Diet and Health vs Orthorexia

As a nutritionist I am frequently asked “what should I eat and what shouldn’t I eat?”  My answer seems to always surprise those individuals who ask the question.  My answer is “eat REAL food as close to its natural state as possible, and eat a wide variety of protein (meat and dairy), carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legume), and just a little fat, and avoid as much as possible man-made, artificial, highly processed, packaged convenience food, and fried food.

Balance and prevention are the keys to health and should be the guideline for diets.  The body requires six basic nutritional elements to flourish and stay healthy.  They are protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fat, and water.  These six elements need to be provided to the body in a balanced and healthy way for optimal health.

When food is cooked, processed, refined, or  adulterated, the nutritional content of the food can be destroyed, lessened, or become difficult for the body to fully use (as in the case of synthetic ingredients).  When any one of the six elements of nutrition is absent from the diet, there can not be balanced health and eventually the body pays the price disguised as sickness, disease, illness.  Independent research has proven that even when the six elements of nutrition are provided in the diet, there still needs to be supplementation of a multiple vitamin/mineral, because not all foods are nutritionally dense due to mineral depletion in our agriculture soils and growing practices.

Dr. Steven Bratman was the first to put a name to an obsession with healthy eating.  He called it orthorexia nervosa. Orthorexics are individuals preoccupied with eating healthy food and avoiding anything artificial or “toxic”.  They are fanatical about eating the purest, healthiest, most nutritious ( they call “clean”) foods available.  In their quest to eat healthy, Orthorexics begin to eliminate basic food groups needed by the body to sustain health.  John Stossel did a segment on 20-20 (ABC) interviewing Orthorexics and the extreme health practices they practice such as only eating organic food, eating only raw food, eliminating all meat and dairy, eliminating fruits and vegetables that have too  high of a sugar content or calorie count, fear of purchasing fruits and vegetables in grocery stores because they can be toxic or poisonous, inability to eat outside of their homes because they can’t trust food to be “clean”, etc.

This obsession with pure food can lead to distorted views and behaviors that border on eating disorders.  Nutritional extremes practiced by Orthorexics can mean restricting social activities, become hermits obsessed with meal preparations that consume long periods of time, sacrifices and extreme inconveniences.  The mantra of “you become what you consume” instead of inspiring becomes a fear of what is in their food, and can lead to a very unbalanced lifestyle.

Balance and prevention are the real issues for a sustaining  diet and health.  An overly restrictive diet can lead to nutrient deficiencies and can adversely affect health, energy and emotional well being.  Determining what constitutes balance and prevention  is a personal choice that should be based on sound nutritional ground.  Eating food as close to its origin helps insure maximum nutrient content.  When food is cooked or processed nutrient content is affected.  However, this does not mean one should eat only raw food.  For example,  Broccoli actually releases more of its nutrient content when lightly steamed than when eaten raw.  Expanding ones’ taste buds to include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables that can be incorporated into the diet helps insure needed vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.  Eating small servings of a variety of meat, fish, dairy and eggs, provide an array of amino acids, vitamins and minerals.  The key once again is to eat food as close to its natural state, eat a variety of food, avoid as much as possible man-made synthetic food, highly processed and refined food,  artificial,chemically flavored, colored,  manufactured food,  deserts and high density empty calorie  foods.  Avoid stimulants, soft drinks, highly sweetened foods, artificial sweeteners,  MSG flavored enhanced foods, and hormone additive foods.

Choosing real food, as close to Nature as possible, whenever possible, and expanding your food selections can lead to a healthy diet that is nutritionally balanced and overall preventative against disease.  Any behavior–can become obsessive-compulsive and dysfunctional if it takes over your life or is taken to an extreme.  It is tricky when people enthusiastically defend and preach no meat, no grains, no dairy, only organic, only raw, only what God made in a rigid all-or-nothing rules to live by.

What people choose to eat is often so sacred to them that it makes it difficult to  nutritionally educate or prevent them moving into dangerous territory.  Obviously, respecting certain religious food observances should always be considered as well as medically prescribed diets for specific health needs when planning a balanced, preventive disease diet.  Moderation, and a lifestyle that is balanced with food plans that can be enjoyed and loved, with appropriate nutritional supplementation, is a healthy goal to aim for.