Nature is an ecoterrorist!

Orthorexia: A Primer

Orthorexia, as you probably know, means “healthy eating.” However, orthorexia is an eating disorder predicated on a life-crippling obsession with healthiness: it has very little to do with veganism, raw foodism, or any other form of actual “healthy eating.” The similarities between anorexia nervosa and orthorexia are stark. I want to lay out a small primer on this because Aslan has struggled with orthorexia for most of zeir life.

The reason orthorexia is an eating disorder is that it has nothing to do with actually being “healthy”; that’s just the pretext for the mental agony. Anorectics obsessively fear fat and being fat and they count calories and exhaustively exercise, starving themselves, so they won’t be fat. Orthorexics obsessively fear unhealthiness and being unhealthy and they count sodium/carbohydrates/etc. grams and exhaustively exercise, starving themselves, so they won’t be unhealthy.

Also like anorexia nervosa, orthorexia is largely dependent on the health crazes of the time. This is why I am unrepentantly supportive of the Fat Rights/Acceptance movement, and would be even if I did hold the mistaken belief that dieting makes you not-fat, because they’ve hit the “bad foods” ideology right on the head. There is a serious difference between, “I choose not to eat this because of my concern and consideration for those exploited to produce it,” and “I won’t eat it because it will make me impure.” Anorectics will often display a sometimes bizarre relaxation with regards to chicken, grapefruit, or some other food—because those foods were culturally approved as “not fat” foods while they grew up. Orthorexics do the same thing. Aslan grew up during the sodium craze of the ’80s and ’90s and no matter how hard zie tries, can’t shake it. Others (like Lierre Keith, perhaps) have a neurotic fear of carbohydrates: I knew one once who would eat, at most, half a chicken breast a day because there wouldn’t be any carbohydrates from it. There are others, ones who won’t eat anything but tomatoes and lettuce because they’re terrified of fat grams; still more who try to almost exclusively eat protein.

Orthorexia is essentially anorexia-NOS with a twist: “unhealthy” instead of “fat,” and nutrients—mostly—instead of calories.

The Weston A. Price Foundation is a lot closer to orthorexia than most vegans I know because of their obsessive fear of plant foods and carbohydrates. Unfortunately, vegans are more likely to be accused of eating disorders—even when they really, genuinely do not have them (though that’s about as common as it is in the general population)—because veganism is different and “not normal” like carnism is.

To me, Lierre Keith’s description of her symptoms smacks of a starvation-based eating disorder—all anorectics I know suffer from all the symptoms she’s described, but very few of the vegans I know suffer from any of them. The way she describes her eating habits—brown rice and soy while bingeing on eggs and dairy—smacks to me of orthorexia. Nobody eats almost exclusively brown rice and soy without having an eating disorder; it simply isn’t mentally healthy, completely leaving aside the idea of physical issues.

Eating disorders are very sad. That valid ethical considerations and healthy personal choices are swept under that rug is unacceptable, and the fact that they are swept under the “orthorexia” rug has killed some of my friends. I’ll write more about that on a later date.

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