Tuesday 12 December 2017

From deity to dietary: how new Puritanism is putting us off our food

Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey

Dr Marie Murray

We can't get enough of it. Bookshop shelves are groaning under the weight of self-help, diet, fitness, mental health and well-being books. What's not on the shelves is on screen, TV schedules are loaded with penitential programmes for mental restoration, physical recuperation, life-style transformation, and death-defying diets to challenge every diagnosis from flatulence to fatality.

The addiction to self-help books and programmes has been highlighted by SHAM, the Self-Help and Actualisation Movement, which challenges the self-help industry and its potentially corrosive effects on those who mindlessly follow its doctrines. Certainly, there are self-styled gurus out there who have piggy-backed on human misery for material gain. The multimillion weight-loss industry is one example of how much people are seeking dietary advice. If one tweet from Oprah Winfrey, the Queen of Empowerment herself, could turn the world of those who watch their weight in a spin, then we have some idea of just how vulnerable we are to suggestion and how concerned we are with what we eat. Our new faith is food.

We have become obsessed with mindfulness, preoccupied by nutrition, by physical fitness, sexual prowess, psychological hardiness and punishing exercise routines to the point where we have to ask why we have these obsessions with health, sex, success, and exercise? Why are people so hard on themselves? Where are those who would dare to down a doughnut without guilt? Who would confess to a croissant smothered in chocolate topped with cream? Would you give in to the sin of sugar? What about the dreaded bread? It's a strange world we live in when we must monitor every morsel we eat and our new gluttony is abstaining. We are addicted to diets: a weird relationship for a 'famine' people to have with food.

Is this obsession with food a new religion; a secular search for community, for meaning and purpose in a material world? Have we replaced deity with dietary in a world that is increasingly pointless and profane?

There are certainly signs that we may be doing so. Orthorexia nervosa refers to an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating and while not formally registered as a clinical diagnosis, there is increased international attention to fixations on health food and those who are compulsively consumed the purity of what they eat.

Among the symptoms of orthorexia nervosa are also the quest for control, escape from fear and the search for spirituality through food. It would seem that this penitential self-imposed health food regime reflects all the anxiety and angst of our time and displaces it on to food. The Last Supper is now no supper, and there is a hunger for something to feed the soul in a secular world.

But there is an irony to this new religion of dietary Puritanism where the high priests of consumption are as harsh as any penance ever was, with weight-loss retreats, boot camps of fasting, abstinence, avoidance and restraint.

Whereas in the past we may have trudged our way to the island retreat of Lough Derg for penitential purposes to walk barefoot on the stones with a diet of dried bread and black tea, we now walk the Camino de Santiago for fitness sake or fork out for a juice retreat away from food temptation. The old penitential exercises have been replaced with boot-camps, Lough Derg without the kneeling, because, somehow, the yearning for restraint, for connection, for meaning and meditation remain.

While we once crept into the confessional to be cleansed of sin; colonic irrigation now purges us of all excess and seaweed ablutions substitute for absolution. There was a time when Lent provided all the detox, deprivation, delayed gratification and meditation we required that we now must seek elsewhere.

One explanation for our obsession with health programmes may be that in a secular world, when we must go it alone without an unconditional loving deity, dietary information and self-help movements offer connection, community, consolation, and control. Without a 'creator', we must create celebrity. Celebrity provides something to follow and believe in, something to have faith in that can transform you.

We read the self-help books and watch the programmes to know that we are not alone in our misery, in our trials, in our struggles, in our anxieties, in our loneliness, in our lives. What psychology, psychotherapy, self-help programmes, interventions, and transformations offer is 'hope'. Ever since Dale Carnegie wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People, self-help knowledge has given people hope. It has given hope of change, of overcoming problems, of achieving success, of altering lifestyle, of transforming the home, of improving relationships, of acquiring a new body, of a slim, trimmed fit physique and a new life; something to have faith in, a new belief.

Dr Marie Murray is a clinical psychologist. She will be speaking at the Irish Heart Foundation Conference today in Croke Park on Coping with Bereavement; @drmariemurray

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