Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Health Food Diets, the New Religion? By Ellen Frankel

(Huffington PostGive us this day our daily bread (Matthew 6:11)... as long as it's gluten free. While Adam and Eve were told to stay away from just one tree blossoming with apples, people across the country -- from celebrities to the neighbors next door -- are staying away from a variety of foods that they consider "forbidden." Increasingly, Americans are embarking upon health food diets with a religious-like zeal. For instance, while just 1 percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, which triggers an immune system reaction that causes inflammation in the small intestine when a person eats food containing gluten, about 30 percent of Americans now want to eat gluten-free, often because they think it will help them lose weight. And let's face it, for countless people growing up in a culture where thinness is idealized and equated with goodness, salvation and eternal happiness, the yearning for thinness itself has taken on the zeal of the once fervent desire to connect to the sacred and to live a life of meaning.

As a clinical social worker specializing in the field of eating disorders, for years I watched people struggling with anorexia nervosa and bulimia and the existential questions their eating disorder often represented through starving their bodies, or in binging and purging behaviors. Their days were spent obsessed with what they would or would not eat, and how they would get rid of what passed through their lips. It offered a structure in their lives -- eventually taking over their lives -- to reach their goal, which was to be in total control as exemplified through their bodies attaining the coveted societal goal: to be thin.

Like the ascetic, or the religious person engaged in fasting, there are spiritual dynamics at play. I can't help but wonder if the increasing number of Americans jumping on the health food bandwagon isn't in some way related to a search for something more meaningful in their lives, and a way to organize their world around an ultimate purpose. After all, the Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life reveals that the number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow and now encompasses one-fifth of the population. What if the growing obsession with what is allowed in the body is at the expense of asking what will nourish the soul? Can the religion of thinness really offer true happiness and inner peace?

I am all for healthy eating. But I have to wonder about all the people I know and all the people I read about who are embarking on a way of eating that often amounts to little more than a way to pursue weight loss at a time when dieting is out, but juicing is in. In 1997 Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term Orthorexia, a diagnosis characterized by an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. In his book, Health Food Junkies, Bratman notes that it is more socially acceptable to say, "I want to be healthy," than saying, "I want to fit into these skinny jeans." ... ► Read the full article by Ellen Frankel in Huffington Post

Author: Ellen FrankelLCSW, is a popular author and speaker on spirituality and wellness. In addition to a number of books, she is the author of the novel, Syd Arthur (Pearslong Press 2011) and the co-author of Revolution of Jewish Spirit: How to Revive Ruakh in Your Spiritual Life, Transform Your Synagogue & Inspire Your Jewish Community (Jewish Lights 2012) ... more

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