My first Chinese herb teacher Foon Lee Wong once cryptically remarked: “It’s not good to be too healthy.”
Since then I’ve often thought of native peoples throughout the world described by early explorers as remarkable specimens of health. These natives ate the purest foods, drank the purest water, breathed the freshest air, and naturally enjoyed plenty of sunlight and exercise. However, they easily fell prey to newly introduced pathogens that decimated their numbers within two or three generations. Ironically, it was the less healthy, vitamin-deficient, scurvy-ridden European conquerors and colonists who visited such devastation upon the otherwise healthy native people.
Considering the quality of the food, air, water and environment sustaining most humans today, I don’t think most of us will ever be at risk for being “too healthy.” On the other hand, is there a danger of being too insulated from the positive and negative influences of the society and world we live in, so that the first principle of survival, “evolve or die” is ignored?
Recently, I saw a TV news segment about a woman who was “cured” from a condition I had never heard of: othorexia nervosa.
The ‘before’ of this segment was the woman deploring her personal obsession with health food and the negative impact it was having on her family and social life. In the ‘after’ segment, we see the happier, newly liberated and cured woman proudly feeding her two young daughters Kellogg’s Froot Loops (the first ingredient of which is refined sugar and other ingredients including carcinogenic hydrogenated oil) and denatured cold, homogenized milk for breakfast.
What is orthorexia nervosa, exactly? According to this entry on Wikipedia, it’s “an eating disorder characterized by excessive focus on eating healthy foods. In rare cases, this focus may turn into a fixation so extreme that it can lead to severe malnutrition or even death.”
This could be a more politically correct term to replace the old pejorative “health nut” label leveled at health food junkies!
I wondered: Could there be a term for the far more prevalent “eating disorder” that steers toward too much junk food, which of course leads to all kinds of diseases? I even wondered whether the condition called orthorexia nervosa is the actually expression of a wider movement by certain segments of society and the medical community, or even of junk food manufacturers, to discredit health foods!
In light of Foon’s warning about the possible downside of being too healthy, as an herbalist and acupuncturist close to the center of the health food movement for 40 years, I have most certainly treated rather large numbers of patients who made themselves sick by overdoing a particular fad diet or lifestyle. This includes malnourished vegetarians, vegans, macrobiotics, high-protein Atkins and high-fat paleolithic dieters who made themselves sick by adopting such a rigid way of eating.
I remember treating a man diagnosed with bone cancer whose body was jaundiced orange and in a state of stiffened pain as a result of a stay at a cancer treatment center in Northern California. The treatment there consisted of an exclusive diet of carrot juice and a daily regime of high colonics.
Over the years, many young people have come to me complaining of chronic lethargy and anemia as a result of a misapplication of a yogic vegetarian diet. They got into trouble by going overboard and leaving out legumes and dairy, which is vital to a well-rounded vegetarian diet.
And believe it or not, an older, skinny, malnourished, macrobiotic patient at the London Macrobiotic Center hit me with her umbrella because I suggested that she might gain significant benefit from including a little pork in her diet!
It seems that no matter what supposed “health” diet one follows, it is often accompanied with an attitude of moral superiority to others who do not adhere to the same rules. In other words, some vegetarians feel morally superior to carnivores; vegans, eschewing all animal products, look down on “weak-willed” vegetarians who give into cheese or the occasional ice cream; and fruitarians who assert their superiority by eating only fruit, nuts and seeds.
But at the top of the list of orthorexics is the small, select number of “breatharians” who claim to subsist on nothing but air and light. They don’t even need to drink water. No joke! I say ‘small and select’ because either they cheat and eat and drink on the sly, they abandon the diet deeming themselves weak-willed failures… or, they die.
I vividly remember a breatharian proponent in my hometown of Santa Cruz, Calif. (a place that at various times might qualify as one of the ‘othorexic’ capitals of our great nation), who recommended a transition diet of yellow foods, especially yellow-colored ice cream. He gained a short-lived number of followers who forsook their loyalty when the supposed breatharian guru was seen buying Snickers bars (not even yellow!) at a local 7-Eleven store.
I could cite many more situations and even some individuals, some quite famous and infamous, whom I might offer up as a candidate of orthorexia nervosa, but I think you get the point.
On the other hand, consider “unorthorexia,” perhaps, which remains a far more serious condition than its opposite. Too much junk food, including food disguised as wholesome options, is still the the primary cause of diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, morbid obesity, and to a considerable extent, cancer, throughout the Western world.
In a 1979 column entitled “If I Had My Life to Live Over,” Erma Bombeck wrote, “I would have less cottage cheese and more ice cream.” Food is so much more than just fuel for the body. Perhaps a diet of mindful moderation is the most healthful path of all.