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Orthorexia: when healthy eating goes bad

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Thursday 16th November 2017
Tags  Orthorexia   |   Renee McGregor   |   Training Food
You can barely pick up a newspaper these days without being told that some sort of foodstuff will make you healthier or limit your life. There’s so much information, some of it conflicting, and it’s hard to make sense of what a healthy, balanced diet looks like these days, and indeed to decide whose advice to trust.  
For some people, the pursuit of what they believe constitutes a healthy diet becomes an obsession. Certain foods that they deem unhealthy are excluded from the diet, and it can become a compulsion to the point that they feel guilt when they stray from ‘the rules’ and it starts to limit what they eat to a sometimes dangerous degree. The term ‘orthorexia’ has been coined for this form of eating disorder. 
Renee McGregor is a dietician and nutritionist, who has a great deal of experience of working with people with eating disorders. She feels passionately that all these messages about food fads and ‘clean eating’ are harming our health and this important new book is Renee’s attempt to balance out the debate with clear and scientific advice. 
Following a foreword from Bee Wilson, esteemed food writer who has written eloquently about the dangers of ‘clean eating’, Renee opens the book with an anecdote about how plentiful food changed from being a symbol of success in the 18th century to something to be feared in the modern day. It’s a perfect opener. It simultaneously sums up the problem and points out how confused we’ve become. 
Renee then gives a really clear definition of what orthorexia is, and what the underlying psychological aspects are. One of the real strengths of the book is Renee’s clear and comprehensive examination of the topic in a way that’s scientific and backed up with research but intelligible to anyone. This kind of writing is a real skill. It’s also peppered with case studies from her own experience, which really help the reader to understand something of this complex disorder. 
If one of the aims of this book is to debunk the myths that have been peddled about our diet then Renee’s weapon is … common sense! One of the ways she does this in the book is to just explain how our bodies work - the systems and how they use nutrients. This in turn builds an argument for things like why we need carbohydrate as a fuel source and why cutting out an entire food group is rarely a good idea. The most shocking thing that I took from this chapter was that glucose is virtually the only fuel source that your brain can use. As a runner I think so much about how to fuel my body but I should probably consider my brain for everyday life too. 
Renee examines how all of the information, misinformation and diet advice that we’re bombarded with can encourage us to restrict our food intake. For somebody with an orthorexic mindset this can lead on to imposing a strict set of rules on yourself. As Renee puts is: ‘first, the dieter removes red meat. Next, goes poultry and fish. Then, eggs and dairy disappear. Then plant foods need to become ‘whole foods’ … finally, everything has to be unrefined, or sugar free.’. Do you recognise the beginnings of any of this sort of thinking? 
Importantly Renee dedicates chapters to ‘escaping orthorexia’ and ‘embracing the future’. While this isn’t a manual for what to eat she does explain some basic principles, including what she calls the ‘boring and uninspiring’ practice of moderation. She suggests looking at the balance of your diet over a ten day period, not beating yourself up if you don’t eat healthily every day. But she also puts a lot of emphasis on caring for your mind. Orthorexia is a mental illness and you need to get to the underlying causes in order to recover.  Renee gives some guidance about how to get the right professional help for you, and how to maintain your recovery. 
This is such an important book and I would urge you to take a look at it. Parts of the media have fawned over proponents of ‘clean eating’ and quick-fix diets but this book serves to redress the balance with science and common sense. If you’re confused by all the messages about healthy eating, or if you or somebody you know might be displaying some signs or orthorexia, you will benefit from the information and guidance in this book. 

Orthorexia is published by Nourish Books. Find full information here.

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