What the heck is orthorexia?
I do not suffer from orthorexia, however I know a few people who do: People who are moms. They are obsessed with healthy eating. Providing themselves and their families with healthy foods becomes a maniacal focus, creating an environment of fear and anxiety that takes the pleasure and fellowship out of eating and creates endless power struggles with their children.
This is NOT one of those things that often separates the mom crowd into teams of Us vs. Them in the war over who is OBVIOUSLY the more caring parent using feeding as a tool for measurement. That kind of stuff is just catty and negative (but I’m willing bet you 50 boxes of over-processed, non-organic, overflowing with GMO’s and red dye #4 cookies that there are no less than 1,000 women would call child protective services on me based on what I allow my kids to eat).
After reading up on orthorexia, I should probably delete the snarky last sentence, but I won’t. Taking a stab at womenfolk who are constantly compelled to find ways to be superior to others by being non-supportive and judgy irritates me. Hoity-toity-ness about organic cookies and the need for self-congratulatory behavior is annoying and rooted in anxiety, but it’s nothing like the terror and obsession that defines the behavior of an orthorexic. I’d much rather spend lunch with someone who is snotty about their food then with someone who is afraid of it.
There is a difference between being health conscious and cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. I am NOT minimizing or mocking or taking the opportunity to generalize every McDonalds-fearing, junk-restricting mom by lumping them into the category of orthorexic. Orthorexia is a serious mental disorder, although at this point it’s not one that is well known or an official DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis.
I have a reason for writing about this eating disorder that most people have never heard of (and that as a clinician had no idea WAS identified and named as a form of an eating disorder). My reason is that I didn’t get a chance to blowhard about anything related to the important topic of eating disorders during National Eating Disorders awareness week! Gosh, right? Me not have an opinion? Insane! I suppose I could have waited until awareness time rolled around again next year, or touched on it after some big whoopla came out in the news, but when I started reading about orthexia I couldn’t resist. It scared me because I now actually SEE it for what it is, a disorder instead of merely just another one of the things people do because they are insecure or a little anxious.
I’ve somehow managed to ignore the signs that are now so glaringly apparent in people who cross the line between teaching and reinforcing healthy eating habits and instilling fear into others (especially their children if they have them) about something that is an unavoidable part of everyday life: FOOD! When disorder is manifested in people with children, the fear spills over into every meal and snack, teaching them to see food as something to fear and that everything that goes in their mouth is suspect. Moms who have this obsession/disorder are often an obvious problem to anyone around them, but usually looked as annoying and uppity rather than ill.
Ever since I’ve become a parent and found myself having to discuss food or share a meal with a person suffering from this painful mental affliction, I’ve struggled to keep myself from acting jerky. I want to stop struggling too! I want to be more helpful and supportive to women who have ANY type of eating disorder! I can’t imagine feeling agony over every sip or bite of what is necessary for sustaining life, so I’ve been thinking of how I can be helpful without being obnoxious, opinionated or judgmental. I now see that my attitude is equally as inappropriate and judgy as the granola moms. CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG? For the sake of the kids, this is so important. Ugh, the kiddos!
I’ve had the experience of interacting with children of the orthorexically inclined parent that take ANY opportunity to find and eat the foods that their terrified parents won’t let them touch. Too young to be fearful of the food, small children just want to do what comes naturally to them and it IS NATURAL to enjoy eating. Eating feels good and nourishes our bodies and minds. Children are naturally good at self-regulating when it comes to eating, at least most of the time. They learn from external cues and words, the meanings and rules related to something that should really be quite simple. Unhealthy behavior role modeled around food increases their risk for developing body image problems and eating disorders.
The scientific community sees eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia as complex conditions developed as a result of numerous factors; biological, emotional and environmental. Orthorexia shares the same characteristics with a heaping dose of reality mixed in. Our increasingly toxic environment is having a negative impact on the foods we eat and the unfortunate use of thousands of chemicals, preservatives, and dyes makes it easier for someone struggling with orthorexia to embrace their obsessions in order to protect their children. I GET IT. But not really I suppose, because I’ve yet to feel a stitch of stress over watching my kids shovel down a few packages of non-organic, multi-colored fruit roll-ups with a Kool-Aid chaser.
I can switch back and forth from therapist to humorist in half a heartbeat because in my mind, the only way to survive in this life is to be able to laugh amidst even the most difficult and demanding problems facing us during the time our souls exist in imperfect and ever eroding human bodies. The only thing our bodies do in a perfectly predictable way is to eventually stop working. In the meantime, we need to FEED both the flesh and the spirit within. How am I tying this in to a blog about parenting? Trust me. I told you I’m a therapist as well as a mom and I just don't find much funny in this at all.
That's why I felt the need to share the information with you, to encourage you to examine your habits and beliefs about food in order to instill as much confidence as you can in your children when it comes to eating. Eating is an unavoidable part of living and although meals can be such a time for fellowship, intimacy and joy, they can also be stressful and terrifying. It is true that there are startling problems with our polluted environment and food supply, but still we must find sustenance in order to survive and thrive. We must find a balance between awareness and paranoia so that as an army of parents this is not another area of disordered discord that separates us from our goal of raising healthy and happy children.
Get educated and share what you know with the others you know on Team Mom. Instead of Us vs. Them, we should aim for Us vs. ANYTHING that can hurt our children's minds, bodies and spirits.
Read more from Nicole at chicagonow.com/moms-who-drink-and-swear
I write both from the heart and my experience as a mental health professional and a parent of two nutjob kids who provide me with more material for this nonsense than I could ever use.