Not so long ago, Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term 'orthorexia' to label an increasing number of people who were obsessive about a particular way of healthy eating. Many people like to follow a healthy diet, but when it becomes a preoccupation which is incredibly rigid, an orthorexic is diagnosed.
Orthorexia is different to the more well known eating disorders of anorexia and bulimia, since orthorexics do actually eat and retain their food. However, their lack of spontaneity, anxiety around choices and the impact it has on their social life carries a similar vibe to anorexia/bulimia etc. (Note: this is not true about someone who has to be on a strict diet due to food allergies, such as a gluten free diet due to coeliac disease).
I am a big proponent of a whole foods diet (foods that are as close to their natural form as possible) but I do worry when I have somebody in my clinic who judges their self worth in direct correlation to their ability to keep a completely 'pure' diet all the time. (In fact, I worry whenever I have any patient who has expectations of themselves which are too high to allow a fun life). Anyone who has worked with me knows that I strongly encourage mindful eating and giving gratitude for the plate of food, but I do believe that expecting ourselves to be mindful all the time is simply too heavy a task. If you tend to over analyse everything, mindless eating every once in a while may be just the ticket for you (ironic, I know, in a world where there is too much mindless eating already going on!) I strongly encourage anyone with a preoccupation with eating pure, and who is supremely uptight about it, to eat a nice slice of their favourite cake as a frequent act to shake up the rigidity of their outlook, and to embrace their own imperfection and humanity. Shut off the computer/TV and be-with-the-cake. If you're eating for nutrition 90% of the time, you're already doing a grand job!
One of the things I adore about my job is observing the beauty of humanity. My first patient of the day can be a classic mindless eater (picture: overweight, no breakfast, too much dinner, lots of office snacks, TV eating, very little fresh food) who I work hard to walk towards mindfulness. I tell them to drop those mindless cookies and start relishing the fresh, clean taste of greens. It is a beautiful awakening to watch. The next patient can be an orthorexic (picture: gaunt, moody, stubborn, restless, resistant, lots of raw plant foods, desperately in need of a lovely casserole) who I guide towards the sinful cake and a life where spontaneity and fun are given permission to dance aside a beautiful, fresh food diet. Another fascinating awakening to watch - oh the colour which returns to the cheeks :-)
We are all struggling for balance - it is beautiful and a life times work, because we never get completely there - we wobble close to it, up and down, as we try to manage the challenges which are thrown at us. Good effort brings us close enough to perfect to reap wonderful health results for our work, but in order to also enjoy the rest of our life we need to remember the value of embracing imperfection as a beautiful thing.
If you find yourself in a rigid place, where you're incredibly nervous to step out of your dietary comfort zone, do the thing that feels uncomfortable! Contrast is a vital ingredient to making us feel alive, to boost our confidence that we can actually do it and remain ourselves. We are all complicated tapestries of many characteristics, not defined by one perfect component and yes, you can be a mindful eater and enjoy a mindless eating moment without danger of losing control - it takes practice and work, but remember:
“That which yields is not always weak.”
― Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel's Dart