop, curious to see how she would handle any follow-up questions.

As expected, the boys persisted. They really wanted that juice. She got agitated.

“You need to learn what ‘no’ means. I don’t want to argue with you. This will not be the ‘Summer of Juice.’ Juice is full of sugar, and it’ll make us fat. If you’re going to have juice, it will be fresh-squeezed.”

*record scratch*

Uh…what? Okay, so at this point, I realized that this conversation was no longer about health. It was about aesthetic value. It was about how juice is “bad” and how being fat is also “bad.” This was also the moment I realized this woman might be kookoo bananas, since she somehow believed that fresh-squeezed juice would be less sugary than a 6oz Odwalla (it is not).

Ready to negotiate, one of the boys said, “But we can have a juice now if we don’t have any other sweets today, right?”

“No, no!” she quipped, “Now listen to me.” At this point, she grabbed the face of the other boy, pinching the loose skin underneath his chin between her thumb and index finger, and shaking it for effect.

“Look at this! Look at your brother! We will not be drinking any more juice, because it’ll only add to this [chin] and we are not going to get fat!”

Need I remind you that this was a perfectly healthy pair of young boys? Not even close to overweight. I was mortified. Soon thereafter, they purchased their breakfast (ironically, a bag of carbohydrates – aka SUGAR), and left the bakery. I whipped out my smart phone and transcribed the interaction, still in shock about what I’d just witnessed.

We know better than to believe these creepy old orange juice ads, but we need to be careful about labeling certain foods as “bad.”

We know better than to believe these creepy old orange juice ads, but we need to be careful about labeling certain foods as “bad.”

Food Rules and Weight Gain

There’s no question that we need to address the obesity epidemic in this country. But when will we realize that labeling foods as inherently “good” or “bad” is not the answer?

Look, I typically stay away from fruit juice, and I’ve made the personal decision to cut out refined sugars. Yet, from time to time, my body tells me that it needs some no-sugar-added citrus juice, and I’ll be damned if I ever deprive my body of what it needs ever again. Granted, it took me a long time to suss out the difference between a true need and an emotionally driven craving, but it’s a skill set that we are all capable of achieving.

And though I typically say no to refined sugars, when I’m visiting my pastry chef sister in Napa, California, I will never deny myself a taste of one of her delectable creations, because I know that there is nourishment in such a thing that goes way beyond nutritional value. There’s a term I use in my practice called Primary Food, and it applies to all of the non-food aspects of living that feed our soul, nourish our mental health, and satisfy our hunger for life. Bonding with my sister over her passion is one such example of Primary Food, and I know that it will benefit me more in the long run than abstaining from a few bites of sugary pastry.

I typically don’t eat refined sugar, but when I do, it’s usually for a taste of one of my sister’s delectable creations.

I typically don’t eat refined sugar, but when I do, it’s usually for a taste of one of my sister’s delectable creations.

Restricting food almost always backfires in the end. Research shows that making certain foods off-limits can lead to obsessing and bingeing. In fact, eaters who restrict are more likely to experience cravings and more likely to give in to them. A study published in the journal Appetite demonstrated that the more a mother restricts her young daughter’s access to snack foods, the more snack foods the daughter will eat when given the chance (1).

It’s time to shift the conversation so that it’s about feeling healthy and good in your body, not about a number on a scale or about attaining some kind of saintly dietary perfection. And it begins with us, in our every-day actions and our every-day conversations.

Let’s teach children that too much sugar actually makes you feel pretty gross, in the short term and long. Let’s make it about them feeling good in their bodies. Let’s make it clear that there’s nothing inherently bad about 100% fruit juice, but that it’s a “sometimes” food and not an “all-the-time” food.

The war on childhood obesity may be warranted, but if we continue to tolerate fat shaming and fail to teach moderation, we’re creating a generation of binge eaters.

References:

(1) Fisher, J.O, & Birch, L.L. (June 1999). Restricting Access to Foods and Children’s Eating. Appetite, 32 (3), 405-419. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1006/appe.1999.0231