Orthorexia: How "Clean" Should Our Food Be?

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Whenever I hear the term "clean food" the image that springs to mind is of a raccoon supposedly "washing" its food before consuming it.  Next comes a litany of possible food contaminants, and means of reducing their presence on our consumables. But just as "organic" has taken on a meaning far from that used by chemists, "clean food" has little to do with either definition. What's come to be called 'orthorexia' is a preoccupation with food quality as defined as much by what it doesn't contain as with what it does. Although the experts have not agreed that orthorexia should be considered a separate type of eating disorder (as distinct from anorexia or bulimia), its roots seem to be different — there doesn't seem to be a concern with body weight involved.

And in fact, according to Bee Wilson, writing in The Guardian, orthorexia is more than a diet — it's a belief system that posits that the way most people eat is somehow "impure". This is, as one might expect, a fertile ground for all types of food quacks. Perhaps one should be eating only "alkaline" diets, as suggested by a Dr. Young (although he may not be a doctor any longer — if he ever was one).

But more to Wilson's point, food has become something that we should be wary of — not because it might be contaminated with microorganisms but because our whole way of eating is "slowly poisoning us". Thus, she notes, clean eating is a "dream of purity in a toxic world." And this perception is reinforced by the acknowledgement of diet-linked chronic disease such as Type 2 diabetes, and the supposedly ever-changing nutritional advice of experts who are supposed to know what we should be eating.

In particular, clean food adherants agree that "processed" foods must be avoided. In addition, many include foods that supposedly help detoxify the body and avoid  those that add to toxicity (which could include anything from caffeine, eggs, wheat and dairy, to tomatoes, and many others).

Based on such "principles," the publishing world took notice and the so-called "wellness" cookbook market exploded. And much of the popularity can be attributed to the fact that these books and their authors were widely present on social media.

No matter what the initiating impulse, what the clean eating movement seems to rely on is restriction — no processed foods, no dairy, no wheat (and likely only organic). While some of these restrictions obviously can make sense for people with celiac disease or allergies to cows' milk protein, they make little sense for the population at large. And such restrictions can be a cover for a developing eating disorder, Wilson says. They can, in fact be dangerous to those with little or no scientific or nutritional background — without at least some background, how does one distinguish the value of cows' milk protein from that of almond "milk"? Someone who is a 'clean food believer' is surely not going to a government website to search for that value.

It will be interesting to see if this new dietary category really lasts, or if it's a rather lengthy flash iin the pan. In either case, we can only hope that individuals who are seduced by the idea of finding the "right" way to eat don't follow the rules of orthorexia to the extent that their health is damaged.