Orthorexia, The Eating Disorder Of The Health Obsessed

Orthorexia is to eating right what anorexia is to eating less. It's the condition of imposing such stringent control over one's diet, insisting on eating only healthy or organic food, and it is becoming a health concern in developed nation

Orthorexia, a gateway to eating disorders.

BUENOS AIRES â€" When healthy eating becomes an obsession, it's known as "orthorexia." It affects almost a third of people in advanced countries, and is certainly no stranger here in Argentina, where we have embraced Western values and have a penchant for neurosis.

There's a difference between people who decide to eat healthier and those who turn healthy eating into a life project. The first lot can go to a backyard barbecue, for example, and take their own vegetables to cook over the fire without getting upset about what others are eating or trying to preach to them. But the orthorexia folks obsessively investigate the source and composition of every food, and spend vast amounts of time planning meals. They regard anything with fat, artificial components or preservatives as poison and impose the strictest diets on themselves, refusing to consume anything that isn't "healthy."

The World Health Organization says orthorexia affects three in 10 people in developed countries, where food tribes are proliferating and where veganism is no longer for hippies or anorexics, but instead a gateway to eating disorders.

"With high obesity figures and the constant media bombardment about healthy foods, we see in most cases how orthorexia begins with picking healthy foods," says Marcela Leal, who teaches nutrition at Maimónides University in Buenos Aires. She says that in some cases, "eating healthy becomes so important it becomes an obsession."

What do these people consider to be poisonous foods? Leal says they won't eat foods that have genetically modified organisms (GMOs), artificial substances or pesticides. "Generally, orthorexic people have the misconception that they can prevent all types of disease with just a healthy diet."

Psychologist Marcelo Bregua describes some of their patterns of conduct. "They have increasingly strict rules and spend a lot of time on thinking how they can implement their self-imposed diet plan. The problem is very few people seek help because they don't see this as sick behavior but quite to the contrary, as healthy conduct."

He says some of the patients who attend his therapy group ALUBA, which tackles eating disorders, have said they have fasted when they could not find suppliers of their organic or non-GMO foods. "For example, we treated a man who stopped eating for three days because his supplier was not open," he says.

That's why orthorexia is sometimes seen as a kind of "hidden anorexia." Bregua says people with these disorders share the same control fixation. "If their will power fails, they might impose on themselves a strict penalty or an even more detailed eating plan," he says. Or as Leal puts it, while bulimia and anorexia focus on food quantities, orthorexia "does the same with food quality."

Nutritionist Mónica Katz describes orthorexic people as those who are obsessed with everything that is clean, pure, natural and organic. "They are uncomfortable with people who don't eat like them and can isolate themselves when anything takes them away from their clean, pure and natural dieting," she says. Pleasure, it goes without saying, isn't a key part of their decision-making.

In fact, Leal adds, isolation is one of the danger signs. Additionally, they eat "in the strangest ways, as they eat alone to avoid criticism."

But what's so wrong with eliminating certain foods deemed to be unhealthy? The problem, says nutritionist and physican Silvio Schraier, is that with this perspective, many more, healthy foods are also eliminated. "Removing meats leads to anemia due to iron and Vitamin B12 deficiency," he says. "Not consuming dairy products creates a calcium shortage and can weaken bones or make them brittle."

Leal says orthorexic people often suffer from "a significant loss of body fat and muscle mass, and attain a very low body fat percentage, less than 18, which is similar to anorexics." Excluding salt and sugar from their diets, she adds, can create tension and heart problems.

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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