Orthorexia Nervosa: Can we be TOO mindful about what we eat?

“Your seasoning is mostly self-satisfaction and your drink is mostly fear of all the other food lurking everywhere that is trying to kill you.” – The Terrible Tragedy of a Healthy Eater

Most of what I do is education.  Besides my actual courses in Ayurveda, even my 1-on-1 work is all about learning how body mind and spirit come together and rapping about this with my clients.  My goal is to encourage trust in our innate ability to heal, and though sometimes that’s a slow and subtle change,  it’s so much about learning how to get out of our own way.  Sometimes this means we need to surrender old attachments to what is ‘right’ or even what is ‘healthy’ from outdated or jaded teachings.

We are all individuals.  And this statement is not a cop out.  From my Ayurvedic lens, I can see that we are born with certain physiological tendencies, and then our life experiences exert their own effect on things.  Check out this sweet podcast from my teacher, Cate Stillman, on Ayurveda and Epigenetics – aka changing your genetic expression is possible through changes in diet and lifestyle – like, WHOA.)

These life experiences are going to influence the power of our digestion and our mental state, habits and patterns of reaction, too. So many of us have compromised digestion, and the signs are not always an obviously upset tummy or gas pain.  First disclaimer: *This is not another blog post telling you what’s good or bad to eat. You’re probably perfectly healthy, right now, so don’t worry.*  I want to comment on two things that are interesting to me as an ‘awarenivore’:

1) There is apparently a ‘new’ disorder known as orthorexia nervosa, which is “a proposed eating disorder or mental disorder characterized by an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.”

2) The funny viral blog post called “The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater” which I quoted at the top of this blog post.

“Those crackers – gluten, baby. Gluten is toxic to your intestinal health, I read it on a forum. They should call those crackers Leaky Gut Crisps, that would be more accurate. That veggie burger in the freezer? GMO soy. Basically that’s a Monsanto patty. Did you know soybean oil is an insecticide? And those prawns are fish farmed in Vietnamese sewage pools. I didn’t know about the sewage fish farming when I bought them, though, really I didn’t!

The broccoli, though..that’s ok. I can eat that. Eating that doesn’t make me a terrible person, unless….oh, shit! That broccoli isn’t organic. That means it’s covered with endocrine disrupting pesticides that will make my son sprout breasts. As if adolescence isn’t awkward enough…”

The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater implies that after an ‘online nutrition education’ you’ll think that all of the contents of your fridge are trying to kill you.  Basically, you’ll find what you look for online. If you do a web search for ‘headache’ you’ll find out that you for sure have cancer.  I’m exaggerating only  little bit 😉 and then here I am, adding to the riffraff myself.


Poor food combination?!

So what about Ayurveda?

Is learning about Ayurvedic principles just another way of confusion and stuffing the intellect full of conflicting information? It could be.  Ayurveda has specific rules about what, how and when to eat to best optimize digestion.  Then you come back to discover your body type and metabolic type, and work from there.  It can be a lot.  Though learning about the ‘rules’ is just the beginning, the framework.  At least there is a structure to come back to – not this is good, or this is bad.  Looking at things form the Ayurvedic perspective, every substance can be medicinal, neutral, or poisonous depending on who you are, and how you use it.

The awareness piece comes from self-experimentation, moderation and balance.  I think it’s always useful to learn more about yourself, and then learn to balance the mind, so that there is less tendency for fear and anxiety to start with.  Then when you’re faced with all the choices – cue decision fatigue – you are more able to remain calm, and digest whatever it is you choose to eat, well.  Awareness implies that there is a body of knowledge you’re working with, and able to be present with aka mindful about when you make a decision.  When awareness takes a back seat, after lots of practice, the choices become almost instinctual and are just not that hard anymore. It can take a while to get there.

For example, of course our physiology wants chocolate chip cookies 3 times a day.  Our brains crave sugar, so do our cells.  If we totally overdo it one day, we might get a little physically sick, headache or tummy ache, and maybe at that time our cells will scream ‘no more sugar!’ and we will hear them.  Some of us are more sensitive, some of us might not make the connection, and keep eating the cookies, and keep feeling like crap. Whether we read that sugar is bad for us or not.

The psychology

Here we come to Ayurvedic psychology – this latter person might be considered to have ‘tamasic’ mental tendencies. Tamas is a way to talk about something that is a bit dull, heavy or dense, in the dark or ignorant – as opposed to sattva which is almost the opposite – sensitive, harmonious, clear and pure.  There is one more energy we use to describe the mind, and it’s rajas, which is the action, the transformative and passionate type of energy. Sattva, rajas and tamas are the qualities that can affect the mind.  These are the terms we use in Ayurvedic psychology – so along with a physical constitution, we each have a mental tendency or constitution as well.  And get this, it’s also affected by the food we eat, the people we hang around, the entertainment we choose and our life experiences as well.



The best stuff.

Sattva is the natural state of our mind – which is nice to know.  Our natural tendency – capacity – is one of peace, harmony, calm and stillness.  Many of us experience racing thoughts, crazy dreams or nightmares, fear, anxiety or depression.  This means the mind is in either the rajasic or tamasic states – usually a blend of all three, and changing all the time, but not very calm and stable – which is where I think we would all like to be.

When our mind is influenced by the darker qualities, addictions or compulsive behavior can arise more easily.  This may be a coping mechanism for the mind, perhaps a reaction from undigested life experiences, pain or fear.  Second disclaimer: *I am not trying to say I know what the solution is, or even that I understand this very sensitive subject – I hope you know I’m just working out my thoughts here, ad hope it’s all of interest to you!*

Food is so emotional. It’s connected to our sense of self, of family, of childhood, and relationships.  It’s related to pleasure, and often times there is a deep fear, or even guilt, or being nourished.  This is a bigger topic than this blog post is diving into, but I love these thoughts and questions – they are so important.

I heard an inspiring interview with Bree Greenberg on Vermont Edition (vpr.net) recently, where she was asked when being very conscious about what you eat crosses over into an eating disorder.  Her barometer is this: if you spend more time thinking about your next meal, when to eat or not to eat, than you do other important things in your life, then this is a signifier that this may be crossing the link into a disease.

In the case of orthorexia nervosa, you might take a restrictive diet to a very unhealthy level – say only eating yellow foods, or only food you grow yourself – but to the point where:

“You have a little panic attack at the idea of a sandwich on commercial bread: GMO wheat, HFCS and chemical additive dough conditioners. Some people see Jesus in their toast but you know the only faces in that mix of frankenfood grains and commercial preservatives are Insulin Sensitivity Man and his sidekick, Hormonal Disruption Boy.”

Just as in other eating disorders, there is no balance – there is a lot of fear, control, judgement and attachment.   The rajasic, passionate, active energy or the mind, that creates many thoughts, may be too influential, and causing excessive obsession and criticism, or attachment, tamas. 

What does Balance look like?

To keep the jargon consistent, what can help is increasing sattvic energy for the mind – the natural, balanced state where discernment is easier.  An then, um…it’s individual?  In my experience, change is an ebb and flow.  Sometimes it might seem like there are 2 steps forward, then 1 back.   Or maybe a step back and observe, then 2 steps forward.  Learning about seasonal cleansing has been life-changing for me.  Spending more time with my food, saying a prayer of gratitude, and practicing eating with my full attention on my food is healing.  Learning to operate – to eat – in a relaxed awareness is going to increase sattva.  A relaxed, regular practice of discipline is going to increase sattva. Eating more prana-filled, fresh, whole foods is going to increase sattva.  You might notice here, it’s more about the how right now, than the overwhelming what.

I have been meditating on this idea of ‘suurrender’ and surrendering into discipline – which is really faith.  Shambhala Buddhism talks on this idea a bit, and these are some of my favorite quotes from Chogyam Trungpa:

“When live your life in accordance with basic goodness then you develop natural elegance. Your life can be spacious and relaxed, without having to be sloppy. You can actually let go of your depression and embarrassment about being a human being, and you can cheer up.”

“The result of practicing the discipline of warriorship is that you learn to stop ambition and frivolity, and out of that, you develop a good sense of balance. Balance comes…from making friends with Heaven and Earth. At that point, your discipline becomes delightful rather than being an ordeal or a great demand. … When discipline becomes natural, a part of you, it is very important to learn to let go.

For the warrior, letting go is connected with relaxing within discipline, in order to experience freedom. … Letting go is completely conquering the idea that you have committed, or might like to commit. You have to completely conquer the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with your human nature and that therefore you need discipline to correct your behavior.”

“You have a sense of trust in your own existence.”

‘Nuff said.

Meditation for mental digestion

What is meditation?! I still don’t really know. It’s okay if you don’t know either.  It’s something I started ‘doing’ daily about a year ago (finally!), and there are days where I fall off the wagon, but lately fewer and fewer. I started by just timing myself, and sitting up straight in silence for 5 minutes before I was allowed to check my phone or open my emails – to add more fodder to the fire of the mind.  And as I got my guidance and teachings, it has grown from there into quite a structured practice, from the Kriya yoga tradition.

Meditation starts with concentration, and maybe that is just learning to focus on the breath. Or the heartbeat.  And allow what comes up to come up, and learn to let go.  To surrender.  Letting go, but not letting go into indulgence, falling back into the soft pillow of silence…or the promise of.

The mind ‘eats’ too, all day long.  A short fast is a way to increase digestion, and a short mental fast – mediation – will help you digest all your mental/sensory experiences – from today or yesterday, or from 20 years ago, perhaps.  Taking a short dip into sattva every morning (at first it might be more like a waterfall of thoughts/rajas…a mental dumping!)  can shift your psychology.  Maybe this seems woo woo, but guess you’ve got to try it to disbelieve it? Right?

Thanks for being here.

Love, Adena


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