Michael Pollan suggests in his book In Defense of Food that our reliance on processed foods and obsession with fad diets is a kind of disordered eating – that we have become so far removed from the natural processes of creating food that we have lost touch with the need to consume whole, unaltered foods. His discussion of nutritionism posits that our exclusive focus on the nutrients of particular foods combined with our incomplete understanding of how the human body processes those nutrients, has led to huge cultural fluctuations in our acceptance of what is “bad” or “good” food – fats, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and so on.
Pollan’s remedy is to re-focus our eating on the consumption of whole foods that people from the turn of the century would recognize rather than “food-like” substitutes, but his prescription is nearly as dogmatic as the nutritionism he dismisses. A new diet movement, described as clean eating, has grown from Pollan’s ideas. It has gained traction as a healthier alternative to fad diets, but with the addition of providing a moral high ground for its disciples, who see it as the anti-fad diet. While there are certainly many health benefits to clean eating, fanatical adherence to any kind of diet can have its drawbacks.
Orthorexia is an emerging eating disorder which causes individuals to display symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. People who suffer from orthorexia fixate on food quality and purity, and their self-worth can become entangled in achieving their health goals. Individuals in recovery from other eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia can be particularly susceptible to orthorexia, as clean eating offers a way to exercise extreme control over diet and consumption while still remaining within the realm of social acceptance.
Strict adherence to any diet with no room for flexibility can lead to a disordered relationship with food. If dependence on highly processed food is cultivating poor health and a strained relationship with the production and consumption of food, is it possible that becoming fixated on yet another uncompromising dietary rulebook may not be entirely helpful in creating better health outcomes?
Kratina , Karin. “Orthorexia Nervosa.” National Eating Disorders Association, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa.
Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: an Eater’s Manifesto. Penguin Books, 2009
You raise an interesting point about orthorexia (something which until now I’d not heard of), and the danger of lurching from one form of disordered eating to another. I see your point that anything–including Pollan’s eating guidelines–could for the basis for such obsessive patterns (though I’m not sure Pollan’s ideas are the *direct* source for the clean eating preoccupation, I can see how it could be seen in a similar light with other popular protocols such as Paleo, Whole 30, CrossFit, etc.)
The only question I’d raise on your argument is, should the cultural tendency to dogma-tize diet guidelines prevent people from offering them? Or, perhaps more importantly, is there something that Pollan and others could do to offer them but at the same time provide guardrails? The terrain of ‘nutritious eating’ is more confusing than ever, with round-the-clock messages from food marketers competing with nutrition studies of the month (Drink red wine, it’s good for you! Wait, don’t drink any alcohol, it shortens your life span!). As one person trying to navigate it all, I found Pollan’s guidelines a welcome, and relatively sane map. That said, perhaps a caution to treat them as guidelines and not another diet–or religion–would not hurt either.
You make an interesting point about Michael Pollan’s stance against nutritionism, in an effort to step away from one diet, and form of disordered eating, he has created a new one. My initial response was to think that he had not, I view diets as complicated, with a long list of do’s and do not’s. Yet the more I thought about it I realized that that is essentially what “In Defense of Food” is, it may back up those assertions with meticulous evidence, but it is a diet. My question is, what is the solution to bad diet vs. good diet? If someone is suffering from a disordered relationship with food, won’t they seek out ways to enable that behavior? I think by discounting “In Defense as Food” as another contributor to disordered eating is doing it a disservice. Michael Pollan seems to want to spread knowledge about the food system and health, he doesn’t seem to be selling a diet. I agree that the book is very black and white, which in the wrong hands could lead to an outlet for obsessive behavior towards eating. I also think that the majority of readers will find suggestions for better health through eating and a greater knowledge of how food can impact their bodies.