Friday, July 09, 2010

Orthorexia nervosa

A CORRESPONDENT shared this link to an article: Choosing healthy foods now called a mental disorder. According to the article, people who choose to eat healthy foods are now seen by psychologists as having a mental disorder. On its face, this seems to be absurd: good foods are indeed good.

This article is posted on a healthy eating website, so they are quite upset by this: “Junk food eaters are “normal” and “sane” and “nourished.” But health food eaters are diseased, abnormal and malnourished.”

Orthorexia nervosa is a term coined in 1997 by Colorado physician Steven Bratman, and is a condition of anxiety over healthy eating. The name of this condition is modeled after anorexia nervosa, which is a condition of anxiety over not eating.  But we ought to consider the diagnostic criteria for this purported disorder: “obsessive compulsive disorder” and “modified eating behavior of a qualitative type”.

Let's consider the phrase “modified eating behavior of a qualitative type”, which in this case means a preference for organic, preservative-free, nutrition-rich, not-genetically-modified foods. But it can mean anything: a strong preference for Mexican food, for example. So this diagnostic criterion really tells us nothing. Health-food fans really ought not to worry — unless the powers-that-be start implementing policies to eradicate this so-called menace to society.

Rather, “obsessive compulsive disorder” is the important diagnostic. Attacking health foods is merely an example of the modern scientific mind-set which places great emphasis on the details at the expense of the big picture. The same disorder can express itself in innumerable ways: you may go to four different medical specialists and get four different diagnoses, with each specialist failing to identify the root problem. A clever psychologist could define innumerable conditions ending with nervosa, yet at the root they would all be the same disorder.

According to the Lewis and Short Latin dictionary, scrupulus means “a small sharp or pointed stone”, and if we imagine the sensation of having a scrupulus caught in our sandal, the meaning easily can be extended to “uneasiness, difficulty, trouble, anxiety, doubt, scruple” or a “painfully minute examination, a subtlety”.

From scrupulus we get the English word ‘scrupulosity’. According to medical diagnosticians, scrupulosity is a narrow form of obsessive compulsive disorder regarding religious matters. But according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, scrupulosity is an “unfounded apprehension and consequently unwarranted fear that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not.” Scrupulosity is therefore an unjustified anxiety about sin.

But what is sin? The secular definition of scrupulosity is narrow and misses the point. Sin is “a morally bad act.” Catholicism does not distinguish between private morals and public ethics, nor does it consider morality to be either Divine or human-made positive law — that is, arbitrary law. Rather God is the Supreme Good, and it is in His nature to command what is good: and what is good is amenable to human reason, as seen in the Natural Law, which is morally binding in conscience on all humans, and not just Catholics. (Although we do recognize Divine positive law, such as observing the Sabbath or Lord's Day, but that is not binding on everyone).  Sin therefore includes all the evils which are considered in secular ethics, including the evils of unhealthy foods.

Food is necessary for life, and preserving one's own life is a basic impetus, and so we ought to expect that we have an appetite not just for food, but rather for good food; food which will better promote a flourishing life. So the desire for good food, food that helps oneself and does not harm oneself, is good, commendable, and virtuous. The desire for bad food, food that will objectively harm oneself, is objectively a bad act, and therefore is materially a sin. Human reason — and not a direct Commandment from God — tells us that this is a sin (although this is also a sin against the Commandment “Do not Kill.”)

Making choices is what the will does: we make choices guided from above by our intellect, and from below by our passions, and always according to or against our conscience. The passions tell us that attractive, fragrant, and tasty food is probably good to eat, while our intellect tells us that otherwise undetectable chemicals in food may be bad for us. However, our wills are fallen, and our consciences can be malformed.

The Second Vatican Council specifically teaches us the importance of a well-formed conscience, which is found in virtuous persons.  A person with a dead conscience suffers from the vice of laxity, while a person with an overactive conscience has the vice of scrupulosity. It is our job to form our consciences well: a good conscience is like a broad plateau, and we can reside on various parts of this plateau safely, depending on our state in life and particular duties we may have. We have to avoid the steep sides of the plateau, where one call fall into the pits of either laxity or scrupulosity. We may feel a slight tingling of conscience, and so move a bit closer to the middle, and that is prudent. But an overactive conscience will drive us into the pit of despair of scrupulosity, while a weak conscience will send us down into the pit of grave sin.

Consider this scenario: you are trapped on a desert island.  Undoubtably, rescue will come after a few weeks, and there is plentiful food for survival.  The food however, consists of potato chips, chocolate bars, candy, soda pop, and food from genetically modified sources. What do you do?
  1. Eat the junk food and wait for rescue.
  2. Starve yourself to death, refusing to eat the unhealthy food.
If you choose #2, please consider what healthy food is supposed to do: promote health. You choose death because you are concerned with health? I see a disconnect. Please consider that scrupulosity is an unfounded anxiety“that something is a sin which, as a matter of fact, is not.” The purpose of food is to promote life, and even junk food will do that for at least short periods of time: so in times of necessity, junk food is better than no food. Junk food is good if there is no alternative, and eating it during those occasions is no sin. A scrupulous person will however think themselves to be sinning, when in fact they are not. Consider the possibility that your opinion on junk food may not be correct.

Scrupulous persons tend to turn venial sins into mortal sins, with minor infractions being of great consequence in their mind, and this is a source of great anxiety. Scrupulosity is also recognized by the Rabbis to be a form of idolatry: does a person eat good food because it is healthy, or because they place this lifestyle above greater things? This seems pretty obvious in our example, where a person would rather loose all health instead of eating unhealthy foods.

The ancient Desert Fathers of Egypt, the first Christian monks, were supreme spiritual athletes. They had rigorous fasting from certain types of foods, and would sometimes fast for days on end. But this type of “modified eating behavior” was not an end in itself, rather the monks pursued it to gain virtue out of love for God and their neighbor.

The monks had to use prudence: according to Saint Anthony, “Some wear out their bodies by fasting; because they have no discretion this only puts them further away from God.” Some who suffer from orthorexia are not healthy, because of the anxiety over the food they eat.

Consider also that the monks placed love above their eating habits: even if they were on a severe diet, they would not refuse a hearty dinner if it was offered to them, and they would eat it without complaining or even implying that it was going against their fast. Rather, they showed true gratitude and ate heartily, returning love for love; doing anything less would be a rejection of love. Someone who makes a meal and offers it to you is doing an act of love, and refusing that gift is an offense against them: refusing to eat would be placing your food preference above love.

But what if you worry that some genetically modified food will kill you? Unless you know for a fact that you are severely allergic to some form of food, and decline to eat out of prudence, please consider that it seems that people still live long lives even when eating junk food. Everybody will eventually die, so would you rather die out of love, or live for healthy food and then die unloved? But what if even small amounts of genetically modified food will turn you into a mind-numb robot? Please consider what other people may think of you already.

Good food is good, and everybody ought to have good food.  But scrupulosity about anything is not good. Ultimately, it is easy to preach against laxity, and those who preach about the benefits of good food, and the harm of bad food are in fact preaching a small part of the Gospel. But the scrupulous person is not preaching any good news, but rather is a model of despair, who does not believe they are worthy of mercy and forgiveness.

Click here for a similar article of mine from five years ago on anorexia.

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