Cultural Othorexia: It’s All About What We DON’T Eat

A reductionist, 'denial'-based, prohibitive philosophy is shaping what we do and don't eat.

Steven Bratman M.D. coined the term orthorexia to explain worryingly unhealthy restrictive eating. Essentially, orthorexia is a mental health problem experienced by a minority of individuals in our population, characterised by a deliberate and irrational denial-based, self-punishing relationship with food, based upon a continuously diminishing pool of foods and drinks deemed emotionally and psychologically acceptable to the individual. While this and other forms of mental health is cause for great concern, compassion, care and appropriate professional assistance we are observing that a milder but non-the-less concerning version of cultural orthorexia is playing out in the wider population - the search for healthy eating has become unhealthy.

Cultural orthorexia appears to have entered the general psyche; examples - beyond the individual – abound. Now a large number of people are being serviced by a food industry that is busy excluding; think about the latest fad, the presumed caveman-style Paleo diets excluding dairy, cereal products and a range of processed foods. However we can relax, as it doesn’t seem to require hunting and gathering in the open fields or forests, fighting wild animals or each other, and the need for a continual seasonal migration in order to survive.

Cultural orthorexia is presenting as a reductionist, ‘denial’ and prohibitive philosophy applied to food and the consumption of food. It is evidenced by the Western cultural trends toward exclusion: take out the gluten, banish sugar, eliminate carbs, don’t touch dairy, avoid all processed foods, quinoa but no other grains, a liquid-only diet (cold-pressed juice is de rigueur), no this, no that!

While farmers + food producers feel the heat, people are walking our cities smugly eating in cafes - like this one in near our office in Sydney - that play to this philosophy of denial. 

This café has virtually no food, taste or appetite cues apparent at first glance and you’d be hard pressed to even identify ‘food’ on display. Conversely, the mind is nourished with lots of stories on the wall, ‘philosophies’ of eating, and tons and tons of ingredient and nutrient based information – food is articulated as tables, metrics, words and numbers. Although, it looks like philosophy might not sustain or nourish one alone, but certainly helps to keep things tidy and pared back.

One suspects that a large degree of disassociation and control is required when one chooses to embark on a cultural orthorexic lifestyle. But, cultural orthorexia may be providing

the sword and shield against every kind of anxiety (and there seems to be a lot of them) we are experiencing in developed nations. It’s probably not stretching things too far to say that there’s a degree of status involved – exerting ‘orthorexic’ control over what we consume is a badge proudly displayed to others. What we DON’T eat helps to set us apart rather than what we DO eat.

The Australian Food Pyramid was recently re-launched. It has tweaked a few things yet still promotes balance and a bit of everything. We DO need to eat well (or is that just a highly unfashionable perspective held by us here at Stancombe?), and that old adage ‘everything in moderation’ looks like it may be due for a revival.

On a final note, a recent article in The Independent  struck a strong chord with us. It seems the cultural is now becoming more pathological and the debate around recognising it as a medical condition takes on a new vigour: