Is your healthy diet a danger?
Celebrities such as Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow have embraced the ultimate in clean living, allowing only the healthiest of food to pass their lips -- but experts are now saying that it's possible to be too healthy. Tanya Sweeney looks at the rise of 'orthorexia'
Published 14/08/2010 | 05:00
Never let it be said that Madonna is a woman who does things by halves. According to her personal trainer, Tracy Anderson, the 52-year-old does four workouts each day, combining jogging, Pilates and biking.
Exercising at the 'calorie-prone' moments of the day, Madonna works out in the morning, between breakfast and lunch, and in the afternoon. The self-confessed fitness freak also reportedly bought the house next to her own in London's Mayfair and transformed the entire building into her own personal gym. She is religious about her diet and eats only vegan, macrobiotic, organic food.
Elsewhere in the celebrity eco-system, the dogged devotion to health and wellbeing continues apace.
A self-confessed fan of 'strict discipline', Victoria Beckham allegedly champions a diet comprised mainly of lettuce, strawberries, peppermint tea and edamame soy beans. Breakfast consists of a protein bar or shake, while lunch is a grilled chicken breast and glass of kale juice. An afternoon snack of almonds or organic fermented tea is followed by Anderson's "super-low calorie" turkey kale soup for dinner.
She is possibly influenced by new BFF Gwyneth Paltrow, who works out six times a week and also trains with Anderson, and who began following a macrobiotic diet -- which includes unprocessed vegan foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables in specific proportions and allows the occasional consumption of fish -- in 1999.
She took a break between 2003 and 2006 while having her children, Apple (now six) and Moses (now four). However, 37-year-old Paltrow's recent diagnosis of osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis -- a bone disease that can lead to increased risk of fractures -- caused speculation as to whether her excessive exercise and strict diet was the cause.
In an interview for the August issue of Vogue to promote a new cookbook, which features such 'normal' recipes as French fries, corn chowder and pizza, she admitted that she does diet extremely in preparation for movies and events -- to slim down and rock the Armani shorts at the Iron Man 2 premiere, she lived on kale and chicken breast -- but said that between jobs she eats "liberally". It has also been reported that she has warned Victoria to be careful of her extreme dieting.
Whether or not Gwynnie has it all under control, and it looks as if she does, there is mounting evidence in the case against extreme health -- that too much of a good thing can be very, very bad for you.
So far, so typical in the looking-glass world of celebrity, yet these bizarre, extreme trends are already filtering into civilian society. "I was a bit of a takeaway fiend, so I decided to eliminate processed foods when I felt sluggish and bloated," says Grace, a 32-year-old PR executive from Drumcondra. "It really worked and I lost about a stone in around four weeks. Then I cut out the other stuff that's meant to be bad for you -- flour, refined carbs, sugar -- and switched from dairy to soy.
"It was hard in the beginning as Ireland isn't the easiest place to eat healthily in, but with a bit of planning it came together quite easily. There are lots of raw fruit and veggies in my diet now, and some fish and soy products.
"If you want to know the truth, I enjoy the element of discipline involved. I'm playing by the rules. It makes me feel like I'm on top of my own life. Socialising can be difficult," concedes Grace. "I tend not to eat out with people, as there's just too much ribbing involved. And I feel too guilty if I let slip in front of someone."
It's worth pointing out that Grace is 5ft 7in and a size eight, with a view to dropping another half-stone in the coming months.
Naturally, some questions loom large: where does healthy eating end and an unhealthy obsession begin? In a world where the perfectionist likes of Paltrow and Beckham set the bar vertiginously high, what are the knock-on effects for mere mortals? Is this just an extreme reaction to rampant media scaremongering?
Before 'extreme diet' headlines became less the exception and more the rule, Grace's highly restrictive diet might well have been regarded as obsessional.
Such is the theory put forward by Dr Steven Bratman, who coined the term 'orthorexia' (derived from the Greek orthos, meaning 'correct', and orexia, meaning 'appetite') in his book Health Food Junkies (1997). The condition, although it isn't officially recognised as a psychiatric disorder, features behaviours familiar to professionals who deal with eating disorders.
Rather than obsess with counting calories or staying thin, orthorexics -- dubbed sufferers of 'the healthy-eating disorder' -- are hell bent on following what they perceive to be a perfectly healthy diet. Orthorexics would often rather starve than eat something not seen as 'pure'.
Unlike with anorexics, the emphasis is on quality rather than quantity. In fact, weight loss and orthorexia aren't even mutually exclusive. Some even argue that raw food diets, organic living and even veganism, all shorthand for a purer and more holistic way of life, are a front for orthorexia.
"Orthorexia would really describe an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating," explains nutritionist Aveen Bannon of the Dublin Nutrition Centre. "People can be aware of healthy eating and still enjoy occasional treats, but with orthorexia healthy eating is a must or, more accurately, an obsession. It can begin with a focus on healthy eating, herbal remedies, vitamin supplements and some food avoidance. Often, quality of life decreases as the quality of the diet increases."
Perhaps significantly, orthorexia is not strictly the sole preserve of ambitious perfectionists as found on the A-list, though it is largely a middle-class phenomenon with a higher age profile than other eating disorders.
It can be read as a backlash against the crappy diets we have been eating for so long, proof that we have totally lost all perspective on our relationship with food -- a concern that has been created and propounded by the many food gurus that dominate our book shelves and TV screens.
"Although it is not always recognised as an eating disorder, often sufferers might show signs of OCD. There is a lot more information readily available to people now about healthy eating and headlines can influence people's food choices, but it is more complex than media influences."
As with any addictive behaviour, shades of orthorexia vary. Cutting out entire food groups is one thing, but it's a condition that can quickly take over sufferers' lives, causing extreme anxiety and isolation. Everyday pleasures and activities take a backseat to the quest for the perfect diet.