The cult of wellness is on the rise. There are increasingly elaborate ways to stay fit and healthy, which is all well and good, but if you are a proponent of one and not the other, then watch out for the giveaway 12 free steak knives — in your back.
You can be cyberbullied for any contrary point of view, and God help you if you “objectively” evaluate the other. Thermomix critic Lana Hirschowitz was almost pulverised in her own blender by the trolling and cyber hate she received after she said she didn’t love the iconic appliance.
I seriously take my life in my hands writing this article — not to mention the fact I get my nutrients from normal food, cooked on a stove, which surely will lead to untimely death.
Wellness has become the new religion. Instead of Christianity, Judaism and Islam battling it out, there are caveman dieters (Paleos) protein powder people, 5:2 calorie-restriction diet people, superfood junkies, gluten-frees and alkaline-lovers. Instead of late-night preachers we have crusaders of the Nutribullet, Magic Bullet, blenders, juicers, soup makers, seeking your soul.
It’s nutra-proselytising: a world where evangelists cyber-doorknock. They text and twitter with religious zeal. Even Foreign Minster Julie Bishop was asked on national television about the $2000 Thermomix.
You know friends are well-ist when they sit on the couch and wait for the Magic Bullet ad to come on TV, then shout “boo” and throw tofu at the screen. Or yell: “Go back to 200,000BC you paleo-diet Neanderthal” before tucking into their burger.
As with any religion, there are breakaway groups. The Paleo diet subgroup Modified Paleo allows one to “consider” dreaded grains, diary and legumes as part of an 80 per cent-only Paleo. Flexitarians go even more heretical. In the shake world there are the soy-based protein powder people as a breakaway from the whey kings, and now pea/chickpea protein shakers are forming a small kingdom to the south.
But devotion to wellness is making us sick. A new disorder has been named, and it’s called orthorexia nervosa: being obsessed with wellbeing, health and diet to the point of illness, madness and chronic unhappiness, which means some people are excreting stress hormones that can cause disease.
Nutrition therapist Karin Kratina says on the US-based National Eating Disorders Association website that people who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may suffer from orthorexia, a term some psychologists and nutritionists are using for what appears to be a “fixation on righteous eating”.
“Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of the orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake,” says Kratina.
“Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers — an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating. The obsession with healthy eating can crowd out other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous.”
Wellness taken to an extreme can become like a cult, says psychologist and macrobiotic chef Jo-Anne Baker. “We all went through diet and fitness fads in the 80s and 90s. But it’s become worse, this is like brainwashing, as people look to identify with something outside of themselves. Because we get so anxious nowadays, it’s another way to artificially control our bodies and the world around us, but it’s an illusion.”
One powder-shake advocate told me with breathless enthusiasm recently that his regimen was the answer to the obesity crisis and illness: “Food has less nutritional value. The soil is depleted, chemical sprays and preservatives are destroying essential minerals, animals are fed hormones. Nutrient-enriched products and supplements are vital to replace what’s lacking.”
Yes, tragically, much of this is true. But vitamins and protein powder supplements are a poor second to fresh produce — locally grown in our rich Australian soil — line-caught fish, free-range animals that lead a happy life (or no meat), fruit and veggies only in season, washed well, not genetically modified, and unprocessed.
The debate still rages in the scientific community about the degree to which vitamins are excreted in the urine. Many vitamins need others in combination to work properly — and how long have they been sitting in shops and warehouses, how were they transported, under what temperature?
My passion is super-foods. I have them regularly in a smoothie including the much undervalued banana, with almonds, bee pollen, raw cacao (chocolate), and maca powder to boost hormones. But I strongly believe the “super-food” concept comes with hype and spin, and some manufacturers and shops raise their prices accordingly. They should be called “helpful foods”. Simply put, they’ll increase vitality, but you won’t fall off your mortal coil without them.
I was the subject of Paleo bullying recently when a friend tried to force me into eating pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer food.
“I don’t eat meat,” I said.
“But you have to. It’s who we are, it’s natural!” she argued.
“But I don’t eat it.”
“That is why you lack energy. We need to go back to nature.”
Yet I have survived all this time, with muscle mass to boot, as have gorillas, elephants and towering US life coach Anthony Robbins, who’s a high-profile vegetarian.
But it isn’t just food. Exercise groups have the same problem with well-ist behaviour: In the yoga world the Iyengars are not fond of the hathas who “move too quickly for proper alignment”; the purist ashtangas are not impressed with the faddish Bikrams. On the side, I teach a bit of yoga and woe betide you if you do a dog pose with toes spread or bent knees in the wrong class.
And don’t get a Pilates junkie in the same room as a yogini. “Where is the spiritual essence?” the yoga person will insist. But mat people are all united when it comes to gym people in their Lycra suits, who can hyperventilate and mess with their core strength.
Back to food, and according to leading social observers such as myself, the reason restrictive dieters are angry people boils down to one thing: they can’t eat cake.
Don’t take wellness crusaders on. Back away slowly and nod pleasantly if confronted — especially by a 5:2-er on their caloric restricted day. And follow my 80/20 per cent rule. Eat intelligent good, healthy, unprocessed food most of the time (your body will know) and on your days off follow the yummy French and Mediterranean diets. As Marie Antoinette said: “Let them eat cake.”