Last week I learned a new word. I had never come across it before and yet it popped up twice in two days, in two completely different pieces of writing. My New Roots is a healthy food & lifestyle blog I recently discovered and have started to follow. In her latest post the author, Sarah, described her past experiences with an eating disorder called “orthorexia”. I learned that orthorexia is an eating disorder defined by an obsession with eating healthy. Sufferers of orthorexia become fearful of food that they don’t consider to be ‘healthy’ and they display obsessive and anxious behaviours similar to other eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. It’s a pretty new term, apparently coined in 1997, and still not officially recognised by the medical profession. However, in the Listener article I read soon after, it was a dietitian/psychotherapist who referred to orthorexia as something she is encountering more frequently as a result of more and more people opting for restrictive diets (free of gluten, dairy, sugar, etc.). She notes it often starts with good intentions around eating healthier or relieving symptoms of physical discomfort (= me right now).
It got me wondering, “Do I have orthorexia?” I seriously pondered this possibility for a good few days because food and the planning, preparation, and eating of it, really does consume much of my waking life these days. In part because I’m a mum of two children who are too little to make their own food, and I’ve just taken on another mouth to feed in moving in with my father-in-law. But if you’ve been following my blog these past 6 months or so, you will have noticed that I have written quite a bit about how I’ve eliminated coffee/caffeine, sugar, gluten, dairy, and (with a little less commitment) fructose from my own diet. I make almost all our food from raw ingredients, in part for ethical and philosophical reasons, but also so I can control what’s in our food. I’ve been experimenting with nut milk, nut cheese, flour-free crackers, buckwheat porridge, gluten-free dairy-free meatballs, sugar-free fermented ketchup… – my family is getting quite used to the feeling of being guinea pigs! It then occurred to me that my blog posts have become increasingly concerned with food issues and recipes. I never really meant for Mrs Goodness to be all about food and definitely not about the elimination of it because I’ve grown up thinking I could eat anything and everything in moderation and I always believed that this attitude was a healthy and sustainable one (plus, I really love eating good food! It’s one of the joys in my life).
As it happens, all this reflective thinking occurred during the same week I decided to seriously take fructose, some fructans, and cocoa out of my diet. It was a pretty depressing decision for me, and I’m still not very happy about it. I feel like I’m depriving myself of every delicious thing in existence – what yummy food doesn’t have sugar/cocoa/coconut/cashews/onions or garlic in it? (Not all together of course). And I feel very self-conscious about my lunchbox when I sit down to eat in the staff room – it’s not a ‘normal’ lunch inside!
So why am I doing this to myself? Well, I’ll explain why, as succinctly as I possibly can.
I decided to do a hair test to identify food intolerances. My herbalist suggested it at our first meeting about six months’ ago, but I admitted to her then that I thought it was mumbo-jumbo hocus-pocus. To this day, I think that measuring the ‘energy’ from a piece of hair to identify food sensitivities is pretty laughable (and scientists agree). However, after a couple of years of healthy eating and clean living, I still felt like I hadn’t fully resolved my bloating and flatulence issues, and my son’s poos were still loose and excessively frequent. I didn’t want to eliminate nutritious food from our diets unnecessarily and I felt like I couldn’t see a GP about my concerns because they would just laugh at me. My son is a picture of health – he is strong, happy, growing like a weed, eating well, sleeping well. I look pretty radiant myself these days – well, considering I have a 2- and a 4-year-old and I don’t get around to washing my hair nearly as often as I’d like… But, what can I say? It was just a mother’s gut feeling that something still wasn’t quite right. Once upon a time, I would have put it down to neuroticism on my part and let it go, but after two first-hand experiences with newborn babies I confess I now really value my motherly ‘gut feelings’ and I prefer not to ignore them, regardless of what other people (professionals) might think. So I donated samples of Daniel’s and my hair along with my Eftpos card and waited three weeks for the results of our hair tests, thinking “What have I got to lose?”, “You can’t judge something you haven’t tried”, and “OMG what have I done? I just blew all that money on a crock of …”
Three weeks’ later, my herbalist emailed me the results and I have to say I was quite surprised. My results were pretty much exactly what I kinda knew from a hunch but didn’t want to admit to myself: sugar and cocoa being the worst offenders, followed closely by onions and garlic. Dairy and wheat registered as lower irritants but then I haven’t eaten them hardly at all for a good six months, so that was to be expected. My son’s results were very plausible too – a short list (indicating he’s actually doing pretty well) suggesting he’s sensitive to dairy and wheat/gluten (which we kind of suspected already) with just a couple of surprises in linseed and psyllium. (“A-ha!” I thought, “If this were true, that would explain why my GF DF super-healthy seedy crackers always exploded out the other end in undigested chunks.” – Sorry about the TMI. A mother’s train of thought here). Because we’re already gluten-free and dairy-free and it’s working for us, Daniel’s results suggested we didn’t really need to change anything with his diet other than stop feeding him my seedy crackers. It was going to be a low-effort experiment to see if the unscientific hair test could be ‘right’. In my case, the foods I’m supposedly intolerant to indicate I’m really sensitive to fructose and some fructans (if you read my blog post “Fructose and Flatulence” you will see that I sort of knew that already, 🙄). So if I wanted to find out if it was true I would have to stop eating chocolate, all sugars including molasses (!), honey, and coconut sugar (I still have a teeny bit of maple syrup), coconut milk and cream (waaaahhh!!!), onions, and garlic 🙁 . I was very sad about the prospect of even one day without any of those foods and decided I just couldn’t do it. But my curiosity got the better of me, and so I tried it for a couple of days. It took that long for me to realise that I’ve been bloated and uncomfortable for years; it feels like my waistline has shrunk by a dress size! I’ve kept going for almost a week now and I have to say that my body’s gas production has decreased to completely normal levels now. While I feel deprived when I think about what I’m not eating, I still miraculously find yummy food to eat (just not sweet 😢) and the physical comfort I now feel is just too good to mess with. I can teach a full hour-long lesson and not fart in front of the kids, wahoo!!! Having said that, I tucked into a maple sugar-sweetened slice of raw chocolate and raspberry cheesecake in the weekend. It was sooooo worth it! As I said to my husband, “F*** it, life is short and a girl’s gotta eat,” and felt its sweet goodness glide down my oesophagus, I knew for sure I’m not orthorexic just yet. I intend to bring some balanced and more socially-acceptable eating habits back into my life soon, but for now I think my digestive organs appreciate the break I’m giving them.
Although I have quite a controlled, restrictive diet at the moment, my love of food (including food that tastes amazing but makes my gut wince!) has been ingrained into my subconscious so deeply that I don’t believe I am at risk of suffering an eating disorder like orthorexia. However, I’ve decided that I do need to be mindful of where this is going, as well as how my talk and behaviour around food may leave lasting impressions on my kids. My four-year-old daughter already serves me pretend afternoon tea consisting of gluten-free crackers and sugar-free cups of tea… “It’s healthy mummy, so you’ll love it!” she says.
Mrs Goodness is actually about me trying to live a sustainable life and food necessarily plays a bit part in that. Sustainability for me is not just about how I can reduce waste and other negative impacts on the environment, but also about engaging in behaviour that I can sustain for the rest of my life because it promotes physical, mental, and spiritual wellness. As far as food is concerned, my interests still revolve around making and eating nutritious, delicious, and sustainably prepared food. I strongly believe that processed food is still junk food whether it’s gluten-free or not. In removing certain foods from my/our diet, I’m trying really hard to replace them with better food rather than straight substitutes for flavour and/or habits. But I also don’t want to replace unhealthy compulsive behaviour from my past with different un/healthy compulsive behaviour now. For now, my plan to manage this is to keep in regular communication with my herbalist; an objective, professional outsider (as in, not family or friend) who so far has provided me with very reasonable, practical advice, and with whom I can talk candidly about my relationship with food.
PS. Just in case you are wondering about my little boy’s progress, a week after cutting out gluten, dairy, linseeds and psyllium completely, he looks and behaves exactly the same. BUT… yesterday and today he did NORMAL POOS for the first time in his two-and-a-half year life!!!!! Needless to say that my scientist father-in-law who changes nappies most days now that we are living with him is 100% in on this experiment and he agrees that “If it works, it works! End of story 😉.”
For your interest, these are the articles I referred to in this post:
– Blogger Sarah Britton of My New Roots shares her experiences with orthorexia
– Article in the Listener about allergies and intolerance: “I could die if you get this wrong” – August 2017
Please be aware that I’m not a qualified health practitioner and I’m not offering advice for anyone else on how best they should manage their health. I am only sharing with you my own experiences and reflecting on how they have affected me. I encourage everyone to take personal responsibility for their own health by prioritising it, making informed decisions, and building a robust support network.