Sunday 17 December 2017

Katie Byrne... vices and virtues

Can we be addicted to healthy eating?

Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Irish Independent features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle blog Goop recently posted an article entitled 'Why We Are All Addicts'. The piece is written by psychotherapist Carder Stout and it explores some of the less talked about modern-day addictions, including work, technology and fitness.

Stout's piece speaks to those who feel empty when they aren't stroking their iPhone screen like a security blanket, just as it speaks to those who need a double espresso to mobilise their basic motor skills in the morning.

It's also a reminder that the source of our addiction doesn't always have to be material or tangible. We can become addicted to people - which is otherwise known as co-dependence - just as we can become addicted to negative thoughts.

My mother always says that "addiction is very patient". It's also very adaptable. We've all seen people swap one addiction for another - albeit healthier - addiction. Think of the ex-raver who now sweats it out every weekend in the gym, satisfying his 'macho ingestion syndrome' by triple-dropping L-glutamine.

Likewise, we all know Alcoholics Anonymous members that get twitchy when they can't get to a meeting. I don't want to undermine AA - it's a powerful support system - but I know people who can't function without the daily ritual of the circle, despite being sober for decades.

Stout's article traversed many of the seemingly innocuous habits we can develop, yet it didn't dwell for too long on the idea that we can become addicted to the very lifestyle evangelised in Goop.

The uber-healthy kale and kombucha ethos is considered to be the antidote to a life of excess. But, actually, the virtuous lifestyle can become as excessive as any vice.

Coconut oil is the gateway drug. And don't be fooled - health shops don't give you the first hit for free. On the contrary, everything costs three times the price of a supermarket.

Once you've tried the coconut oil, you'll start seeking out the harder stuff. Stevia. Raw cacao nibs. Freekeh (it's the new quinoa, don't you know). Eventually your addiction spirals into the purchase of a spiralizer.

Soon anything containing wheat, dairy or sugar is anathematised and people who eat hot chicken rolls for their lunch are quietly judged.

You become compelled to tell your work colleagues about the date truffles (no added sugar!) you made at the weekend and you get a dopamine rush when you see an article with 'Ayurveda' in the headline.

This food fanaticism is more pronounced in the States where Whole Foods is an institution and the term orthorexia (an obsession with healthy foods) is fast gaining ground. Elsewhere, TV health guru Dr Oz recently posted an article entitled 'Four Week Plan to Break Free of Supplements'. Often this type of diet is coupled with a militant exercise plan. It should be added that even yoga can become addictive, in particular the schools of Ashtanga and Bikram.

I am a yoga addict. Like the AA member who gets twitchy when he can't find a meeting, I get anxious when I can't find a yoga studio while on holiday. I'm convinced that there is a relationship between hedonism and asceticism. Generally, the further the pendulum swings to the left, the further it will swing to the right.

I once visited a health shop with an old friend. We were both of the 'more is more' approach during our wilder days. These days we swap yoga tutorials and recipes for pomegranate jam.

Anyway, we both bought spirulina (a nutritious algae) tablets before going our separate ways. I got a text a few hours later: "Can you overdose on spirulina - I've taken 15?" I could categorically confirm that you couldn't, for I had already swallowed 20.

Granted, our spirulina habit will never require an intervention; kale doesn't destroy families and Bolivian chia seed farmers aren't fuelling an illicit trade.

But still, it's wise to remember that this lifestyle can become very obsessive very quickly.

There is often a disproportionate feeling of guilt when one "relapses" and the logical fallacies of addiction become evident too.

White bread is maligned as "evil"; sugar is compared to heroin. Yes, the former most definitely makes one feel lethargic and the latter is certainly addictive, but the sky isn't going to fall in if you indulge every now and again.

I've gone through extremist phases of eating buckwheat and almond milk for breakfast. Indeed, I once refused dessert at a dinner party because I was "off dairy" (this declaration elicited more than one eye-roll).

Nowadays, I'm of the belief that an occasional chip butty enjoyed in that rare state of joyous, guilt-free abandon does more good than a superfood salad eaten in the spirit of deprivation.

Health food enthusiasts might argue that they are addicted to feeling good, but in my experience, there was always a niggling feeling that the uber-healthy diet was never good enough.

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