Emotional Health · Food & Drink

Orthorexia and the Last Thanksgiving




Illustration: C.A. Martin

At special events, like Thanksgiving, relatives can be wounded or even angered when a guest refuses special holiday foods. It is not always easy to get someone who has labored over a large meal to understand why someone else cannot “make an exception” and eat a bit of everything for one meal. While some special needs are a matter of serious health consequences, like nut allergies or celiac disease, others seem like a whim, to outsiders.

Some parents solve this problem by bringing their own versions of dishes that will be served at the feast. One mother described bringing both nut-free and gluten-free stuffing to accommodate her two teenagers. Feelings can be assuaged if you carefully discuss the issue with the host in advance, explaining to them the details and reasoning, if necessary.

Still, there are limits to what is polite and appropriate, and teenagers need to understand this.  If they are going to be picky eaters (and for many of them, special diets are an extension of this immature approach to eating rather than deep conviction) they may have to face the fact that they are not good guests. While family members may have to continue to invite them to holiday meals, they should be made aware that they are potentially hurting feelings. Also, people who are not relatives may not be so forgiving. One family I know has three separate food issues and we finally gave up inviting them for dinner. It was just too difficult to come up with menus that accommodated everyone, and when we did, the chance of getting it wrong was nerve-racking. The Times described a woman who has “instructed her sister, who is hosting the holiday in Virginia, to send her pictures of the ingredient labels of all the foods she’s using,” so that there will be no slip-ups. Again, while this is critical in the case of real allergies, we run the risk of trivializing those with serious issues when we ask for it when it is not strictly necessary.

Even when there is a health concern involved, some people “use it” in a neurotic way, managing to make their dietary needs the center of attention for everyone. Orthorexia, the neurotic concern about healthy food, is akin to anorexia in that the preoccupation with diet can be a way of trying to control feelings and events by boiling everything one thinks about down to one issue: what you eat. Even attempts to maintain a healthy or moral diet can be used to support neurotic aims, though the overall intention is a good one.

Mental health, broadly speaking, depends a lot on the ability to maintain good balances: between work and play, love and self-interest, rest and activity, etc. Too little or too much of any of these, and trouble ensues. Nutrition, likewise, has been linked to maximizing variety and maintaining a balance between food groups. In growing teenagers in particular, it is important that parents observe their choices and supervise them if they are tending toward the obsessive end of the scale. This matters not just for the physical health of the child, but also her mental health as well. Teenagers can display a dangerous mix of poor judgment and passion that leads to trouble. And perhaps worst of all, if their personal needs are too disruptive and insensitive to others, they are being rude and unkind, a danger to the development of character.

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