Is Healthy Eating a Dangerous Trend?

In a word, no. But why would anyone even pose such a seemingly ridiculous question? Regardless of the reasoning behind why, the respected UK newspaper The Guardian has published several articles in regards to the “rising trend of orthorexia.” What is orthorexia? Brace yourself… it’s the potentially lethal habit of healthy eating. Or at least that’s the idea the article seems to be pushing.

I believe orthorexia exists, but is very rare. Vegans for instance have to be VERY careful to eat a balanced diet or they could run into health problems (anemia is a big one). Like I said, though, TRUE orthorexia is far rarer than say anorexia or bulimia. To conflate a pathological religious, ethical or other dietary restriction leading to illness with eating healthy is completely ridiculous though.

Holism, herbalism, healthy eating and supplements are certainly under attack though. Canola council and walnut council funding an anti-coconut oil study that evidently has some skewed data and other holes, or a study about vitamins and supplements being virtually useless or deleterious (that ignores a rather large meta-review of related literature). There is a LOT of bunk and misinfo that goes on in the natural health world which hurts the cause of science based natural/traditional medicine. The fact that last year’s Nobel Prize in medicine was awarded for research into traditional medicine and more and more novel medicines coming from remote locations and unknown ethnobotanicals is hopefully a sign that change is coming.

I can say, for myself at least and your mileage may vary, plant based traditional remedies have been an extraordinary boon to me personally. The Guardian and others have been publicizing stories about the inherent “dangers” in trying to eat healthy. Anything, even a good thing, can become a bad thing if you take it past logical and reasonable limits. Water is necessary for life, but too much causes “water intoxication” which can lead to brain swelling and death. Every cell in your body desperately depends on oxygen, but oxidation is one of the most caustic elements your body comes into contact with on a regular basis.

The extreme form of this is a psychological condition known as orthorexia nervosa, the Californian doctor Steven Bratman has said. Experts have described it as a “fixation with righteous eating”.

“Clean eating is promoted by some food bloggers, who are increasingly felt by a number of medical experts to be having a negative impact on certain vulnerable young people.

Now obviously if your “obsession with health eating” leads you into distinctly unhealthy habits then this is a problem. That said, it’s not the health bloggers or the healthy choices that are an issue here, but the obsession itself leading to malnutrition. Veganism, for instance, is a difficult life choice. I attempted a fully plant based diet for nearly a year and was amazed at how difficult it can be to make sure you get all your nutrition. And no, protein isn’t even the biggest issue. Some essential nutrients like Vitamin D and other beneficial enzymes like creatine are hard to source naturally without appealing to animal based products. This is certainly not to say that veganism is on it’s own an “unhealthy” dietary lifestyle, just that unmonitored it could be.

Whether it’s vegetarianism or a halal or kosher diet, any sort of restriction placed on eating may pose certain challenges, but in most every case if properly administrated they are generally far healthier than a diet of highly processed can foods, frozen meals and fast food. NPR reported a few years back about research into the healthiest, longest living people who seemed to hail from certain regions referred to as “Blue Zones.” Based on the research, it seems Adventists for instance have one of the most longevity promoting diet. Adventists primarily are vegetarians who follow a kosher/halal style dietary regimen. The Blue Zones consisted of five regions in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the U.S. where the highest concentrations of centenarians (adults aged 100+) in the world live.

In the Guardian article from late 2016, Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders in the UK claims orthorexia cases (which another doctor cited in the article believes may be connected to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

“There are too many messages in the media and especially social media. What worries me is that a lot of people promoting these ideas have no knowledge of nutrition.” Here Deanne hits the nail on the head. Due diligence is a responsibility of the consumer and educating yourself before embarking on any new diet, herb or supplement regimen or exercise activity regimen is never something to jump into without having fully researched. Unfortunately, a mass of materials ranging from anti-health trend pieces like the Guardian’s or misleading or flat out false info from “health gurus” like Dr. Oz or FoodBabe make it difficult to parse. For more on critical thinking involving choosing health information, check out this article from Family Doctor or peruse our Resources and Links section which will point you toward hand-picked sites for information on health, supplements, ethnobotanist and ethnobotany, gardening and more.