Friday, August 10, 2012

Fasting, hunger, deprivation, food insecurity and orthorexia

Hunger can be an uncomfortable topic.  According to the USDA Economic Research Service, 14.5 percent (17.2 million) of U.S. households were food insecure at some time during 2010.  Food insecure households are  defined as households which at times during the year were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food.  According to World Hunger, this could be extrapolated to mean that each day 100,000 children go to bed hungry in the USA.  We've all heard reports in the media about elderly people going for days without food.  Even many young adults who do not qualify for assistance and can't find a job have to do without.  Last week, my boys went into a men's room at a grocery store.  When they came out, one of my sons told me they saw a filthy elderly man shoving a bagel in his mouth while standing in a toilet stall.  I told them he was hungry.  He couldn't afford to pay for the bagel, and he didn't want to get caught eating it.

We all know about the kind of hunger that is caused by famine, war, poverty, disasters and poor food distribution, leading to starvation and death.  The idea of hunger has negative connotations.  We must avoid it to survive.  But for those of us who are struggling with weight issues, is this really true?  Is it harmful to tolerate mild feelings of hunger?  Maybe the feelings of hunger that we experience when we smell the aromas from a fast food restaurant is a deception.  Obviously, we aren't experiencing hunger on the scale of someone in need.  Maybe we are experiencing a sort of withdrawal from sugar, salt, fat and MSG.  Maybe when we pay attention to our body's signals, we can be a bit more discerning.  It doesn't mean we don't need any nutrition - we just need good nutrition.  Maybe we can sit with the hunger for a while, wait a bit, drive by that restaurant and go home to the clean salad waiting for us there.

And maybe when we feel full and satisfied after eating a SAD (Standard American Diet) meal, perhaps that feeling of satiation is also a deception.  Have you ever seen an obese woman at the grocery store?  Tiredly pushing the cart, wandering up and down the aisles, searching, searching. . . .  She is obese, yet she is starving.  She is having trouble finding what she is searching for, because she won't find it in SAD food.

Recently I saw a blog post by a raw vegan who prefers to fast 16 hours per day.  This means that her last meal of the day is mid-afternoon.  She eats twice daily, and gets everything she needs.  She probably gets more actual nutrition than that hypothetical lady in the grocery store, even though she eats much less.  In contrast to the grocery store lady, she says she has plenty of energy.  This isn't a temporary cleanse; this is her lifestyle.  If that is the best way for her body to process her nutrients, then good for her.  I don't think I could do that, but I could stop eating after 6:00 p.m.  I may even be able to gradually train my body to go without food for longer periods - if this is what is best for my body.  But what is best for my body is not necessarily going to be what is best for others.

Yesterday, I mentioned to my husband that next week, the food on the 28 Day Garden Diet program was going to be lighter.  He looked a bit unsure.  I decided I would make sure that there were plenty of tasty fruits and vegetables on hand to help him get through it.  Of course he can eat whatever he chooses.  We are blessed.  And I have seen that his waist size is getting smaller, heard him say that his blood pressure is improving.

Today, Jinjee from The Garden Diet posted a terrific article about orthorexia, which is defined as an obsession with avoiding foods that are perceived to be unhealthy.  The thing that I find obnoxious about the term is that I disagree with their definition of "food."  If most of the ingredients are manufactured by a chemical plant, it's not food!  If it once had a face, it's not food!  I'm not avoiding food; I'm avoiding non-food.  I've eaten too many non-foods already.  I'm taking what hasn't been working for me, and changing it to something that does.

Another problem that I have with this idea of orthorexia is that when we are experiencing mild hunger pangs, it can seem like we are obsessed with food.  When we are the person in the household who plans, shops for, and prepares the meals - and we are on a weight loss plan, it can certainly feel like we are obsessed with food.  By their definition, anyone struggling to avoid the proven health consequences of SAD are orthorexic.

Obviously there is a difference between taking one's own health into one's hands to be healthy, and having control issues concerning food that lead to poor health.  But the question is not, "Are my eating habits conforming to social norms, and do they meet with the approval of friends and family?"

Instead, the question is, "Am I healthy?  Am I happy?  Am I at the ideal weight for my height?  Am I strong and relatively resistant to infection and disease?  Do I sleep well at night and function well during the day?  Am I managing stress?  Am I at peace?"

Update:  Here's a pretty good summary of the orthorexia question on Real Raw Results. 

Edit added July 29, 2013:  I was confused by things I had read about othorexia, because it sounded to me like it meant that anyone who eats something other than the mainstream Standard American Diet is being marginalized and labeled "crazy."  However, I am currently taking some MOOC nutrition courses, and according to one instructor, this is not the case.  In order for a person to have othorexia, they need to be so obsessed with healthy eating that it negatively impacts their quality of life.  In other words, their diet may be perfect, but the obsession is causing too many problems in other areas of the person's life, such as job and relationships.  So, if a person is a raw vegan or is otherwise eating a healthy diet, and the food lifestyle is not an obsession that leads to other problems, then the person is probably not orthorexic.  

My husband and I have adopted the raw vegan lifestyle to improve our health and to help reverse symptoms commonly attributed to the aging process.  It has been a challenge to make the change and stop eating certain familiar SAD foods.  I'm learning to not be freaked out when I feel hungry.  In fact, to a certain extent, I'm making friends with mild feelings of hunger.  When I feel hungry, I feel thankful that I am hungry out of choice.  I know that I will eat today.  I don't have to eat calorie and fat- dense food, but can bypass those and make healthier choices of nutrient-dense foods.  Thousands of years ago, hunter-gatherer humans might have had to fast for days while searching for food.  One of the documentaries, maybe "Forks Over Knives" or "Food Matters," made the point of saying that humans are designed to seek out calorie dense food and eat our fill of it.  It helped us survive when food was scarce or intermittent.  But when food is in plenty, it only causes obesity and helps the fast food corporations make more money.

The hunger I feel when I bypass SAD food on the way to a tasty raw vegan meal is not REAL hunger.  Real hunger is malnourishment.  I'm going to eat less, and give back more.

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So what do you think? Have you tried raw vegan food?