Mark S. Blackburn
In March, 2002 the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op and various other Health Food Stores who print newsletters ran a boilerplate article which promotes a book contending that many people who try to eat a healthy diet are mentally ill. This article was especially critical of people who eat raw foods. I sent the below response into the SNFC, and they published the below response in their April 2002 "Reporter."
Does eating health food make you mentally ill?
by Mark Blackburn, MBA
Member/Owner and spokesman for Raw Sacramento
I am writing in response to the article “Food
for Thought - Eating only what’s good for you might not be,” which
ran in the March 2002 Co-Op "Reporter."
The article chronicled the unpleasant experiences of Steven Bratman who has proudly produced a new label “Orthorexia” which he applies where he sees fit to people trying to eat healthy food. Mr. Bratman evidently succumbed to such heavy peer pressure to eat healthy that he has had to write a book about it to help him in his recovery.
Obviously we have all been around folks who for moral or religious reasons do not eat certain ‘foods.’ And, we are wrong to take offense at this, just as they are wrong to take offense if we do not join them in their moral or religious persuasion. But, there are increasing numbers of people who refuse certain foods because they have learned that they feel and function much better without them. Are these people suddenly mentally ill because they are enjoying better health? Of course not!
Although the article raises some good questions and makes the point that some people follow a health-food regimen with all the fervor of a religion, this must be a small minority. I am concerned that a casual reading of this article might make it seem that anyone trying to enjoy life more by eating a healthier diet is mentally ill. The key factor ignored in this article is the individual’s motivation for eating a special or healthy diet. It appears to me that Mr. Bratman may have had only peer pressure when making his injurious and uncomfortable personal decisions about diet.
We live in a very disease-ridden society where our Surgeon General says 7 of the 10 leading causes of disease leading to death are diet. In a country where at least 7 out of 10 deaths are caused directly by diet, you had better believe there is something exceedingly wrong with our average diet! For this reason millions of Americans are exploring alternative diets. They are literally exploring alternatives to probable early death by heart disease (experienced now by the majority of Americans of both genders). They are exploring alternatives to early death by cancer (affecting over 30% of Americans). And, shouldn’t they really be?
The raw vegan or raw food diet was especially selected in this article for criticism. Are people who follow this diet creating problems for themselves or others? The implication of the article is—Yes!
Deciding to be Healthy
I have carefully followed a raw food diet for 2 1/2 years with excellent results. That is why I stick with it. After burying my Father who died young of cancer, and after seeing the hardship placed on my Mother to care for a second husband who is also a dietary invalid (cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson’s) I have made some decisions. I don’t wish to be a burden to my loved ones or to society at large. I want to retain my vitality into my 70s and beyond. After all, this is common still today in cultures that eat healthy diets. I do not want to be a wasting semi-dead person dependent upon Medicare’s hideous program of drugs, dependency, and doctors. I wish to remain vibrant, independent and healthy, and enjoy & contribute to life for many more years. I further believe that most Co-op owner-members and customers feel the same way.
Support for Health Seekers
For 3 years Raw Sacramento, http://www.rawsacramento.net, has provided a support network for individuals interested in an enhanced life through raw or living foods. We do not criticize anyone for his or her dietary choices. We are not a religious group. We do not use peer pressure. We are not like Mr. Bratman. We are a strictly voluntary unregistered non-profit organization. People come and associate with us because they perceive it as beneficial to them. We hold classes, potlucks, and other events in support of the individual’s choice for healthier living. No one is compelled or cajoled to attend. We have had events drawing as many as 60 individuals. Our membership is over 100 (now approaching 200). In September 2001 we sponsored a team of chefs at the Sacramento Veggie Cook off. We even won the top award for appetizers with a delicious raw appetizer. We support the ideals of healthy diet and living.
Clearing the Air
I am embarrassed to have to write such an apologetic, but an article like this can be very confusing. My Daughter read it, and became concerned for me because I was on a raw food diet. According to Bratman, I was suddenly a mentally ill member of the Vegan Taliban. Friends, nothing is further from the truth! I have high respect and regard for every individual’s right to live as they choose. My food choices do not cost society anything…. in fact, they are ecologically much more sound than any other diet you might evaluate.
The 10 Qualifying Questions (Are you Orthorexic)?
Mr. Bratman asks 10 questions about special diets, and says that if you answer YES to 4 or more you are "in trouble.” The implication of the Co-op's article was that virtually anyone following such a strange diet as a raw food diet had to be 'Orthorexic.' Since I am a fairly representative follower of a raw food diet, I will succumb to his test so you can see where a normal raw food follower would line up:
1. Do you spend more than three hours a day thinking about healthy food?
Who has time for such nonsense--people on welfare? No raw-fooder I know has such an obsession. They are too busy and active in the community to waste that amount of time thinking about food.
2. Do you plan tomorrow’s food today?
Perhaps once a week I prepare something that requires sprouting. When that is the case, yes, the night before I’ll spend 2 minutes setting up a soaking jar. But, what sin is it to plan your meals ahead? Millions of Americans do this every week without psychological damage.
3. Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
I really enjoy eating my raw foods. I don’t eat raw because it is virtuous. I eat raw because I have NEVER felt better in my life. I like feeling good all the time…. can you blame me?
4. Have you found that as the quality of your diet has increased, the quality of your life has correspondingly diminished?
Absolutely the opposite has been true! My quality of life used to be awful: I was on prescription drugs, wasted man-months of my life in doctor’s offices getting treatments and cures which not only NEVER helped me--they harmed me greatly. Now, having regained my youthful health and vigor on raw foods, I have so much more energy and time for worthwhile contributions and projects. My quality of life has never been better.
5. Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
Over the past 5 years I have continued to fine-tune my diet. Most of this ‘tuning’ has been eliminating foods which detract from my well-being. So, the trend has been stricter. But, for the last 2 years, I have remained largely in a status quo. I may even be relaxing a bit now that my health is so good. Incidentally, the word 'strict' implies discipline. I submit that success in any aspect of life (finances, career, athletics) requires discipline. You don’t become an Olympic athlete by being a lazy, undisciplined slob. You don’t become rich like Warren Buffet by being a lazy, undisciplined slob. And, you won’t attain optimum physical health by being a lazy, undisciplined slob, either. Highly successful people are highly disciplined people. I am aiming for success in my life and I make no apologies for doing so. If success in my personal health means eliminating char-broiled red meat or potato chips, then I submit if anybody is mentally ill it is the not the person who 'becomes stricter,' but rather the person who does nothing, or the person who criticizes the person who prudently takes steps to become healthier. How cooked is that?
6. Do you sacrifice experiences you once enjoyed to eat the food you believe is right?
I still eat mouth-watering desserts. They just don’t have toxic sugar (America’s No. 1 drug) nor have they had all the life-giving enzymes cooked out of them. Frankly, they are more delicious than the old cooked desserts I used to eat. I still go on picnics; I just have better, healthier food more conducive to hiking and athletic exertion. I can think of no way where I am sacrificing to eat raw foods. In fact, let me reiterate…. this is not a religion. This is not about bragging rights. It is about how I feel, and my commitment to my family and my fellow taxpayers to NOT become a health burden, the way the majority of Americans over 60 tragically are. And, lastly, it is for my own self-dignity to be fully in charge of and responsible for my own life.
7. Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food?
I never feel superior to others if that is what Mr. Bratman is asking. Unlike your local politician or policeman, I do not have a predefined prescription of how other people should live. I am fully occupied just ensuring that I am living consistently by the values I hold most dear. If others would benefit as I have from eating raw foods, they must discover this path on their own. While I encourage anybody to investigate a raw food diet, they must make this choice on their own I do feel physically much better when I eat as I do. I do not get headaches, stomachaches, indigestion, bad breath, etc. I do have an increased sense of contentment and of fitting into nature. Since I am eating essentially the primate diet (eaten by all our healthy wild primate cousins) I believe I am eating on a much more instinctual level. I am not wasting energy cooking & devitalizing my food. I eat lots of fruit which is packaged by God in the most environmentally friendly packaging available. I literally feed the soil when I throw the packaging away. These factors give me a certain additional harmony with nature, and allow me to be a better steward of our great planet.
8. Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
OK, I’ll come clean. Have I ever cheated in my 2 ½ years on my 100% raw food diet? Yes. I’ve cheated about 2-3 times per year. When I cheat, I don’t feel like I’m violating some religious oath. This is not a religion. When I cheat, it is for a reason---like I see something that I desire to sample. I do not eat more than a couple forkfuls because I know my body will react swiftly and negatively to cooked food now that it is clean. So, to avoid unpleasant reactions, I rarely if ever cheat and when I do, I minimize it. But, I feel no guilt whatever. I follow a raw food diet primarily for my express benefit, not for the approval of others.
9. Does your diet socially isolate you?
On the contrary, I have met literally hundreds of wonderful interesting people through my association with raw foods. I’ve been attending the Natural Hygiene Conferences in Florida, the Raw Food Gathering of Portland, and many Bay-Area Events for raw foodists. And, I have attended local (Raw Sacramento) potlucks held monthly for about 3 years. People have sought me out via the web and telephone to ask questions about my diet and health. I continue to maintain relationships with my friends and family as before.
10. When you are eating the way you are supposed to, do you feel a sense of total control?
I do not motivate myself by guilt. I find this to be a poor motivator. I suspect that Mr. Bratman is trying to determine whether I feel better psychologically if I follow my ideal diet. Again, my motivation is my own physical health and well being. When I am at a conference and order a special meal, invariably everybody else at my table asks the waiter for 'what he's having' as they point to my delicious salad plate. It's so much better than their cooked 'cancer-on-a-plate special!'
I had 1 MAYBE and 9 NOs. Mr. Bratman, according to your criteria for evaluation, I submit that the typical Raw Food follower is not 'Orthorexic' like you evidently were.
America is in the midst of a paradigm shift about diet and health. We have become the most unhealthy, diseased country on the planet. If somebody in our society has personal habits or addictions which are harmful to him, we sometimes hold an 'intervention' event for that person. Either the law steps in with it's pitiable enforcement branch and imprisons the person, or the person's family may hold a 12-step style intervention event where they try to get the family member to recognize how they are destroying him or herself with self-destructive habits. Sadly we accept the government intervention, and rightly we accept the other intervention as generally in the best interest of society and everyone.
Satisfaction and Mastery over Self-Destructive Habits
Most of the people I know who are following a raw food diet are attempting to rid themselves of self-destructive habits. In my own case, I was (like most Americans) addicted to sugar. This caused me chronic sinus infections and fungal problems like athlete's foot. As is the case with anyone trying to overcome years of bad habits, it was a struggle. I find it gratuitous at best that Mr. Bratman would throw a stumbling-stone in the way of people who are attempting to overcome self-destructive habits by suggesting they are mentally ill. Mr. Bratman, I am sorry you had a bad experience with peer pressure. I have a loved one who has lost 60 pounds of very excess weight by eating a mostly raw diet for the last 6 months. I have my own mastery over my self-destructive habits which bring me great satisfaction. Sir, although I doubt it will come from disparaging raw foods and health foods, I wish you the same satisfaction in life. I hope you gain mastery over peer pressure and also improve your health!
Mark Blackburn is a business analyst who provides data base consulting services under contract to various Sacramento clients including the California Department of Parks. He has been a Co-op member since 1994. He and his Son Christian, also a Co-op member, have both followed a 100% raw food diet for 2 ½ years. You can read more about Mark’s raw food experience here.
Mark S. Blackburn, MBA
1310 E Street Victorian
Sacramento, CA 95814
Last Updated: February 14, 2010