Living in 21st Century America, we suffer not from health ignorance, but from near drowning in endless lists of foods to avoid, eat or replace. This sheer overabundance of dietary information may have created a new illness. It was bound to happen.
Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.
Most of us have heard many times about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, or a plant-based/vegan diet. That is all good information and is based on strong science. Processed foods, especially meat, have been a recent target of many health and nutrition articles. Organic food occupies more and more shelf space at the grocery store. Everybody thinks less exposure to chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics) in our food can only help.
Now they want us to eat raw food, so that cooking does not reduce the vitamin and antioxidant content. You can go down this road as far as you like.
Some of us have Herculean willpower and go quite far down the road. A few will spend hours planning every dietary choice, including the sourcing, storage and the ideal timing of every morsel of food consumed. In the pursuit of ever-purer food – organic, small crop, not genetically modified, fresh and uncontaminated – you can run out of things to eat.
There is usually some underlying psychopathology going on that is driving the individual to become their perfect self. This is a sister problem to anorexia – another disorder of self-image. The endpoint can look a lot like anorexia: extreme wasting.
We can all relate to the challenges of constant diet and health advice. It might even make us wonder why so much of this seemingly good advice doesn’t work. I seem to be aging despite supplements, vitamins and assorted antioxidant-rich food.
The problem is in the way most health information is presented on the Internet. There is no context, and no attempt to tell the bigger story.
For example, you may read a headline that says, “Eat these three antioxidant powerhouse foods and change your life.” What follows is a brief description of the antioxidants in blueberries, walnuts and almonds. Superfoods they are, but they will not neutralize the harm from a big, greasy cheeseburger and fries or a pack of cigarettes. In fact, the whole benefit from antioxidant foods remains largely theoretical (meaning it’s unproven). If you tried to live on only blueberries, walnuts and almonds, you would not live very long. You might not die a cancer death, but there would be serious danger of starvation.
So far most diet, supplement, and similar programs are almost always actually reducing, or hoping to reduce, the chance of an early death, as opposed to changing genetically hard-wired lifespans (approximately 80 years). When people read these wildly optimistic claims, they assume their eight decades is a given; and this or that food, supplement, mantra or mental exercise will add dramatically to their baseline 80-year lifespan.
Balance in the approach to health, like so many other areas, is crucial. You cannot expect to focus all your attention on one thing and stay healthy. Rather, spend some effort exercising, eating carefully, maintaining mental health and avoiding smoking (and driving while intoxicated). Then, you’ll have a good chance of getting old more or less graciously.
Donald Bucklin, MD (Dr. B) is a Regional Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks and has been practicing clinical occupational medicine for more than 25 years. Dr. B. works in our Scottsdale, Arizona clinic.
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