There are websites - very popular wesbites - that exist to do one thing. They exist to give people - mostly young women - advice on how to starve themselves to death. These pro-anorexia websites give advice on how to hide the fact that you're not eating, on how to be as thin as it's possible to be. They glorify images of skeletal women's bodies. They are famine fetish sites, basically. So, in the same way that something like boys-pissing.com sexualises images of young men taking a wazz on each other, these pro-anorexia websites sexualise and glorify images of young women who are literally wasted away - walking, breathing but barely living corpses.
Now this is very shocking, isn't it? That mediums exist to promote eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia nervosa. But here's something that I personally find even more shocking - a prime time Channel 4 show exists that does exactly the same thing. The eating disorder it promotes is Orthorexia, but it's presented as something healthy and positive, as a disorder that it's definitely desirable to have. But nothing could be further from the truth - Orthorexia is a dangerous disease and is on the rise. The fact that it is on the rise is due in no small measure to the TV show You Are What You Eat and to other similar fads.
So what IS Orthorexia? It's an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Unlike the related anorexia, sufferers are concerned not with quantity but with quality. It's not about feeling fat, but about feeling pure.
Orthorexics exhibit an over-enthusiasm for pure eating and healthy food. In moderation, of course, this can be beneficial. In extremis, however, malnutrition, extreme weight loss and even death can result.
How do you know if you have it? Well, that's easy. If you are fixated on the purity and healthful benefits of the food you eat more than on the pleasure you derive from eating it then you are, to one degree or another, orthorexic.
Now, I have to be careful what I say about the programme You Are What You Eat or its host Gillian McKeith. A blogger who dared to criticise the stuff that is peddled by McKeith in the show received, not so long ago, a letter from McKeith's lawyers threatening her with legal action. So let me stick to the facts and then I will move on to what I believe the cure for orthorexia is.Firstly, McKeith is not a doctor. In fact, the Advertising Standards Authority have ruled that it is against the law for her to describe herself as such. So she doesn't anymore. Secondly, some of the science she talks about in the series is blatantly ludicrous. For example, she states that the chlorophyll in plants oxygenate the body when you eat them. This is bollocks, frankly. Plants need light in order to transform chlorophyll into oxygen. There isn't a great deal of light in the human intestine. Even if there was, you wouldn't want to be producing oxygen down there since methane and oxygen are an explosive combination and you would basically be producing farts capable of blowing you up. She maintains things like the idea that flax seeds produce more omega fatty acids than fish. This is true, but you should try eating enough flax seeds that you would need to get as many of those fatty acids than you would get from half a pound of mackerel, which would be relatively easy to do. In the past, she has also done things like feelings people's stomachs in order to ascertain the health of their bowels. She doesn't do that anymore - maybe someone pointed out to her that you can no more tell the state of a fat man's bowels by feeling his stomach than you can work out the contents of his porn stash by sitting on his bed.
But I have an even more fundamental objection to McKeith's approach - and that it is that it is horrendously neo-liberal and right wing. If people are fat and die young then it because they are lazy, they have lived badly and have only themselves to blame. Never mind the fact that study after study has found that by far the overriding factor in early mortality rates is poverty. If you are poor then you will die younger than someone who isn't. And, yes, eating more fruit and veg will make you live longer, but it cannot and does not make your life expectancy the same as someone who does not live in poverty. This is a fact. So when McKeith lambasts and criticises and abuses her victims on You Are What You Eat, the chances are she is treating some of the more vulnerable members of our community in that way. I don't like that.
The reason that people have unhealthy diets is NOT because they eat red meat and dairy products and drink alcohol. Look at French people - they consume more of those things than any other people in the world, and yet obesity rates in France are remarkably low. In fact, this has come to be known as The French Paradox, but it isn't really a paradox at all. The fact is that French poeple sensually enjoy their food - the treat it reverently, they take their time on it and they concentrate on quality rather than quantity. They are the living, breathing proof of the fact that the maxim "everything in moderation" does, indeed, hold true. I touched on this in my previous post called Make Mine A Skinny Decaff Latte, so read that for a little more on The French Paradox.
Now here's something that may startle you and that you may find difficult to accept at first. The fact is that all this healthy eating talk of the type that Gillian McKeith espouses is actually just another form of capitalist hegemony. That's right - capitalist hegemony. I'll tell you below what I think healthy eating actually is, but let me say now that the type of healthy eating I believe in does not satisfy capitalists at all. They want to sell you Quinoa and soya milk and low fat, no dairy milkshakes because they make a hell of a lot more money from that than they do from anything else. If you go to Tesco and buy the ingredients to make an absolutely kick ass lasagne al forno, Tesco don't actually make that much profit from you. But if you buy a Tesco Finest lasagne you'll be eating something vastly inferior but Tesco will be laughing all the way to the bank. Don't let them get away with it - you'll find that you will be so much healthier in your mind, your body and your bank balance.
So how do you eat healthily? It's really easy and there are only five things you have to bear in mind - so much simpler than the big ring binder full of commandments that McKeith's victims are provided with.
1. Eat proper food. That is to say, food, not products. The way to do this is to not buy anything with more than five ingredients or with ingredients you can't pronounce and don't buy anything that someone 100 years ago would not recognise as food.
2. Eat less. By that, I mean concentrate on quality rather than quality. Buy organic rather than factory farmed meat - it will cost more, so you won't be able to buy as much, but that will be more than made up for by the way that it tastes.
3. Leaves are good for you. Eat loads of leaves because they're nutritious and cheap and they will never make you fat.
4. Don't eat anything that makes a health claim. If it makes a health claim then it's probably prepackaged and it's certainly messed around with. It's so much better for you to eat less of a really good strong cheddar cheese than it is to eat more of a reduced fat, reduced flavour version. Remember - for years people were eschewing butter for margarines that they were told were a healthy alternative. It turns out that these margarines contained transfats that turned out to be one of the most dangerous things for your health that it is possible to eat.
5. Enjoy food. Savour it, make it an occasion. Sit down somewhere other than at your desk to eat, and try to share as many of your meals as you can with someone else. If you can't do that, love yourself enough to take time and care to prepare food for yourself that is delicious and life affirming. Do not think of food as fuel, think of it as a sensual pleasure, like sex or art or music. It's THAT important!
That's it. It's that simple. Don't fall into the Orthorexia trap and don't go believing that food is something to be controlled and to be ashamed of.
And don't ,whatever you do, listen to Gillian McKeith. Here's why.