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Orthorexia Nervosa?

Eating disorder charities are reporting a rise in the number of people who suffer from a condition known as orthorexia nervosa – which derives from the Greek word meaning ‘right’ or ‘correct’. Unlike anorexia, orthorexia is not recognised as a medical term but instead classed as a mental health condition because criteria vary so much from case to case.

Those affected are so obsessed with eating healthily, they often cut out entire food groups such as wheat, dairy or meat, believing it’s good for them. However, it can have a devastating effect on their overall health.

An article from yesterday’s Metro which is beyond satire. It reports on a new ‘mental health condition’ sweeping Britain as an obsession with healthy living leads people towards obsessive eating behaviours which are themselves profoundly unhealthy:

Orthorexia affects both men and women. Sufferers tend to be over 30 but the condition can manifest at a much earlier age. ‘Children learn by copying – and that includes their parents’ eating habits,’ says Jenkins. ‘If parents are setting a poor example, then the same pattern can be reflected in their children.’

Deanne Jade, from the National Centre for Eating Disorders, says the condition is becoming more widespread in modern society because of the pressures put on us to eat ‘healthily’ by writers, nutritionists and health and fitness professionals.

While I’d hope much of this stems from it being oversimplified for a feature in a free newspaper, it nonetheless represents a new (and interesting!) front in the medicalization of human behaviour. In an empirical sense the claim is fairly banal: constant invocations to eat healthily engenders a pathological fixation on the quality of the food that they eat. Who’d have thought it!? What I find interesting about this is the manner in which a fairly obvious claim has been reified into a ‘mental condition’. In a sense it represents the popular medicalizing discourses becoming conscious of their own effects and, rather than calling into question the underlying axioms of this approach to understanding human life, its own lack of theoretical reflexivity leaves it postulating another behaviourally defined and theoretically uncertain pathological category.

In the process what becomes of human freedom? If we fixate on quantity it’s deemed pathological. If we fixate on quality it’s deemed pathological. If we don’t  evaluate our intake of food at all it’s deemed pathological. Basically unless we eat just the right amounts of the right kinds of foods (with ‘right’ being a function of fleeting fashions) then our behaviour is seen as pathological. There’s a profoundly moralistic and intellectually vacuous set of presumptions underlying this (the implicit positive case of ‘healthy’ behaviour drawn through a contrast with behaviours deemed pathological) but if it was stated outright, thus losing its aura of faux scientificity, then no one – at all – would take it seriously.

Lazy journalists, underfunded newspapers/magazines and self-appointed lifestyle gurus have a lot to answer for. Every small act of lazy writing and evaluation adds up to something that, as a whole, is really quite nasty.

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Mark