It’s no secret … I like food. There’s not much I’d rather do than cook and eat. And in between to think and read about it. I love recipe books and restaurant guides. I even relish weighty books on the anthropology, psychology and theology of food. But one thing I cannot stomach is a diet book. Reduce food to a regimented system or nutritional table and I’d rather put my head in a microwave.
I have a friend who has made a life choice to live according to a particular diet. And I respect his choice. But I learned long ago that, for the sake of our friendship, I should not eat with him. He’s downright evangelical about his dietary lifestyle and feels compelled to share his faith at every opportunity. For me, the joy of eating turns to nervous anxiety.
Not long ago I read about the advent of ‘orthorexia nervosa’, a rising pathological fixation on eating the right foods (‘ortho’ meaning straight or correct). According to the dietician Steven Bratman, where the bulimic or anorexic focuses on the quantity of food, the orthorexic is obsessed with its quality and the analysis of its nutritional content: ‘All three give food an excessive place in the scheme of life. The transference of all of life’s value into the act of eating makes orthorexia a true disorder.’
Recently an ex-vegan-raw-foodist and ex-evangelist for the Natural Hygiene movement in the US, Ward Nicholson, suggested clear correlations between religious and dietary zealots. ‘Everything you can get out of a theological religion, you can get out of a dietary religion,’ he said; ‘Guilt, redemption, salvation, heroes and heroines to emulate, a supreme end-state perfection to strive for, being one of the chosen, a behavioural morality to judge oneself and others by, a worldview that explains evil—why people become sick and die—and how to conquer that evil. You can even be a guru and save your friends.’
While I’m not suggesting my friend is an orthorexic, if there is such a thing, I do grieve the rising obsession with food as an element of life to be managed rather than enjoyed. Certainly healthy eating is a critical issue for human wellbeing, but I think good eating has much more to do with relationship than it has with rules, systems or calories. A food obsession disconnected from community is just bad news. I reckon.