Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Moderation is key.

I had an interesting conversation with my cousin recently about the phenomena know as Orthorexia and have been doing some research on it ever since. Orthorexia is an obsession with maintaining a healthy diet, in the obsessive way an anorexic tries to restrict to lose weight an orthorexic tries to maintain a pure diet. Same level of obsession. When I look back on my gluten-free, vegan days I see that I exhibit alot of the characteristics of such obsessive behaviours of orthorexia. It is just as dangerous as anything else that lacks moderation. It can drive you easily into the ground.

I am back in a place of moderation now, but have definitely gotten some heat about my decision. I wonder sometimes what made me fail at being vegan, because my body definitely didn't work right. How can other people thrive? Alot vegans/raws foodist would like you to believe that one size fits all, but it doesn't. Some can be any combination of vegetarian/vegan/raw. I still have my own dietary restrictions, but I am no longer defined by them. And nobody should be, Tom Billings writes:

"Don't let your diet determine your sense of self-worth. Don't make diet an important part of your self-identity. "I'm a worthy, though imperfect human being, surrounded by other, similar human beings" is the attitude, not "I'm a 100% raw vegan surrounded by 'inferior' consumers of cooked foods or animal foods." In my opinion, the latter attitude is based in ego and hatred, and is what (unfortunately) drives some extremists. Such negative attitudes also promote social isolation (a real problem for rawists), and polarize one's experience of society by dividing it into "us" ("good" rawists/vegans) versus "them" ("bad" meat-eaters or cooked-food consumers). The egotistical elitism that divides society into "us" versus "them" directly contradicts the compassion that is supposed to be at the heart of veganism.

Another way to look at the above is that "I'm a person" should be first in your mind, not "I'm 100% raw," or "I'm a vegan." Those are just dietary labels: your status as a human being is more important than dietary dogma (i.e., what your lunch is). This point might seem unnecessary, but in my opinion, the email lists (Raw-Food and Veg-Raw) have seen some prime examples of extremists who appear to place dietary dogma above the rights, humanity, and even the existence of other people. People come first, before dietary dogma--unfortunately, certain extremists appear to think it should be the other way around!

Let's return to the question of what to do here. Examine your attitude toward diet, and your personal relationship with food. Does the judged quality of your diet by itself play a large role in determining how good you feel about yourself, in the same way that daily body weight determines how an anorexic feels? (It should not--your feeling of self-worth should not be determined by your diet.) If you go off your diet, do you later do "penances" like fasting to "atone for your dietary sins"? (You should not.)

Do you think people with other diets, or no particular diet, are mere animals behaving unconsciously toward food, or are less than fully human? (You shouldn't.) Do you think that someone who eats meat is a murderer because "meat is murder"? (You should not--others have the right to choose their diet. Those who regard themselves as superior to others because they eat a "better lunch" are practicing "lunch-righteousness.") Does your diet make you feel superior in any way to those with other diets? (It shouldn't.)

Has your diet become your religion, or a functional substitute for religion? (It should not.) Are you looking for happiness, or the meaning of life, in your diet--i.e., on your lunch plate? (If so, you won't find it there.) Do you think that your diet is the one true way, the only good or "natural" diet on the planet? (If so, you are suffering from delusions, or are in denial of reality.) Is food the most important thing in your life? (It should not be.)" (Source: http://www.beyondveg.com/billings-t/orthorexia/orthorexia-1a.shtml)

I was reading a very interesting article on Beyond Vegetarianism called Beyond Denial, that further broke down that idea of moderation. The article is by Tom Billings, a vegetarian and he falls into the class of vegetarian "realism", as does the site. He says to strip away the lies, the dogma and the dietary snake oil. I really resounded with his earmarks of a healthy and unhealthy diet:

Earmarks of a healthy approach to diet

Returning to the definition, most extremists are in very deep denial that they are dominated by dietary dogma. The issue of dominance is critical here, for it distinguishes whether an approach to a diet is ultimately healthy or not. Some of the characteristics of a healthy approach to diet are as follows.

* Moderation in style and attitude.

* Tolerance and respect for others with different diets.

* An attitude that the diet must serve you, and a willingness to switch diets if a particular diet does not work.

In a healthy approach, results (health) are what count, not dogma, i.e., health dominates over dogma. Of course, this is ordinary common sense.

Signs of an unhealthy approach to diet

In sharp contrast, an unhealthy approach (i.e., an extremist approach) to diet may include some of the following features.

* Strident demands that one absolutely must follow a difficult, narrow diet (e.g., 100% raw vegan), often coupled with claims that all other diets are inferior or "toxic" (thereby introducing the emotion of fear).

* Dietary racism: claims that the diet makes one "superior" (introducing egoism and hatred).

* Demands that one endure painful detox for an indefinite period or "massive raw foods suffering" (to parody the language of one group promoting raw veganism) to succeed on the diet, i.e., you must follow the diet at all costs, even if it costs your health! Note that the latter result is often an unconscious action by the extremists. It follows from the fact that extremists will rationalize away all problems as detox, even when the person is seriously ill, and has followed the "expert's" advice but it has not worked. Here logic and common sense point to a different explanation, namely: the diet does not work as well as claimed, and a different diet should be instituted.

The last point illustrates that in an unhealthy extremist approach, dietary dogma is more important than results, i.e., more important than your health. Needless to say, that is anti-common sense, and you should quickly dump any/all dietary promoters who reveal themselves to be extremists by this definition.

The negative emotional basis fueling dietary extremism. Such an unhealthy basis for dietary extremism is further revealed in the negative emotions it is based on. In the case of raw zealots, the emotions are fear (of cooked food, protein, mucus), egoism and hatred (dietary racism), and obsession with dietary purity to the point where it can become an eating disorder: orthorexia nervosa (see the site article "Health Food Junkie" [7] for details).

Most extremists are in deep denial, despite the widespread failure of long-term, strict, 100% raw vegan regimes, because they have convinced themselves that the diet they promote is "ideal" (even if they personally can't follow the diet, a situation that is probably far more common among the 100% raw vegan advocates than they will ever admit in public), and they have a long list of rationalizations to use to explain away the poor results, or in other words, to blame their victims.

(Source: http://chetday.com/billings.html)

I have to keep this short, but am planning on going back and reading more about the psychology of an idealistic diet and many other articles on his site. He is a vegetarian and yet is still realistic about it and trying to strip away the dogmas. He is all about what I keep saying: Moderation is key. If you are bordering on the extreme of anything,  obsessing with dietary purity in a way that is as much of an eating disorder as anorexia, make sure you check yourself (and read this!) Stay informed but never take too much stock in any dogma. The truth usually lies somewhere in the middle.


  1. Great post Devon. It's not just vegetarians. I've been reading the Crossfit nutrition message boards and there is some major Orthorexia of the "paleo" or whatever else variety. It also seems that when people band together in Orthorexic communities, they feed off each other and it grows and becomes so central to identity and worth that it's disordered AND socially way uncool.

  2. Thanks for your words of wisdom and tolerance. We all try to do what we think is right, based on what information we have. Those of us attempting to lose weight or correct health problems have to be somewhat more vigilant and obsessive in order to make progress. Hence it may come across as self-righteous attitudes about diet. I know I am guilty of another brand of orthorexia in low carb evangelism, but feel compelled to share because it is still regarded as a fad by the population at large( esp runners who believe carb loading is essential), preached against by many in the medical establishment (despite all the recent studies showing it corrects many if not most common health ills), and we are constantly bombarded with ads to eat grains or grain products, endorsed by the Amer Heart Assoc, even though they should know by now that such diets promote disease in many people. I am mostly interested in health and running performance, and will do whatever it takes to improve those. The data is not all in though, and we have to be prepared to adapt as we learn more. I applaud you for being open to change and finding out what works better for you. I try to do the same.

  3. Danni- I definitely agree, it is not just veg/vegans/raw, it can be anyone that is for sure. I think that is what I like about his "healthy approaches", it applicable no matter what you choose.

    Cynthia- Thank you for sharing that, in one of his articles Billings talks about changing your diet for weight loss and health and says that is NOT Orthorexia since the hyper-vigiliance is necessary only at the start and then you should seamlessly transition into being comfortable and moderate (though moderate does not mean eating everything mind you) in your head space. I too am not on the grain band wagon. I stick to mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and meat/fish. I also do more fat metabolism in my running and use VESPA, which completely goes against what most people are comfortable with. I like you are interested in performance and health and continue to be open to learning new information but also not getting caught up in any fad/crave. So for me what works is the things I mentioned above, but if my body/health ever indicate differently I will respond. I think more people need to. Thanks Ladies!

  4. It's unfortunate that vegetarianism, veganism, etc, is so profoundly defined by what one does NOT eat, rather than what one does eat. A lot of the rigid dogma that can be so off-putting focuses on what one shouldn't eat or do, rather than focusing on wonderful, healthful, tasty ways one can harvest, prepare, and consume foods. I

    f I take a step back and look at what my values are w/ respect to food, I'd list: my own and my family's health, my impact on the environment, cost, and of course taste (not necessarily in that order). My list seems consistent with being a vegetarian, but I don't feel like I need to apoligize for occasionally eating fish, as there are ways to eat fish consistent with those values. Same could be said if I wanted to eat a modest amount of other meats.

    I wouldn't call yourself a "failure" at being vegan. I imagine the Vegan experience helped bring your current diet in line with your values, even if you hadn't though it through.


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