Traditional Western-style diets put people at risk of orthorexia nervosa
So, you are working on improving your diet, spending lots of time planning your meals, making sure you only use healthy ingredients. You’re reading a lot about the latest health news, like how certain ingredients can prevent cancer and heart disease. Surely, this effort you are putting in to improve your health must yield good results! What could possibly go wrong?
You may think that nothing can go wrong. You are doing what many other people are doing, their testimonials on social media are clear: It works like a miracle! Surely, if what they are doing were bad for their health, they would have have noticed?
We tend to underestimate the robustness of the human body
Most people tend to think that their bodies are fragile systems. They believe that soon after starting a wrong diet they’ll notice bad results, and that good results imply that the diet is good. But the human body is actually an extremely adaptable, robust system as I’ve explained here. If you eat an unhealthy diet, then your body will compensate for most problems. While eating an unhealthy diet will negatively affect your long term health, this may not make you feel worse on the short term.
This robustness of your body provides for a lot of potential to drift away in the wrong direction. If you later get some complaints, then by that time you may be so convinced that your diet is right, that you’ll end up blaming the complaints on not being strict enough with your new diet.
If you become more strict with your diet,then your complaints may become less, not because the underlying cause is eliminated, but simply due to eating less or eating different foods. This creates the illusion that your diet has cured the problem. But in reality you are now eating an even unhealthier diet and spending a lot more time obsessing over every last detail of your diet.
Many people find themselves in this situation. When this gets to a point where it affects your social life and your health to the point that it affects your general well being, then this is called orthorexia nervosa.
Wrongful assumption of fragility of the human body keeps people trapped on the wrong diet
While the robustness of our bodies can allow one to drift away in the wrong direction, it’s the wrongful assumption of fragility that keeps people there. Pretty much all diets, including even the ones that I advocate for on this blog of the whole food, plant-based type, are often advertised for by misleading fragility arguments.
One of the most pervasive myths about diet is the need to count calories to prevent becoming obese. I’ve explained here why this is nonsense. But, of course, drastically reducing calorie intake will lead to weight loss and this keeps people believing in this myth. The real cause of weight problems is a poor diet. On a poor diet, eating enough calories to not feel hungry, causes us to become too heavy. It’s then the idea that the human body is a poorly designed system prone to weight gain that keeps people to stick to very unhealthy low calorie diets.
Another example is the extremely unhealthy keto diet. People who stick to this diet limit carb intake on the grounds that insulin inhibits fat metabolism. This simplistic reasoning totally ignores that this mechanism is just one tiny part of the entire metabolic system which in its entirety is an extremely robust system.
Healthy diets are not immune from this problem
Unfortunately, diets of the whole food, plant-based type that I’ve also advocated for on this blog, are often promoted based on the same sort of flawed fragility arguments. A well known argument is that fat damages arteries and we therefore need to reduce fat content. This argument is false, recent research has pointed out that dietary fat, even saturated fat, isn’t damaging to the arteries. Nevertheless there are other good reasons to reduce the amount of fat in the diet, as I’ve explained here.
Eating the right sort of diet based on the wrong fragility-type of argument is less of a problem compared to doing the wrong diet. Nevertheless, it will still cause people to focus on the wrong details, so their diets while broadly healthy, will be suboptimal. There will then even be a significant risk of people drifting away into an unhealthy direction.
Eating the right diet based on robustness of the human body prevents orthorexia
On this blog, I’ve approached diet from point of view that the human body is an extremely robust physical system. This differs from the conventional point of view that we need to micromanage the diet, as if the human body is a very fragile system prone to breakdown.
The optimal diet for us, is the diet that our bodies have evolved to eat, which is a whole food, mainly plant-based diet. This evolution happened a long time ago, well before we had any knowledge about calories, carbs, fats, proteins vitamins and minerals. The brains we’ve evolved were used to figure out how best to survive and find food, not to obsess about small details of our diet.
Eating this optimal diet will make us less likely to fall into the orthorexia trap. This is because a whole food, mainly plant-based diet has a very low energy density due to the absence of refined oils and fats. We must therefore eat large volumes of food just to get enough calories. We then almost automatically get more than enough of the essential nutrients.
As I’ve explained here, it does require many months to get gradually adapted to such a diet. But once adapted, the way you’ll be preparing your food and eat involving much larger amounts of food, will make you psychologically much more resistant against obsessing over small details of your diet. You’ll also notice that your body weight does not depend on calorie intake anymore.
No need to worry about occasionally eating unhealthy foods
There is no problem with eating unhealthy foods once in a while during festivities or birthday parties. Nor is there any need to eat less during dinner if you have eaten at fast food in the afternoon. You don’t need to watch your calorie intake, which actually makes your lifestyle healthier as you’ll keep on eating your normal healthy meals regardless of any occasional snacking on junk foods during the day.
You won’t obsess over having eaten junk foods, because you know that the damage done by junk food is not due to the sugars and fats in it. Junk food does damage on the long term for the same reason why the traditional Western-type diets are unhealthy. The fats and sugars are empty calories, the lack of fiber and certain minerals like magnesium and potassium are responsible for adverse health effects.
As I explained here, the body is in fact constantly repairing itself. It is constantly working to build itself, it has to constantly reverse damage done by the environment, including the (healthy) foods it eats. It therefore doesn’t make any sense to consider natural components in our diet like sugars and fats as a sort of poison.
Overall unhealthy lifestyle does the damage, not the occasional Big Mac
Real damage due to such natural compounds can only be done when the self-repair capacity of the human body is undermined. This can only occur as a result of a lifestyle that’s very far removed from the optimum. As I’ve explained here, the ability to respond to perturbations will become less efficient the farther removed we are from the ideal state. So, on a poor diet that doesn’t contain lots of fiber, minerals and vitamins, our bodies will be less good at repairing the damage that is caused by simply being alive.
So, when you are on an optimum whole food, mainly plant-based diet, your body will be much better at repairing itself, and that includes repairing any damage due to eating fast foods. So, there is then no reason at all to worry about occasionally eating fast foods when sticking to this diet for the right reasons.
Conclusion: Orthorexia is the tip of the iceberg
Clearly, orthorexia is a debilitating problem for the people who suffer from it. But the underlying problem is something that almost the entire population of the civilized world is suffering from. A large fraction of the population has body weight problems. Almost 100% of the population has atherosclerosis when they are over the age of 40, while in indigenous populations, this percentage is an order of magnitude lower.
A quarter of the population will end up dying from cardiovascular disease, while in indigenous populations sticking to a whole food diet, this mortality rate is almost zero. We can thus expect lots of health benefits from switching to a whole food, mainly plant-based diet. While such a switch requires quite some effort, doing so will not just improve your physical health, it will also make you far less prone to fall into the trap of orthorexia.
If you want to get help with getting started on such a diet, you can fill in this contact form.