That was back in 1996—before our national love affair with organic foods, urban agriculture and locavorism began to really take hold. But lest you think I’m condemning this atmosphere of heightened culinary awareness, let me be clear: I don’t believe orthorexia is rooted in health-conscious eating, any more than anorexia is really rooted in the desire to lose a few pounds.
It may start that way. But just like an anorexic’s desire to be thin is often a manifestation of other, deeper, problems, an orthorexic’s desire to eat healthy can become a proxy for control issues, too.
Anorexics (or those with other, milder “disordered eating” habits, like I’d had) spend a lot of time thinking about food. I shopped for groceries alone, always, so I could take as long as I liked comparing the caloric and fat content of different brands of rice cakes. There’s a supreme art to maximizing portion and taste while minimizing calories.
That weekend in Martha’s Vineyard, I had told Kristin, who was organizing the purchasing of provisions for our vacationing group, that I would do my own grocery shopping. This was partly so I could be sure I had vegetarian meal options. But I also wanted to make sure I had organic granola, almond milk and something (preferably an all-natural, whole-wheat or spelt bun?) I could put my black- bean burger on. I wasn’t going to let a holiday weekend ruin my healthy habits; I had self-control.
But standing there alone in that grocery store aisle, genuinely perturbed that the Martha’s Vineyard Reliable Market didn’t have a more wholesome selection of pitas, I thought about the last point in my life I’d agonized over nutrition labels so painstakingly. I didn’t like the parallels I saw.
Back in Brooklyn, I brought all this up with a friend.
“It sounds like you’ve made a lot of positive lifestyle changes,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to care about what you eat.”
Of course it isn’t—looking at food as a source of health, energy and nourishment has given me a fundamentally different way to approach eating, and for that I am glad. I don’t plan to stop avoiding processed foods when possible. I don’t plan to stop caring where my food comes from, or striving for a wholesome and nutritious diet.
For the vast majority of people, choosing organic or trying to eat ecologically isn’t going to lead to thrice-daily weigh-ins and frequent visits to pro-ana websites. But for me…it could. The underlying impulses behind my old ways — the desire to control some aspect of my life, to control my body — lurked in the shadows of my health-conscious habits. Undue dwelling on a nutrition label is still undue dwelling on a nutrition label.
Ultimately, I have to make sure I’m choosing carrot sticks over Cheetos for the right reasons; eating right for the sake of eating right, not for the weight loss—and not as a replacement for another type of control issue. A white flour pita every once in a while is fine, I now remind myself. An Ohio salad isn’t going to kill me. The point of my “lifestyle change” was eating for health—which includes my mind, as well as my body.