Eating healthy is now a mental disorder with a fancy name — orthorexia, if you trust the American Psychiatric Association (APA). This condition is about to be categorized under the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the bible of mental plagues.
The number of mental disorders has almost tripled in the last 65 years from 106 to 297. Under the present DSM classification, 46.4 percent of Americans will develop a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime.
Before we get stuck on the image of 150 million Americans flying over the cuckoo’s nest, or running around a frozen labyrinth with an axe, one possible explanation for the mushrooming of disorders is that 70 percent of the DSM-5 panel members have financial ties with the pharmaceutical industry. A psychoactive drug has to be tied to a DSM disorder in order to be green lit by the FDA.
The monetary matrimony between shrinks and pharmaceutical giants may explain conditions such as “Oppositional Defiant Disorder F91.3,” diagnosed after little Hansel throws a pie at the TV. Or “Sibling Relational Problem F93.3,” when Hansel’s sister Katie tries to cut him with a scissor. Or Mathematics Disorder F81.2, when Hansel’s older brother Johnny doesn’t complete his homework without a PlayStation bribe. Or “Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder F52.2,” when Hansel’s mother turns into Ice Queen. Or “Borderline Intellectual Functioning V62.89,” when you overthink the meaning of life after watching Monty Python.
These complications along with another 292 are, of course, all linked to a prescription drug.
Medicalization Of Our Culture
This trend is called “medicalization,” aka the renaming of common life challenges as disorders, for the purpose of selling pills. Renaming is worth $76 billion a year. How quickly can you turn ordinary into loony?
Imagine a nation of pill poppers. A Mount Everest sized stack of drugs that pierces our collective psyche under the pretext of newly coined diseases. Imagine a nervous tick that will one day turn into ‘Tickadoodlephobia’ and come with a prescription for Adderall.
If this is really where we’re at, why isn’t DSM-5 itself categorized as a disorder?
Never mind the long-term effects of pharmaceuticals on our health, like the fact that nine out of 10 mass shooters have a history with legal psychoactive drugs such as antidepressants. The downside of a widespread psychoactive addiction is a no-touch zone in the public media discourse. You’ll hardly ever hear about the mental or biochemical downside of legal drugs. And if you try to bring it up in a social setting, you’re certifiably DSM.
So back to the healthy eating part. How did that become a mental disorder, again?
Well it didn’t really. Allen Frances, one of the world’s most influential psychologists who headed the previous DSM-4 task force, explains in his book Saving Normal, exactly how arbitrary the definitions can get. Homosexuality, for example, a former DSM categorization, was voted out of the book with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ referendum.
But we can’t simply lay all the blame on the APA doctors for our disorders. The trickery of making up names for mental conditions goes back to America’s earliest tradition.
Slavery And Made Up Disorders
Imagine you’re a black slave in the 19th century. After barely surviving the galley trip across the Atlantic, you get sold at the harbor to a plantation owner. Let’s call him Master Grime.
Life isn’t too rosy on the Grime farm. When you finally get a chance to escape, you get caught, hung from a tree, and whipped into skinless salmon. Master Grime, who wields the instrument, explains calmly that this is a common prescription for your type of mental illness. You should be grateful for your conditioning. The bastard even smiles at you.
Master Grime may also explain that the highly reputable Dr. Samuel Cartwright, once a surgeon under President Andrew Jackson, has a name for your condition – drepotomania: a disorder that makes black slaves flee from captivity and act in all sorts of looney ways (this is true by the way). Whipping is one of the prescribed treatments.
You do whatever it takes to make Master Grime stop. Over time, however, you start to wonder, maybe there really is something wrong with you. Why did these white folks drag you out all across the world and put you in this unthinkable nightmare, if it wasn’t for a purpose? Maybe it is your fate to become a slave and to serve Master Grime. And maybe, just maybe, Master Grime IS trying to help you. The more you think about it, the more you develop an affection for your kidnapper, a condition known as Stockholm Syndrome. Every other theory – like for example you accidentally landed in the hands of a psychopath who will eventually skin you – becomes less thinkable, and therefore less acceptable.
Over time, the unthinkable will slowly fade. This process could take a few years, or maybe even a few decades, but eventually your cognitive receptors will perceive the situation as normal.
As normal as slavery became for Master Grime, Dr. Cartwright, and most of the slaves and their masters in the Confederate States of America.
Shifting The “Overton Window”
This shift from unthinkable to acceptable is known as the ‘Overton Window’, aka the range of ideas that the public accepts. The term was defined by Joseph Overton to analyze government interference in public affairs.
The Overton Window can be shifted by a great mastery of instruments like politics, money, PR, war, or oration. Abraham Lincoln used a clever combination of wars and oration, for example, to abolish slavery.
The window shifts both ways, and where it settles is determined by the subject’s level of acceptance.
“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them,” said Frederick Douglass, a former black slave who escaped his masters, to eventually become an abolitionist, orator, and statesman.
What Douglass meant is that if we don’t pay attention, the Overton Window will slide all the way to Bedlam.
As it did in the case of healthy eating.
Dr. Steven Bratman, MD, MPH, coined the term ‘orthorexia’ for people with healthy eating habits, after observing his parents in 1997. Here are the official symptoms (reader caution is advised, as some of these symptoms may be upsetting to someone who has not observed a mentally unstable mind in action):
- Compulsive behavior and/or mental preoccupation regarding affirmative and restrictive dietary practices believed by the individual to promote optimum health.
- Violation of self-imposed dietary rules causes exaggerated fear of disease, sense of personal impurity and/or negative physical sensations, accompanied by anxiety and shame.
- An escalation of dietary restrictions over time, that may come to include elimination of entire food groups and involve progressively more frequent and/or severe “cleanses” (partial fasts) regarded as purifying or detoxifying.
Maybe Dr. Bratman’s parents withheld one too many sweets from little Steven in their time. If you live with someone who is exceedingly picky about their nutrition, it can be frustrating. I understand where Dr. Bratman is coming from, because I’ve been in a similar window.
Since childhood I was educated to eat everything proportionately and not be too picky because people are starving in Africa. The classic blah blah, backed by the Western food pyramid. When I moved to Venice, California from London, I perceived the green, self-conscious community to be a threat to national security, from the carnivorous Overton Window where I was standing.
Particularly one person – Maryam Henein (who later became my partner in the health and wellness venture HoneyColony) – would give me a DSM level tick whenever she spent an eternity scanning food labels in health food stores. She’d been on a health journey ever since being hit by a Ford Explorer and dragged 50 feet across the cement. Later she was diagnosed with Lupus and Fibromyalgia. Going out for dinner with her was like attending an FBI polygraph. Every item in the menu had to be dissected for its toxic potential. Could the waiter be lying? If the herbicide wasn’t in the salad, then it was in the sauce.
Understanding The Resistance
Here is the deal though. What actually aggravated me was not her meticulous inspection, but my subliminal doubts.
What if she was right?
Strange things happen when two people meet at different levels of the Overton Window. By definition, one of the parties holds a wider data set on a particular topic. When it came to nutrition, I was still basically an alpha-male junk food carnivore and sugar addict, while she was getting into high-vibration phytoplankton.
It took a few years of sliding across the Overton Window before I realized that a complete lifestyle change was necessary to save me from myself; which in my case boiled down to a ketogenic lifestyle.
Metabolomic blood tests demonstrated that I was living 40 percent below my potential energy capacity, and on a rapid path towards a deadly chronic disease, by simply maintaining a standard Western diet. I had to gradually accept that everything I knew up until then about nutrition and the human biochemistry was a bog of nonsense, that mostly served the corporate food and medical sector.
Escape From Bedlam
A 2013 analysis from the Global Burden of Disease Study (GBD) contains the gist. Only one in 20 people worldwide are technically healthy today, while one in three experience more than five ailments. Half of the women and two-thirds of men will get cancer, while one in five Americans have one or more autoimmune variants, two-thirds are overweight, and half are about to be classified with a mental disease. This historic shift has taken place in less than a century.
The often misunderstood aspect is that literally all of these complications can be attributed to exactly two causes. Dr. Dimitris Tsoukalas, a leader in metabolomic medicine, who has studied chronic disease for more than three decades and tracked over 15,000 patients with blood tests that utilize data feedback from nutritional regimens, boils it down to (1) nutritional deficiency and (2) toxic overload (both of which can be easily acquired with the standard western diet).
Dr. Tsoukalas is not alone. Functional and integrative doctors are similarly retracing the causality of all disease to nutritionally driven biochemistry.
It took several decades for psychotherapist Dr. Robert Hedaya, for example, to observe that the drugs he was doling out to patients with depression, led to a maximum 25 percent remission rate (which is not recovery, but more of a relative improvement). In his estimate, over 12 million Americans suffer from ineffective treatment against depression alone, with an accumulated healthcare cost of $20 billion per year, that only manages to steepen the mental spiral.
When Dr. Hedaya introduced a nutritionally-enhanced diet to the same patients, his success rate became close to full-proof. His window shifted from the Cartwrightian analysis, where you classify a disease to fit a subjective perception of the problem (“if my slave runs away, he must be mentally insane”), to an objective, multifactorial analysis (“what are the empirical factors affecting the brain?”). The latter points mostly to nutrition.
Orthorexia: Nutrition And “Food Products”
Unfortunately, with the mass-commercialization of the food industry, the nutritional value of our food supply has dropped to 1/50th of where it used to be less than a century ago. Part of the reason is soil erosion, another is the processing methods. Over 80,000 chemicals, some of them neurotoxins, are introduced via preservatives, pesticides, hormones, and other Frankensteinian adhesives to create processed food brands, high in sugar value, and marginal in nutritional value. Objectively speaking, these are not foods, they are “food products” with Madison Avenue branding.
Had we introduced our great-grandparents to Twinkies and Rice Krispies, they would probably have eaten the packaging for better nutritional content. Instead, we’ve gone through a 100-year shift through the Overton Window, exactly like Master Grime’s slaves, and now perceive the unthinkable is normal.
We devastated our food supply with ersatz nutrition, pumped it up with toxins, and added addictive flavoring and a massive sugar infusion – ever so gradually – until we began to cumulatively become addicted and damage our body and brain functions. This is how history’s worst chronic illness plague came into being.
According to estimates by David Bellinger, a professor of Neurology at Harvard, our exposure to organophosphate pesticides alone has erased 16.9 million IQ points in Americans. If we add the total spectrum of toxins and nutritional deficiencies to this calculation, we’re talking about an unprecedented cognitive and biochemical devolution within a century. We’re a species on crash course.
This is not a conclusion anyone can make readily, or easily, but once the evidence reaches a critical limit, a funny thing happens:
You develop Orthorexia.
And if your orthorexia “condition” develops even further, you may even begin to experience paranoid delusions about a grand design. Namely, that maybe Master Grime has been pulling our strings all along, keeping us shackled in a barn while feeding us shit, until we take it as a gift.
Introducing Delusional Disorder 297.1 – in which you begin to experience paranoid delusions about a grand design.
There is a pill for that.
“The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” – Frederick Douglass