Saturday, April 18, 2015

Can Eating Right Be Wrong? My "Clean-Eating" Journey.


I heard an interesting segment on CBC radio one morning a few months ago. Anna Maria Tremanti, the host of "The Current," was interviewing Dr. Steven Bratman, along with psychology professor Thom Dunn and registered dieticians Casey Berglund and Mélanie Olivier, about a "possible new eating disorder" called orthorexia nervosa. You can listen to that interview here if you like.


CBC's The Current, story on Orthorexia Nervosa
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Described as an obsession with "extreme clean eating" or "a passion for eating right that goes terribly wrong," orthorexia nervosa was initially identified by Dr Steven Bratman in1996. Unlike those with anorexia, orthorexia sufferers don't stop eating; they're not hungry, but they have narrowed their food choices to such an extent that they can die of malnutrition because they aren't getting enough nutrients. Sufferers become obsessed with "clean eating," and in their quest to achieve "diet perfection," they become so fearful of food "toxins" and "poisons" that they continually exclude foods from their diet, foods that they need to live. 

Okay. I know. Why should we care about a disease that is so totally a first world condition? Only people who have enough to eat to begin with can afford to worry about which foods they put in their mouths, right? I concede that. But I just found this phenomenon really interesting. And sad.

Because... holy cow (pun intended)... society has become obsessed with food, hasn't it? And with diets. We're bombarded with information on everything from the Paleo diet at one end of the spectrum...


paleo diet food choices
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... to the raw vegan diet on the other.

Raw vegan food pyramid
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And everything possible in between. It's no wonder we're confused about what exactly IS healthy eating. When every celebrity who has tried a new diet writes a book about their experience, and then hits the talk show circuit as a newly-hatched food "expert." When we are deluged with media stories about food fads that go out of style the next year, or are eventually discovered to be not good for us, but bad. When scientific research into nutrition is mis-reported or superficially reported to create a sexy sound-bite or headline. How are we to figure out what is fact and what is fantasy?

As an English teacher who for many years taught kids to analyze language patterns in poetry and prose... I couldn't help but do it myself when I was researching this post. I mean.... it seems that food is either described as "clean", "super," and "perfect," or "contaminated," poisonous," and "toxic." We are exhorted to "eat clean" and, if we don't, we need to "detoxify" or "cleanse" our bodies. That's some pretty loaded language, people. In my trawl through the internet, I found numerous references to the raw food cleanse, the juice cleanse, even the paleo cleanse. One blogger who was about to embark on a twenty-one day juice cleanse remarked: "after thirty years of putting toxins in my bod, how can 21 days be enough?" How I wish I could hook that blogger up with the writer of this article, on the Mayo Clinic website, who pointed out that our kidneys and liver are naturally designed to cleanse our bodies of toxins. And warned that detoxing diets can have side-effects like bloating, cramps, nausea, vomiting and dehydration. Hmmm. So, at best, detox regimes or cleanses are unnecessary, and at worst, harmful. Really, there is so much hyperbole and misinformation about diet and nutrition, it's a wonder we aren't all suffering from orthorexia. 

I got caught up in a dizzying deluge of diet and nutrition information a few years ago. Shortly after I retired, my apparently healthy and very active husband was unexpectedly diagnosed with a major heart blockage. He had none of the risk factors, so his symptoms were initially dismissed as respiratory issues, the residual symptoms of a severe cold. Then, thank goodness, he had a stress test, just as a precaution. Followed closely by open-heart bypass surgery. 

We had always lived an active and healthy lifestyle. But after Hubby's diagnosis, let's just say that I went into research overdrive. What could we do to perfect our diet? I read about plant-based diets, Mediterranean diets, good fats, bad fats, long-chain fatty acids, medium-chain fatty acids, antioxidants, salt, sugar, cholesterol, plaque, arterial inflammation. You name it, I read about it, stressed over it, and ultimately became totally confused. It wasn't until we attended a "Healthy Eating" workshop at the Ottawa Heart Institute after Hubby's surgery, that I gained some perspective. The dietitian, Kathleen Turner, was wonderful. Informed and very informative. She'd read all the newest books (like Wheat Belly, a good read but not science based, she said), and she'd heard about all the latest scientific developments (why coconut oil might be good for you, for example.) And she told me that if I tried to micromanage our diet I would drive myself crazy. She simplified for me what I had been trying to figure out in my haze of anxiety and fear and information overload.

Hubby and I each took notes at the workshop, and then at home we compiled them into our own "Ten Point Plan" which we posted on the fridge door. It involved lots of Kathleen's good advice. Like eat fruit or veg with every meal. Try for 7-10 servings of fruit and vegetables every day. Go salt free, as much as possible. Eat red meat once a week. And a bunch of other stuff I won't go into. Mostly I remember her calm advice that we should eat fresh, whole food, prepared at home. Make very healthy choices 80% of the time. And once in a while to treat ourselves. Okay, we could do that. And I could breathe again. I hadn't realized until that day how I had been trying to control the situation by finding the key, the answer, the one thing that we had been eating that had made Hubby ill. 

We've been following our new plan for over two years now. And I'm happy to say that Hubby's cardiologist reported that his "numbers," according to his latest stress test and blood work, are excellent. 


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But let's get back to Anna Maria Tremanti's story on "The Current." As well as looking at orthorexia nervosa, she and her guests discussed some of the claims of popular nutrition "experts" (like blogger Vani Hari, otherwise know as "Food Babe.") And, you know, what really makes me angry is the hypocrisy of these purveyors of so-called healthy diet plans and products. They damn the greedy food industry for making us sick... post fear-mongering videos on their websites... and then ask us to trust them instead.... for a price, that is. And to buy their book or their diet plan, or their super-detox-juice-cleanse-supplement-whatever. 

Isn't it ironic that in this world of ever increasing obesity, and unhealthy eating, people are getting sick because they're trying too hard to be healthy? You see, I think the point of  that story on "The Current," was not to discourage healthy eating. But to advise moderation, balance, and a healthy skepticism for the quick fix. And to make us aware that all this food and diet hyperbole can have terribly negative effects on some people who only want to be healthy. 

See this dish below? It's called "Full English Breakfast Poutine." Yep. A combination of that Canadian delicacy poutine (french fries, topped with cheese curds and smothered in gravy.) And if that wouldn't give you a heart attack just looking at it. They added baked beans, bacon and a fried egg. Yep...there really are foods out there that can kill you. And that's no hyperbole. 

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Have you ever been caught up in trying too hard to eat right?




20 comments:

  1. I really like reading your thoughts on this. I'm the "Gwyneth" among all of my friends; I don't let my child have much sugar, I don't eat ANY processed food, I've been a vegetarian since I was 15, I juice every day, I'm crazy about seeds (hemp, sesame, sunflower, and pumpkin) daily and their excellent effects on my skin, etc. I do agree with a LOT of Vani's (Food Babe) rhetoric, but I've never bought any of her books or plans because I don't think she knows any more than I do. I just appreciate that she is the "squeaky wheel" trying to get an industry to be accountable for some of the destruction they cause. Common sense goes a long way, and I like your pragmatic approach to health and nutrition.

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    1. We don't eat processed food either. We didn't eat much before Hubby's surgery, and none at all now. Or store purchased cookies, crackers, or other baked goods. I make muffins a lot from Jillian Michaels cookbook, Mastering Your metabolism. We eat a ton of vegetables and fruit, but also fish and chicken and the occasional beef tenderloin (for New Year's dinner.) I agree with you about the Food Babe...in that you and I probably know as much as she does. But I don't like the strength and tone of her rhetoric. When I was stressed over Hubby's condition, I needed reassurance and solid information, not exaggeration. It's been lovely "chatting" with you. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. I've never seen the Food Babe but have always been fairly cognizant of what my family eats. When my husband was diagnosed with diabetes at age 35 (almost 40 years ago) we started in with the very little sugar plan and progressed over the years to little meat and lots of veggies and fruit. With heart disease and diabetes rampant in his family I felt that our kids had a 50% chance of having the same problems so wanted to get them off to a healthy start.
    More recently after reading The China Study I went to vegetarian and then to mostly vegan now. Husband does eat meat once in awhile but not at home. I don't talk about it much but it does embarrass me when we visit friends because they always try to work with what I want to eat. I do say not to worry about it I'll just eat around whatever they fix. I hate to have people fussing over my choices.
    I have to laugh because years ago when Ornish came out with his heart healthy diet I looked at it and said No way would I ever be able to do that. Yet here I am these last few years doing almost exactly what he suggested was a healthy diet. Maybe getting older makes me more eager to stay as healthy as possible for as long as possible.

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    1. Good for you, Diane. It looks like you've really been able to eat healthy... and stay balanced. It's funny that our motivation changes as we get older, isn't it? In my twenties I watched calories so I would fit into my jeans. Now I watch what I eat to be healthy and feel better. Of course, continuing to fit into the jeans is always nice too.

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  3. I haven't eaten meat since I was six years old . I sometimes eat fish , my husband likes fish , but really I prefer vegetarian food . For a long time I was considered an oddity & it was difficult to visit restaurants , but things have really changed . The traditional UK diet was meat & two veg but foreign holidays & foreign restaurants have affected our taste - thank goodness . Many of our friends & acquaintances are now on medication for various health problems but , touch wood , we are trouble free . I hope our diet has a bearing on this . I'm no angel though - chocolate isn't safe in our house
    Wendy in York

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    1. Our traditional Canadian diet was the same....especially for me growing up on a farm. We ate meat every night...but my mum was a stickler for lots and lots of veg, and pretty much everything we ate was homemade, or home grown. And "foreign" food was the local Chinese restaurant which specialized in deep fried sweet and sour chicken balls. Things have sure changed!
      I'm sure your diet has a bearing on your lack of health issues. Recent blood work shows Hubby and I that our diet has had an effect on both of us.
      Thanks for stopping by, Wendy.

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  4. Great article! I understand now that many of the different diets are not good for my husband and myself (age 72) . We eat very healthily now, but I feel, that the way we ate earlier in our lives has contributed to a few ailments now.
    I enjoy your posts. I am a retired teacher, also.

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    1. Thanks. It's hard to keep up with the latest health food "breakthroughs" ...I remember trying really hard in the late 80's to go low fat. Now when I look at old low-fat cookbooks, many recipes had lots of stuff I wouldn't use today. And now we find out that not all saturated fat is bad etc etc. Thanks for reading.

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  5. I don't like food extremism, it makes me sad. I aim for foods that haven't been engineered, and I eat what my body seems to need. There you have it:).

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    1. Me either. Not just because food extremists can be annoying, but also because when extremist views influence others...to me that's irresponsible. Not sure my body is trustworthy enough...still fear that it will tell me that it really NEEDS fish and chips:)

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  6. I had a friend who was, quite literally, down to eating only lettuce. And I do mean 'down to'.

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  7. I found this post so interesting. I've struggled with all of the contradictory information about healthy eating. My husband and I decided in January to quit worrying about all the "stuff" and just start focusing on fruits, veggies, chicken and lots of salads. We're both feeling healthier and stronger.

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    1. Good for you. That's pretty much what we do. Except we really watch the salt, as well.

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  8. I get so aggravated with the "cleanse" everything rhetoric I really don't listen to any of it. While agree that people should eat healthy and I know I could eat even healthier I believe that food should be enjoyed. I watch what I eat but I enjoy food and that is something that I am tired of feeling guilty for. I eat a lot of fish and vegetables but sometimes I want a good steak or even a cheeseburger. I think like they said as long as 80% of your diet is healthy then it is okay to eat what you want the other 20% of the time.

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    1. Listening to those two dietitians on the radio the other day, that's what they said. That the pleasure aspect of food was being lost. I agree! We find that we have become so accustomed to our new diet that we don't crave hamburgers at all. I crave fish and chips every now and again...so I order it when I go to lunch with a girlfriend...and then feel crappy all afternoon from all the fat!

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  9. I totally agree with Rena, and you! Food "health" has become such an obsession. Food should be enjoyed…not as glutinous (is that the word?) but as a pleasure. Too much of anything isn't great, so the same with food! We eat red meat once a week, at most and try to eat well the rest of the time. I never, ever go for fast food; no sodas; and not much prepared food. My downfall is bread and pastries! aackkk. Can't get enough of them! But yes, I limit my intake !

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    1. Oh ....me too. I really have to watch the carbs. I'd rather have tea biscuits, or scones than chocolate. My mum used to make homemade doughnuts that were to die for; I still crave those. One good thing is that her doughnuts totally spoiled me for anything that Dunkin Donuts or Tim Horton's can make. Thanks for reading, Libby.

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  10. Balance and moderation are key I believe and avoiding processed food as far as possible. Eating should be pleasurable. I think one needs to make time to shop for healthy food . Coming home tired, there's a temptation to make unhealthy choices if the shopping hasn't been done right! There's an evergrowing industry around diet and lifestyle much
    of it premised on very dubious science. Enjoyed your post Iris

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    1. I totally agree Iris. That fatigue factor is huge. My husband and I have always split household tasks according to who is busy and who's not. When I took on a leadership position on top of my teaching load, he stepped in and did all the grocery shopping and most of the cooking. It made such a big difference for me and for what we might have been eating if I had to do it all when I came home at 6:30 pm from a meeting! I know so many women who have busy jobs and kids and who are responsible for all the shopping and cooking....I have no idea how they do it! In cases like that it's hard NOT to rely on Kraft Dinner and take-out for dinner.

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All comments, ideas, commiserations, questions, complaints... are most welcome.