Thursday, July 7, 2011

'healthy': the chameleon of self-righteousness

I have food intolerances... not strict allergies which will make me break out into hives or stop breathing when I eat particular foods... but intolerances that make me exhausted, upset, sluggish... that give me headaches, indigestion, acne. When I eat these foods -- including corn, dairy, wheat, and sesame -- I feel "off" -- sad, tired, bloated, and cranky. When I avoid these foods, I feel like a dark cloud has been lifted. I feel lighter, more vibrant, more in tune with life. Because it is not worth a chunk of parmesan to feel horrible, I avoid the foods that trigger unpleasant reactions in me. Some people hear about my diet and think it would be difficult or frustrating to follow. Really it's not though. First of all, humans are adaptable to most anything. Once you stop eating cheese for a couple months, you really stop thinking about it or missing it. Same thing with bread. Second, I consider it a problem of perspective. I could look at my life thinking about what I can't eat, but rather I think about the plethora of options that do exist... including the ongoing discovering of wonderful foods I had never tried before. Finally, this is not a higher moral ground for me. This is not something I require myself to adhere to with rigid and severe restraint. It is not meant to limit me or make me firm against the flow of life. If I want bread and butter, I will eat it. If I am at a family function and I have some ice cream, so be it. I am just aware that there may be uncomfortable physical consequences. But the trade-off can be well worth it.

I consider it part of my overall health, thereby, to be informed. In that vein, I subscribe to the magazine Living Without, a publication that provides articles about and recipes for gluten- and allergen-free lifestyles. I quite enjoy reading articles about new developments in the treatment of celiac disease and recipes for carrot cake that I can actually eat. This past issue, however, disturbed me to the core. I curled up in bed the other night and began reading an interview with Maria Menounos, the TV celebrity reporter. In brief, her story was as follows. She was getting rashes and hives and couldn't identify the cause. Traditional Western medicine wasn't working. The steroid creams and pills were only creating a worse nightmare. Finally, in desperation, she visited an ayurvedic practitioner who gave her an Indian tree powder to spread over her itchy, bumpy body. By the following day, her hives has disappeared. Success!

Or at least that is what you would think. But Menounos went further. Her positive introduction to ayurvedic medicine made her a full-on convert and she took more of the practictioner's advice. She cut out "hot" foods. She stopped eating gluten, dairy, and sugar. She never got tested for food allergies, but found she was feeling better overall. Her diet came to resemble that which she had grown up with in her native Greece -- largely vegetarian; fresh, local fruits and vegetables; eating when she was hungry and not at predetermined mealtimes. She was eating 'clean.' All of which I found refreshing. "Yup, this is all good," I thought. "Healthy." I respected her choices and especially that she had thought things through... that she had a logic to back up her decisions.

And then I stopped completely stunned. "Are you feeling better?" asked the interviewer. Maria responded:
Yes, I'm healthier. I have more energy and no more stress hives and rashes. My diet has been tremendously simplified and I have to say I spend less time running around trying to get food to prepare, I haven't eaten a standard breakfast in a long time and I never thought I could go without breakfast. I just have a cup of hot water and I'll eat some fruit and I never thought I could eat just fruit on an empty stomach -- but I can. So now I only eat when I'm hungry -- and when I eat, I eat something clean and simple.
Wait, I thought to myself. Did she just say she has only a cup of hot water for breakfast? Perhaps I misread, I thought. I kept reading...
Interviewer: So when will you put that first bite of food into your mouth?
Menounos: Probably around noon, I'll have an apple. Then when I get hungry again around 2 o'clock, I'll have carrots and hummus or some gluten-free bread....
Blah... blah... blah... I get it now. She doesn't eat. Just another celebrity who doesn't eat... and she uses this front of 'eating clean' to not eat at all. To cultivate an eating disorder and yet to simultaneously appear logical and moral about the reasoning behind her food choices. No, I am not 'outting' Menounos as anorexic... well, actually, maybe I am suggesting that. My overall point is broader than her, though. I am incredibly irritated at the way in which "healthy" can be manipulated... at the way one can make personal eating choices and then impose their defense of those choices upon others as if she is cleaner, purer... and even morally superior.

There is something about eating clean that is endlessly appealing. Clean to the point of ingesting clear, cool water and having that be the only thing that passes through your body. The ultimate purity. And for those of us who sense the immorality, the ugly narcissism and hypocrisy and duplicity and betrayal and 'dirtiness' of so much of our modern world and culture... this kind of purity beckons like a siren song. I have dealt with this demon... and overcome it. Yes, I felt pure when I ate next to nothing... when I could put my hand to my chest and feel the bones of my sternum rippling across the taut, stretched skin. Yes, it was reassuring to barely exist... to begin to exist less and less... to take up less space in the world... to not need anything... not even food... to be that pure. To be the kind of purity that it seems our world is so desperately lacking. I am not perfect... far far from it, in fact. But one thing I never did was force my sense of increasing purity upon others as a sort of decree of moral superiority. For that is its own sort of narcissism. I retreated. What I see so often now is that others find it necessary to proclaim their righteousness in order to legitimize their choices and the rectitude of what they are doing.

This disease has a name. Orthorexia. When a fixation upon eating healthy dominates one's life to the point of unhealthy obsession. When foods are assigned moral merit -- apples and kale become 'good' and pizza and ice cream become 'bad'... and even forbidden and dirty. The physician, Steven Bratman, originally coined the term 'orthorexia' which he describes as:
... an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. The term is derived from the Greek "ortho," which means "right," or "correct," and is intended as a parallel with anorexia nervosa.

I realize this sounds like an oxymoron. How can focusing on healthy food be bad for you? The apparent contradiction had led to a great deal of challenge of the concept.

But the emphasis is intended to be on "unhealthy obsession." One can have an unhealthy obsession with something that is otherwise healthy. Think of exercise addiction, or workaholism.
Healthy as obsession and as moral battleground becomes unhealthy. In an article about this binary thinking mode, Dana Udall-Weiner addresses the danger of categorizing what we eat. Food in and of itself is not good or bad. Fish is healthy, full of Omega fatty acids. But too much of the wrong fish will overdose a person with mercury. Not good nor bad. Or rather both at the same time. As Udall-Weiner explains:
The result of applying such labels to our food choices usually ends in one of two things: guilt or self-righteousness. We feel guilty if we have overdone it, which can mean eating "bad" things or even too many "good" things. "I've been so bad all week," we often say. Alternately, we feel righteous and self-satisfied if we have eaten a limited quantity or only selected "good" food. Yet even if we land on the good side of things, we will typically return to feeling guilty or bad very quickly. This is because we are basing our appraisal on what we have eaten, which is a transitory thing.

This binary system of evaluating food represents black and white thinking, a style of thought that is associated with much psychological dysfunction, including eating disorders.
This kind of thing presents a tremendous burden on a person requiring her to be strictly disciplined (in actions and thought) and occupying most of her day. I was a vegan for almost a year. I made the decision after my cousin (who was a vegan at the time but is no longer) introduced me to The Vegan Sourcebook, a book that makes the connection between eating choices and conscious, moral living... and then gives you the tools to easily enact such a radical lifestyle change. I was moved. She spoke of suffering and compassion and selflessness and gentleness without falling victim to the holier-than-thou proselytizing to which so many become prey. I am a sensitive person and have always struggled with the pain that exists in the world. For me at the time, this seemed like a godsend. The answer to absolutely everything. I should have known better. Nothing can be that easy. Nothing can be a complete panacea. But I jumped right in. This was years after having struggled with my own eating disorder and, in hindsight, I should have seen these roots replanting as well. The urge for ultimate control. The attraction of cleanliness and purity. The need to purge oneself of all that rots and reeks and threatens and corrodes and 'dirties' the world. The desire to be pain-free... and increasingly to be everything-free.

Being vegan, especially ten years ago, required total concentration. I immersed myself in reading food labels, in analyzing every meal I was served outside of the safety of my own home, in discovering more and more about being vegan. The problem grew. Soon, it was not just what I ate but what I wore. I must now avoid fur and leather. My favorite boots at the time were masculine black chunky leather hiking boots. What was I to do with these? I had to get rid of them... or at least hide them... because I couldn't be hypocritical.... or at least I desperately didn't want to be. This was, in large part, what I hated about the world in the first place. Yet, it was an impossible endeavor. There was no end. And really no way to avoid absolutely everything that had to do with animals or the potential for animal harm or suffering. I tried though. I became increasingly isolated. I lost a ton of weight. I was unhappy and felt overwhelmed by the need for constant vigilance about what I ate, what I wore, where I went, who I interacted with. I refused to go out to eat. I even began to refuse to attend family functions. I was so afraid of what I might encounter there. I started to lose energy. Later, I would realize it was because I was becoming incredibly anemic despite my focused attempts to carefully attend to all my nutritional requirements and needs.

And finally one day I had an epiphany. I came across an article. It may even have been Steven Bratman's original article about orthorexia. I can't remember. I do remember it addressed similar issues. I remember recognizing myself -- and the ugliness I had inadvertently become -- in his anecdotes. Bratman tells the story of a macrobiotic seminar at a commune for which he used to be the cook and organic farmer:
An audience of at least thirty-five listened with rapt attention as Mr. L lectured on the evils of milk. It slows digestion, he explained, clogs the metabolism, plugs the arteries, dampens the digestive fire, and causes mucous, respiratory diseases and cancer.

At that time, a member of the commune by the name of John lived in a small room upstairs from the seminar hall. He was a "recovering" alcoholic who rather frequently failed to abstain. Although only in his fifties, John's face showed the marks of a lifetime of alcohol abuse. But he had been on the wagon for nearly six months when he tiptoed through the class.

John was a shy and private man who would never voluntarily have so exposed himself. But upon returning from the kitchen with a beverage he discovered that there was no way he could reach his room without crossing the crowded seminar. The leader noticed him immediately.

Pointing to the glass of milk in John's hand, Mr. L boomed, "don't you realize what that stuff is doing to your body, sir! Class, look at him! He is a testament to the health destroying properties of milk. Study the puffy skin of his face. Note the bags under his eyes. Look at the stiffness of his walk. Milk, class, milk has done this to him!"

Bewildered, John looked at his glass, then up at the condemning faces, then back to the milk again. His lower lip quivered. "But," he whimpered, "but, this is only milk, isn't it?"

In the alcoholics anonymous meetings with which John was familiar, milk was practically mother's milk, synonymous with rectitude and purity. "I mean," he continued, to the unforgiving students, "I mean, it isn't whiskey, is it?"

...The act of eating pure  food begins to carry pseudo-spiritual connotations. As orthorexia progresses, a day filled with sprouts, umeboshi plums and amaranth bisquits comes to feel as holy as one spent serving the poor and homeless. When an orthorexia slips up, (which, depending on the pertinent theory, may involve anything from devouring a single raisin in violation of the law to consuming a gallon of Haagen Daz ice cream and a supreme pizza), he experiences a fall from grace, and must take on numerous acts of penitence. These usually involve even stricter diets and fasts.

Over time, this "kitchen spirituality" begins to override other sources of meaning. An orthorexic will be plunged into gloom by eating a hot dog, even if his team has just won the world series. Conversely, he can redeem any disappointment by extra efforts at dietary purity.
Oh my god, I thought. OH MY GOD!!! Had I become so self-righteous? So narcissistic? So enveloped in my own purity and penitence that my 'morality' was now infringing upon the shared morality of humanity at large? Certainly I had become rather useless. My entire concentrated effort in life was now devoted to the upkeep of my own veganism, of my selfish eating choices. What was I contributing to the world? Nothing. I had become a leech. Further, what was I enjoying of the world? Nothing. I had moralized food so much that there was nothing enjoyable about it. I had lost the ability to see sharing a meal as sharing love and companionship... and compassion. Suddenly, I realized that compassion and meaning lay elsewhere. I wanted to contribute to the world. I wanted to do "good"... yes, but I needed to be properly fueled to do so. I needed to eat meat because I am a person naturally low in iron. Which was better -- that I was a pure vegan or that I eschewed the possibility of purity and instead recommitted myself to helping others and doing something of meaning with my life. The choice seemed so blatantly obvious that I was deeply ashamed at myself. And so I gave up veganism. I chose impurity. I chose imperfection. I chose to live.

We feel the suffering in the world. We want to be pure. We want to 'do good.' We want to counter the evils and pain in which we feel enveloped... and often in which we feel we are drowning. I recently read the May 23rd New Yorker article entitled "Test-Tube Burgers: How long will it be before you can eat meat that was made in a lab?" Many PETA advocates are supporters of this new potential to 'grow' meat because it would stop the cruelty towards animals inherent in factory farming. Surprisingly, perhaps then, Dan Barber, the chef at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York state, is wary of petri-dish meat-production. He has trouble with separating any part of the whole symbiotic process of animal, farm, land, etc. Thereby, he finds lab meat on par with the zeal of some who promote organic farming:
"To sit in some of the best farming land in America and talk about what organic food could do to solve the problems of nine hundred million people who go to bed hungry every night..." He stopped and smiled wanly. "That is really a pretty good definition of an elitist."
Barber believes you can't look at the meat of a cow in an isolated way. He scoff at the claim that cattle jeopardize the environment by the amount of methane gas they release. As Barber explains:
"That is a simplistic way to look at this problem... In nature, you just cannot measure methane and say that livestock contribute that amount to climate change and it is therefore a good idea to get rid of livestock. Look at meat. I am not talking about factory farms... or the need for better sources of protein for many people in the world. But if you just look at meat without looking at the life of the cow you are looking at nothing. Cows increase the diversity and resilience of the grass. That helps biological activity in the soil and that helps trap CO2 from the air. Great soil does that. So when you feed a less methane-emitting animal grain instead of grass you are tying up huge ecosystems into monoculture and plowing and sending enormous amounts of CO2 into the air with the plows. You are also weakening soil structures that might not come back for hundreds of thousands of years... So if you can supplement a farming system with cultured meat, that is one thing. But if your goal is to improve animal welfare, ecological integrity, and human health, then replacing animals with laboratory products is the wrong way to go."
Food so often gets wrapped up in issues of morality. And too often the problem is of an over-simplified moral system which doesn't take into account the interconnections between things, processes, and people. It would be lovely if purity were so simple as drinking hot water for breakfast and eating only an apple for the rest of the day. But a more realistic kind of purity may be the recognition of the complex and interdependent nature of life... including our own. We can choose to disconnect and to believe that by doing so we are living a more wholesome life. But that, in my opinion, is a life without meaning or purpose. A life of self-righteousness. A life that claims 'health' but goes nowhere. A life that doesn't recognize that true health is breaking through 'clean eating' in order to connect and have compassion for others. THAT is self-sacrifice. That is meaning. Yes, you can compromise your health by eating fast-food at every meal. But you can also compromise your health... and that of others... when you seek only to attain purity. Rather, I recommend keeping your toes wiggling in the dirt beneath you. In short, stay dirty.


  1. It has seemed to me for many years and from many studies of history domestic and global that here in the States we have an ambiguous sub culture which replicates the puritan ethics/ethos/pathos of choosing to elevate one's personal choices above those choices by others which are different and beyond this elevation to demonize those different choices to varying degrees including ostracizing across a broad spectrum all the way to execution.

    At this point in a glorious life inclusive of both abstinence and indulgence across a broad spectrum of life's offerings i fall back upon the blunt brilliance of Oscar Wilde, I believe I have that accurate, but not doubt I will butcher the quote and I wish to post this freestyle and somewhat passionately if not all together precisely;

    "The only way to deal with a temptation is to yield to it."

    Perhaps self righteousness is a biological and emotional result of not observing this potentially universal truth.


    Michael Ganther
    Austin, Texas.... ( :

  2. In this case, I think yielding implies a flexibility to life... a yielding to enjoyment rather than choosing self-aggrandizing ascetic behavior.... like a tree limb moving with the storm in order to withstand it rather than being rigid as a defense.