In the name of health, part one

I first saw them in the refrigerated section of the grocery store today: Pillsbury Simply...Cookies. These were packages of the premade dough that you break apart and pop in the oven for quick homemade cookies. The package told me how "wholesome" they were and how they didn't have anything "artificial." This wasn't the first time I'd seen products recently that prominently advertised the food's simplicity and purity- Haagen-Dazs has a line of ice cream called "Five" because they only contain five ingredients.* Some types of Chex now have "gluten free" on the box. And on and on it goes.

But it wasn't until I saw the refrigerated cookie dough that I suddenly understood what I was seeing: a new trend. Of course, I am more than aware of the changing interests in how food is advertised and displayed, but the facts settled into place with a resounding clunk that this was going to be the Next Big Trend.

Spring 1996: I have to contribute items to a time capsule our social studies class is making, and I am in a group with three other girls. The items were supposed to represent our current culture and what it meant to us. I threw in an old banana clip** and a crusty tube of my mom's used mascara to indicate the emphasis on beauty and advertising. One of the other girls in my group brought in a box from some Snackwell's cookies, a popular brand of fat-free cookies in an emerald green box that were tremendously popular. They also tasted like the cardboard box they came in.

In the mid-90s, when I was in middle school and high school, low fat and fat free were the big buzzwords. Fat was bad and we needed to eliminate as much of it from our diets as possible. "Carbs" were not evil--in fact, no one really called them "carbs" much.

2001-2002: Fat is in and carbs are out. I remember this rather vividly, as the Atkins diet and other low-carb diet plans exploded in popularity just as I began recovery (well, the first round of recovery, anyway) from my eating disorder. I was plenty paranoid about food, and this was clearly not helping. But I eschewed fat far more than carbs, a pattern that has continued with each of my relapses. Fats went first, then proteins, then carbs, until I was living on lettuce, apples, and fat-free yogurt.

I was still far too phobic of fat to embrace the low-carb fad. But it is kind of hard to live in an environment saturated in this anti-carb propaganda and not absorb some of it. I began to speak "carb." Low-carb was fine, but it also had to be low-fat to satisfy my eating disorder. I learned about maltitol and sorbitol and how to count carbs should I be so inclined. Carbs were bad and we needed to eliminate as much of them from our diets as possible.

Today: Ah, yes. Simplicity. Purity. Wholesomeness. When I was younger, a "wholesome" food indicated more that this was what mom used to make you. It smacked more of nostalgia than morality. Within the past year, that has changed. Mott's for Tots apple juice has 40% less sugar- not because toddlers need to start counting their carbs, but that "added" sugars are unnatural and unnecessary; therefore, they're unhealthy. Stay away from "processed" foods, we are told. They're bad. We need to eliminate as much of them from our diets as possible. (Does this refrain seem at all familiar?) Over the past 15 years, we've moved from low fat to low carb to low ingredients as the new Key to Health.

The research still keeps coming out and constantly contradicting itself on how to live longer and healthier. In the nine months of my latest job, I've written about numerous compounds, foods, diets, vitamins, and/or minerals that hold the key to longevity and health. It's almost laughable because it's almost impossible to eat the amounts of those foods that produced such impressive results in lab rats.

The more I look around, the more I see EDs being triggered by "healthy eating," and less by a desire to lose weight and look better. My own ED started nearly a decade ago as I simply decided to cut out anything extra, which started as a switch from cream in my coffee to skim milk, and gradually turned into no snacks, then no fat, then no meat, then no meals, then no carbs, then no life and no freedom as I was corralled into the hospital. The more "extras" I cut out, the more extraneous everything seemed. I wonder how this pattern would translate in today's cultural lingo. If I got sick a year later, would I have been carb-o-phobic? If I had gotten sick six months ago, would I have cut out gluten and high fructose corn syrup?

I find these trends fascinating, both from a personal and an intellectual perspective. Is the increased attention being paid to orthorexia a result of an actual increase in the number of cases? Are more people becoming so obsessed with healthy eating that it ultimately becomes unhealthy? I see less and less overt dieting as the so-called gateway drug into eating disorders and more and more emphasis on healthy eating. This seems especially prominent in younger children with eating disorders, children who've been lectured about good foods and bad foods and who take the advice very literally. And then take it to the extreme. Don't get me wrong- a balanced diet is a very good thing, but when it becomes the focus of your life, that's a problem. When you become afraid of food and eating, that's a problem.

Tomorrow, I will look more in-depth at EDs in the name of health. In the name of my health, I'm going to bed because my train of thought is threatening to derail.

*I highly recommend the ginger flavor with grilled peaches or pineapple.
**Shut up. No really, just shut up. At least I didn't have mall bangs, okay?

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Kim said...

Yes, my ED has definitely changed with the times, and I do get caught up in the "wholesome" food thing. I buy Breyer's ice cream because of those commercials with the kids who can't pronounce the ingredients in other ice creams. What can I say? I know true freedom is eating food as food. The FDA approved it, so it's not going to kill me (or anyone, for that matter). It's just food. I seem to forget this somewhat frequently ;)

Anonymous said...

My GOD have you hit on a hot button issue of mine! Not the "real food" part, because I do tend to eat mostly real food, meaning that my husband and I cook a lot, shop at farmers' markets, use whole-milk dairy products, and yes, bake actual desserts with sugar and butter and the whole deal. I avoid extra stuff too but I don't put fat into that category- just things like red dye and things with names that remind me of my old chem lab days. So I respectfully disagree with the notion that because the FDA approved it it won't kill you. Check back on some of the FDA-approved drugs that have harmed and killed. I think you have to be your own "approver" of what you put into your body. I digress...

It's the "healthy eating" that makes me want to scream. Even the WORDS "healthy eating" make me see red. I cannot TELL you how often I go to dinner with a friend and she (always she- if it's a man, it doesn't happen) will pick up the menu and say something like "let's see what HEALTHY things they have", or even before we choose the restaurant she wants to find a place where she can "do HEALTHY". As one who eats "real food", I think that what's "unhealthy" is all the fat free and low fat faux foods. What's unhealthy is serving low fat foods and artificial sweeteners and diet sodas to kids. What's unhealthy is teaching kids that they have to "eat healthy", and not get fat, and even EXERCISE. KIDS!!!!! Telling kids they can no longer have birthday parties with cupcakes because of the "obesity crisis".

I could rant on and on....


Just Eat It! said...

I'm not sure if this is what you're talking about, but I notice that a lot of recovering eating disordered people who have food blogs tend to lean towards the "wholesome" food side. In my opinion, eating only organic and following the "clean food" fad simply fuels the eating disordered fire. But maybe that's just me, I don't know.

Crimson Wife said...

As much as I feel a bit of a fraud saying it, I do use the terms "sometimes food" and "everyday food" with my kids instead of labeling things as "bad" or "good" foods. Though it does annoy me that Cookie Monster on Sesame Street now sings "Cookies are a sometimes food". Yeah, 'cause kids get fat after watching a furry blue puppet binge on pretend cookies...

Kristina said...

As much as I respect and admire Michael Pollan and try to eat fresh, local food when I can, I do see his hand behind this trend (and maybe Alice Waters, Mark Bittman and Eric Schlosser). While I appreciate their criticisms of the food industry and their desire to promote healthy food for everyone, not just the wealthy, there are times when the politicization of food is just TOO MUCH. Can't a cookie just be a cookie? It's the slightly (or overtly) moralistic tone of vegetarians, vegans and "pescatarians" that makes me want to go straight to McDonald's and order a Happy Meal.

Anonymous said...

Kristina, I have had a similar reaction to yours- altough for me it's a different burger joint. Or a pizza joint. Or a bakery. As much as I cannot stand moralism around food, I appreciated Michael Pollan's science-based approach and explanations about how industrial food is grown and the chemical makeup of the mostly corn-based foods mass-marketed in this country. And the problem I see with that is not that it makes "bad" food, but it makes bad policy. Growing corn is inefficient, but propped up by government support, when grass is better for animals, better for the soil, better and cheaper and easier for the farmer, less likely to produce e-coli runoff that contaminates vegetables, and, coincidentally, probably but by no means certainly, better for us. But I never got the impression, at least from his first book (which was enough for me) that "healthy food" was his whole, or even major, point.

Like Michael Pollan, I am neither vegetarian nor vegan, and appreciate a hearty, non-lean, grass-fed steak a couple of times a week, accompanied by a baked potato with butter and a glass of wine.

Kristina said...

I also forgot to add "locavores" to my list.

Anonymous said...

Such a good post! The varying trends in the diet industry are amazing. I too developed an e.d. during the low-fat era and can't really understand the fear of carbs. But it is all the same obsession with eating the "right" things. Food is food. It's not supposed to be a math equation. ;)

Carrie Arnold said...

I heartily agree that there are problems with the way food is grown and produced in America, but I try to keep these concepts separate from the food itself. When I lived in Baltimore, I loved visiting the local farmer's market and getting fresh, local produce. But I wasn't afraid of non-local food if I needed it for a well-balanced diet.

I get caught up in "wholesome" food, too. I don't know whether I eat wheat bread because it's supposedly healthier than white or if I've eaten it for years and am used to it, if I like the taste, or what. My blood sugar does tend to rocket around like a roller coaster, so I figure more complex carbs are better. And I found a great brand of wheat bread that has to be the best store-bought, non-bakery bread I've found. But (outside of a relapse) I'm not afraid of white bread, it just wouldn't be my first choice.

I did rather enjoy the book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" due to its positive nature. I didn't think OMG processed food is evil (like I did with Michael Pollan's books), but more the simple joy of growing and preparing your own food. I love to do my own baking and think my homemade cookies taste better than Chips Ahoy.

But yes, "healthy eating" also makes me see red!

Lisa said...

Morality and politics have become so inherent to food that it's a challenge to talk about them in a non-loaded way.

This blog attracts the most thoughtful, intelligent commentary. Thanks, Carrie!

j. said...

I think a lot of the time when people with eating disorders adopt whatever health idea is in vogue it's as much for camouflage as anything else. Adopting a "diet" or sometimes even restricting would often be obviously disordered to those around us, but tonnes of people in their proper weight bracket are cutting out this or reducing that -- so by picking up a "healthy" habit the disorder is more easily hidden.

(I relapse about a year ago, and guess what? The first two things to go were red meat and, you guessed it, high fructose corn syrup.)

Anonymous said...

Having become a vegetarian long before I was seriously ED, I don't think that not eating meat was restricting, just snobby. I am still a vegetarian, despite it perhaps not being the best for my health. But I definitely got caught up in the low-fat hubbub, and it hasn't left me yet. But I also did the vegan, whole-food, "wholesome" food trend as my ED sped up. Now I am slowly unlearning that...but when I slip comes back. "Healthy eating" drives me nuts now. I will point out that fat-free yogurt is not artificial, nor is "gluten-free" artificial at all. Most unprocessed food is naturally gluten-free.

Can I ask why your blood-sugar goes crazy? Mine stays low no matter what (like in the 50s after a big meal.) Also, if my metabolism was super-high in recovery before, does it slow down when I restrict, making me gain weight?

Anonymous said...

Just a quick comment. Carrie, having a science background probably knows this but not everyone does.

Do you know what white bread is (usually) made from? WHEAT. White bread is wheat bread. But the wheat has been processed quite extensively in to white flour. "Whole wheat" bread is made from flour that has been processed less and presumably contains all of the grain (bran, germ, and endosperm). So, when you go to a restaurant and they are offering "wheat" bread, as opposed to "whole wheat", very likely it's "white"bread with molasses or dye added to make it look brown.

I do believe you can eat whole foods, and foods in season, without it being disordered eating. I am not a vegetarian but buy my meats, dairy and veg from local farmers. It has nothing to do with diet, calories, etc. but is more about taking care of my environment and my neighbors, and supporting small farms. And I don't suffer any malnutrition by eating tomatoes only when they are in season and root vegetables all winter. It's a wonderful way to be in touch with the world.

Obsessiion{ed} said...

I cant seem to hide it anymore!!! My ed is almost completly visible. i need help trying to hide it. any tips??

Anonymous said...

i entered my ed during the carb-o-phobic stage. let me tell you i think my recovery has revolved around the atkins diet. but the thing is it worked FOR ME. i cut my carbs, however still consumed 3500 to 4000 calories a day and put my weight back on. i went from 5'8 at 92 lbs to 115 currently. yes i still need weight and yes im still workin on it, but there is a HUGE LINK i cant even begin to describe related to recovery and ample amount of fat, esp saturated. my thought process has changed 10-fold, and like you encountered along the way...i had to find myself again, b/c my empty head had no social life and no friends. thats where i am at now. i feel good, eat good, but have NOTHING TO doesnt help i moved from MD to MS when i started recovery either, so i have yet to make friends after battling my ED for 4 years. btw- im 23, and the anorexia started around 17-18 when i went to college

Erica said...

I loved my banana clip...I wonder where it is! Great post, Carrie.

Micco said...

I find it a lot easier to manage my food issues if I focus on the quality of the food rather than the quantity or the foods themselves. Certainly, I have gone through periods where I've been obsessed with the quality, causing me to further and further limit my food intake, but when I think about my food in terms of "the big picture" and the nourishing, life-supporting aspects of food, sometimes it helps me keep a handle on things. It's certainly easier to rationalize a cookie when it's whole wheat flour and evaporated cane juice than it is when it's "enriched" flour and high fructose corn syrup. Everything is fine in moderation - yes, even enriched flour and high fructose corn syrup - but if one form of food encourages me to moderate and the other encourages me to abstain (psychologically, of course), I'll opt for the one that keeps me in moderation.

Kristina said...

I'm not sure if you'll revisit any of the comments, but I just read a review of two new books that touch on the "fresh" food movement, or whatever you want to call it.
The review is here:

Carrie Arnold said...


You do raise a good point, and the good point I have to raise back is that you are well aware of what you are doing. I don't know why that should make a difference to me, but it does. And I'm glad you found a system that works for you.


Thanks for the book review! As soon as I hit post I will go check it out. I am a sucker for All Things Literary (ie, my primary purpose for joining Facebook was that they had an app you could use to keep track of everything you read!).

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


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