The Disordered Eating Epidemic

Find out the new generation of abnormal eaters (hint: it’s not your daughter’s).

by Shelley Levitt
Photograph: Photo: Levi Brown

I started seeing a psychologist in the fall of 2009 when my marriage was breaking up. I was experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. One day the heart palpitations were so intense, I went to the emergency room because I thought I was having a heart attack.

I wasn’t, of course, but I was losing weight, and a couple of months into my therapy, the psychologist asked about my eating habits. I described my meals—a handful of cranberries for breakfast and typically nothing else until about 9 pm, when I’d have a dinner of beans and raw vegetables—and told her I’ve always been focused on eating only very healthy food. She said, “I think you have an eating disorder,” and categorized it as orthorexia, a term I’d never heard before.

I think my therapist was struck not only by what I was eating but also by the amount of time I devote to thinking and reading about food. As a ­researcher—my area is perception—I have access to academic libraries, and I spend about four hours a day reading the latest studies on disease-preventing foods and the benefits of, say, extreme calorie-restricted diets. I shape my food intake to this research. Right now I’m eating about 1,200 calories a day, keeping protein very low and leaving vegetables and even garlic uncooked, because sometimes you get more vitamins if you eat them raw. I also adjust the kinds of spices and chile peppers I use according to the newest studies saying which have the most antioxidants.

My eating habits weren’t the biggest problem in my marriage, but they did cause friction. I’d spend most of the day reading studies about food, tracking down healthy ingredients at specialty shops, making my own spice mix from whole spices and finally putting it all together. My husband is a very good cook, but I’d watch him and say, “You can’t use that much oil” or “Don’t use coconut milk.” I’ll admit that I still preach at people sometimes. Recently I was at a luncheon with about 20 colleagues where the food was served family style. I wouldn’t pass the meat platters to anyone, and if someone placed a meat dish next to me, I’d say, “Could you remove that thing?”

I don’t live a very social life, and that has a lot to do with food. I don’t have people over to my house because they wouldn’t appreciate the food that I cook, and there’s no way I’m cooking food with ingredients I wouldn’t eat. And it would be nice to date more, but I turn down a lot of invitations. One guy invited me to a lunch at a neighboring university, but I knew the food would be premade. That would be an uncomfortable situation for me, so I said no.

I’ve come to recognize that my eating habits are a compulsive way of dealing with anxiety. There are a lot of things I can’t control, but what I eat is something I can control. Plus, when you are on a restricted-calorie diet, you’re slightly hungry all the time, and my brain associates that with pleasure. Feeling hungry feels better than experiencing anxiety, anger or depression.

I enjoy eating healthy food, but I’d like to be able to make more exceptions to my diet. It would be nice to eat fish now and then, especially something healthy like salmon, and cheese on occasion. I’d like to be able to go to someone’s home for dinner and eat a plate of pasta, even if it’s not whole wheat. But mostly I want to find a more direct way to deal with the issues that are causing my anxiety; then everything else will take care of itself.

The Finicky Eater

Heather Hill, 40: Raleigh, North Carolina; website developer

I’ve been a picky eater from the time I was weaned. At 40, I still eat the way a six-year-old does, excluding everything that doesn’t fit the narrow spectrum of what I like. For me, that’s french fries, bagels, macaroni and cheese, pasta with butter or marinara sauce, vegetarian pizza, corn, broccoli, apples and bananas. That’s it.

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