Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Healthy Habits Part 2, Food Rules - And Food That Rules [You]

Happy Tuesday! I mentioned back on Friday, that I want to do a series called Healthy Habits that will address the issue of a "healthy eating obsession" or better known as orthorexia.  There it is - the magical medical term - coined by a man named Steven Bratman, MD in 1996 (http://www.orthorexia.com/?page_id=2). He defines it as "a description for a type of obsession with healthy food that is psychologically or even physically unhealthy." (Steven Bratman, Orthorexia Home Page, 2012). Now, many of us have heard of anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating -- but did you know that there is such a thing as an "unhealthy obsession with healthy eating?" It seems almost logically impossible. But in a culture such as ours, in which the marketing of private gyms, natural food stores, fad diets, and the ideal weight is constantly filling our heads, it is no wonder that there are those who obsess over being healthy.

Recently, I read an article on CNN.com regarding this very subject. The most common 'victims' of this non-medically recognized problem are, ironically, students of nutrition and health. Many times an interest in healthy eating can turn ugly when people begin cutting out food groups or restrict themselves from having certain "types" of food, such as processed meat or refined sugar. The problem can begin with a very positive change to one's eating habits. But, when one's eating becomes restrictive to the point of obsession, there is an obvious distinction between healthy eating and un-healthy 'healthy' eating. The article mentioned above, tells the testimonial of a girl whose orthorexia began as a result of health problems. Her doctor recommended that she cut out wheat, yeast, sugar and dairy to try and diagnosis her chronic stomach problems. When her stomach problems did not subside, she went to the extreme by cutting out all types and kinds of foods. She is quoted as saying, "I basically cut out everything from my diet. I convinced my mind that food made me sick."

Now that I have defined the problem in extreme cases, I would like to address what some of those 'symptoms' might look like in everyday life. A typical orthorexic often describes the difference [between their issue and that of an anorexic], as a lifestyle and rather than a concern about what one looks like. Unfortunately, these two things often go hand in hand. But for an orthorexic, it can be much easier to hide one's obsession because healthy eating is seen as worthy of praise, and commendable by the general public. I often hear people say to me, "Wow, how can you eat so healthy?" as if I have the super-power of eating healthy food. When one's eating habits are positively reinforced and applauded, those habits will be sustained and not deterred. We need to be careful that we are not encouraging an obsession that could be an unrecognized problem for a woman. As for the everyday symptoms, the term "food rules" applies.
"Food rules" are arbitrary rules that a person uses to enforce upon themselves a standard for their own diet. It is a way to keep yourself accountable regarding what you consume. For instance, a person may prohibit themselves from eating until 6:00pm or until they've run for 45 minutes. Their reward will be their meal. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, however these food rules can impose on the normality of one's life if the rules become what control you. I'll give an example of a positively used 'food rule' and then a negative one:
  • [+] I know that I struggle with eating too much dessert. I tend to think often about what dessert I am going to eat that night, and daydream about how it will taste. I know that this is not a godly pattern of thinking, so as a rule for myself I decide to not eat desserts in the house. I am imposing on myself a rule so that I will not be encouraged to sin.
  • [-] I know that eating too many desserts is not good for my overall health. Many treats contain loads of sugar and fat. Because I don't want to consume refined sugar that might have a negative effect on my body, I stay away from all desserts with refined sugar. Additionally, only organic or natural sugar is okay to eat because it doesn't contain all the chemicals that refined sugar does. I am only going to eat organic sugar. That means no birthday cake, no Starbucks if they don't have organic sugar, even if I have to party or coffee date. I don't care how much it costs, I am going to sacrifice for the sake of my health! And I am going to tell everyone around me that they too need to cut out refined sugars from their diet, even if other people disagree with me.
Do you see the difference between a positively-used rule and a negatively-used rule? We can put up standards for ourselves to deter us from sin, which is good! But we can also put up legalistic, arbitrary standards for ourselves that do nothing but harm to our thinking. Additionally, when we try to impose these standards on others, we can come off as legalistic, dogmatic, snobbish, and self-righteous. A person with orthorexic tendencies should be very caution when they see themselves limiting the types of foods they consume; one's motive should always be checked!

I hope that I've been able to give you a little hint into the mind and heart of the un-healthy healthy eater. This is a mind and heart battle for a great number of people, myself included, and for many who may not even realize it. I still need to daily surrender my eating to the Lord, and ask Him for wisdom to help me discern my motives and expectations that I put on myself. Remember, to not let your own standards and rules dictate how you eat -- let the Word of God be your guide as you put to practice its principles to "glorify God with your body."

[Remember to write me at kathryn.m.sumner@gmail.com or comment below if you have any questions, concerns, comments, or critiques! And thanks for visiting!]

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