Posted by Linda Bonvie
November 18, 2014
Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about “food fears.” In the past few months, for example, we’ve seen a couple of university “studies,” both funded by the Corn Refiners Association, which represents makers of high fructose corn syrup, that suggested that consumers harboring such fears are really ill-informed or don’t deserve to be taken seriously by the food industry.
But now, allowing concern about food to impact your lifestyle could have an actual stigma attached to it – that is, if the authors of an article published earlier this year in the professional journal Pyschosomatics succeed in getting it classified as a form of mental illness.
All of which would seem to suggest that there’s something irrational about the idea that the food we eat poses a threat to our well-being. So it might be only fair to ask: Is there?
Well, consider that in 2012, approximately 29.1 million of us, or 9.3 percent of the population, were diabetic – up from 25.8 million just two years before, according to data provided by the American Diabetes Association. So it’s little wonder that so many TV commercials these days are aimed at selling diabetes medications and insulin injectors.
In addition, well over a third of Americans – 35.7 percent — including 18.3 percent of adolescents are now considered obese. In fact, the authors of the Psychosomatics article even acknowledge in their abstract that “more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese and would likely benefit from healthy modifications to their diets and lifestyles.”
That both problems are directly related to our collective diets as well as individual ones, is a well-established fact—especially with more and more evidence emerging of the relationship of high fructose corn syrup, a widely used processed-food ingredient, to the current diabetes and obesity epidemics, as well as to health issue like pancreatic cancer and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
Other common maladies have been linked to food ingredients as well – including what the Food and Drug administration estimates to be 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths annually from the artery-clogging trans fats found in partially hydrogenated oil, another common food additive.
And that’s not to mention the neurotoxic flavor enhancers – monosodium glutamate and other forms of free glutamic acid – that can cause a whole variety of ill effects and actually kill certain brain cells, as can the artificial sweetener aspartame.
So it might seem only natural that those wishing to remain healthy might make an effort to eliminate foods containing such disease-causing ingredients from their menus. But taking dietary changes too seriously, or so goes the theory put forth in the Psychosomatics article, can actually be a symptom of a diseased mind — and the people who engage in such behavior may well be verging on mental illness.
Verging, that is, because the “little-known disorder” they suffer from hasn’t yet been listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, as an “official” psychiatric problem. But the condition has already been given a name – “orthorexia nervosa” – and it’s even been blamed for some cases of malnutrition by Thomas Dunn, a psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Northern Colorado, who co-authored the article along with four physicians.
‘Behavior’ a red flag
“There are people who become malnourished, not because they’re restricting how much they eat, it’s what they’re choosing to eat.” Dunn recently told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s not that they’re doing it to get thin, they’re doing it to get healthy. It’s just sort of a mind-set where it gets taken to an extreme like what we see with other kinds of mental illness.”
For example, showing “an obsession with the quality and composition of meals” to the extent that they may spend excessive amounts of time, reading about and preparing specific types of food, and feel guilty about eating unhealthy food” could all be symptoms of this alleged eating disorder. In fact, the recommended treatment is similar to that used for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But while some experts say this supposed condition can lead to malnourishment, others claim that identifying “orthorexics” isn’t always easy. According to Marjorie Nolan Cohn, a dietitian and national spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Someone on paper may be perfectly healthy and their blood work is great and their weight is fine but their behavior has become obsessive with food.”
So how in such cases is it possible to make a diagnosis? An example cited by Cohn is that they “may not be able to go out to a restaurant with their friends because they don’t know what’s in the food or it’s not cooked in a certain way or what if it’s not organic olive oil?”
So let’s see – being reluctant to go out to eat because of concern about what’s in the food could soon be regarded as a red flag for a form of mental illness – even though many of the additives currently used in food products can lead to very real, and quite serious physical illnesses, which is something “orthorexia” experts conveniently fail to mention.
But it is perhaps significant that the one “recovering” orthorexic quoted in the Journal article – a Los Angeles-based vegan and food blogger named Jordan Younger who claimed her food obsession was causing her to lose weight and have other health problems – now says she doesn’t restrict herself from eating anything except for processed food.
And that says a lot — because it eliminates the entire range of additives, such as HFCS, partially hydrogenated oil, MSG, aspartame and a whole host of others, that are responsible for so many of the real illnesses that plague our society.
In fact, about the only concern it leaves is which of the remaining “whole foods” would be best to buy organic.
Bill Bonvie is the author of a newly published essay collection Repeat Offenders.