The Paleo Eating “Disorder” – Sign Me Up

Did you hear the latest quotidian nonsense? It appears that if you eat paleo / primal / ancestral, i.e., as we evolved to eat, excluding the modern foods that have wreaked such havoc in terms of diabetes, auto-imune, heart disease, stroke, cancer, obesity, then you suffer from an eating disorder.

According to a report in The Guardian newspaper, Britain is currently experiencing an increase in the number of cases of orthorexia nervosa, a psychological condition whereby sufferers restrict the consumption of sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods. They also cut out any foods which contain artificial additives, or have come into contact with pesticides and herbicides.

Thanks to reader Kim for emailing that. Oh, and a quick dig turned up the original Guardian article.

Now, supposedly, the risk is malnutrition, y’know, like so many "healthy" vegetarians and vegans end up with. I guess the message is: replace sugar, alcohol, grain, soy, corn, and dairy calories with more meat, veggies, fruits and nuts = risk of malnutrition.

Make sense?

Later: Turns out Mark Sisson posted on this condition some time back. Yep, as he indicated on his Twitter feed, ignoring the 80/20 rule is the problem, not the core principles.

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  1. mix in finland says:

    Only my enemy would recommend what the guardian recommends.

    That's how I see them.

    Oh, btw, FIRST!

  2. mix in finland says:


  3. Make sense?

    No, but people are often irrational.

  4. Robert M. says:

    Above was me.

  5. Personally, I think it's a great name for a band: The Orthorexia Nervosas

    We just need enough clout to come up with our own mental illness label for the Food Lobby. For now I'm calling it “Hyper philargyros”:
    a psychological condition whereby sufferers restrict the availability of nutritious, healthy food in favour of the manufacture and promotion of complete and utter crap, due to an excessive love of money.

    I'm sure someone with a more thorough education in Greek and/or Latin can come up with something better.

  6. KetoWarrior says:

    How nice of them to turn a cluster of earnest health-seeking behaviors into a pathology. Give it a scientific sounding name that resembles a real eating disorder and voila. But then again what should we expect from the same organizations that promote “heart-healthy whole grains” and warn against “artery-clogging saturated fat”?


  8. I can certainly see the obsession with eating healthy as becoming a disorder. Any obsessive behavior, period, could have damaging impacts on someones mental health, relationships, etc.

    That being said, it is HILARIOUS that they defined diets devoid of salt, sugar, wheat, soy, alcohol, etc, as putting people at risk for malnurishment. Good catch Kim!

    Oh, check out Don's post on tubers. I'm eager to see the sequel.


  9. I wouldn't be so quick to blow off all aspects of this topic. Sure, the “malnutrition” concerns coming from concerned “experts” who know whats better for us than we do is bull honkey but the psychological obsession with healthy foods is legitimate. Pollan wrote about it in one of his books (I can't remember which one or what term he coined to refer to it) and referred to it as “an unhealthy relationship with healthy food.” In a society where food is valued first as an economic commodity, I get the paleo/primal movement to revert back to a more natural relationship with food (Of course I do because I'm apart of that movement). But again, before the aggricultural revolution food was just food and when we got it we ate it. The system took care of its self. I think in a culture of relative affluence and education we have the privilege to be able to over-fixate on “healthy” foods which can lead us to over-thinking our “natural” relationship with food.

  10. Yeah… I'm going to the doctor in a couple days for a completely unrelated health problem I've had for years before starting to tinker with my diet. You can bet I won't be mentioning how I eat. I know it would distract the good doctor from the real problem at hand.

  11. Aaron Blaisdell says:

    @ mikiek,

    I agree with you in principle, but across all cultures throughout all time, food has been much more than simply eating and nourishment. It's the glue that binds the fabric of society from HG banda to Civilization. It is at the same time personal & societal. Spiritual and base.

  12. Nothing in weeks has triggered more anger in me than this article.

    Eating the nutritious foods that our bodies need for us to thrive, and eschewing the garbage that our systems are allergic to, or can't tolerate, or suffer damage from = disordered eating.

    Scarfing Big Macs, downing Big Gulps, ignoring digestive issues and obesity, developing diabetes, strokes, heart diseases, cancers, remaining oblivious to the environmental impact of our choices, and not caring about the future for the next generation = appropriate and normal behaviour for a member of modern society.

    I guess I should just get pissed on red wine every few weeks, so I too can be considered part of modern society.

  13. andymurdog says:

    The Guardian had it wrong, the guy that coined the term, Steven Bratman, used it to describe people who “avoid fats, preservatives and animal products” according to Wikipedia. Also mentioned was raw foodism (read vegetarianism.) Another reporter distorting the facts, eh? Pretty par for the course it seems lately.

  14. I understand why this artcicle pissed off a lot of people, but I do think there's some truth to it. First I realize that HFCS was bad, then sugar, then wheat, then dairy, then all fructose, then all vegatables, and I was left eating nothing but meat. I feel much better eating milk, meat, fruit, coffee, orange juice, with occasional potatoes and white rice. Reading a lot of paleo blogs might make you too obsessive. I think the trick is to cut out just enough shit so that you resolve your problems, then try to add back in as much as possible. Sometimes cutting something out entirely makes you all the more sensitive to it. Look at the salicylate sensitivity forums. Sure, you can resolve your symptoms by taking something out of your diet, but then you might become alergic to something else.

    Take a look at this guy. He's running marathons and smoking cigarettes at 100.

    Paleo community pretty much says no to beer. I've experimented replacing beer with hard alcohol, and noticed no difference. I do much better with beer than bread, despite the many reasons why it should be bad for me.

    This blog is pretty good about not being too obsessive. I notice that Richard will occasionally eat small quantities of rice and potatoes. This seems like a very reasonabel approach. The “PaNu” approach, however, is really starting to piss me off. I've done it, and at some point a diet absolutely devoid of any 'neolithic agents' doesn't make you feel so hot.

    Everyone also seems to get real pissed about Ray Peat's diet. Is this because he advocates orange juice and potatoes? Honestly until a few days ago I thought my teeth might rot on the spot if I drank a tablespoon of OJ, or that I'd never sleep from the sugar/caffeine combination of orange juice/coffee. I couldn't have been more wrong. In reality, a “Ray Peat diet” and a good Paleo diet are very very similar.

    • Like somebody commented above read Don's latest article.

      You might need the potatoes. It will be better than the rest.
      I guess most Paleo sites don't recommending sticking to this diet 100%.
      Mark says to stick 80%. Richard already posts about his binges on Naan.

      I guess you must not take things too seriously, that is also a very important Paleo principle.

    • Of course you have to do what works for you, and if your body has the genetic mutations that can cope with certain agricultural foods, then by all means take advantage of it. But the point that is made is that those of us who restrict foods that have been shown to do harm on a wider scale as somehow “sufferers of a psychological condition”. Obsession isn't always healthy, certainly, but I don't think there are many of us who obsess over traces of sugar in restaurant marinade, or a bit of flour in the gravy our slice of meat was sitting in. Unless, of course, we have an intolerance, which is NOT exacerbated by removal of the substance (I'm not sure where you pulled that one from – the only 'increased sensitivity' in most cases would be the fact that you will be more aware of the impact of the substance if you had given your body time without it, and therefore haven't suffered the symptoms for a while).

      I hope Richard will jump in with his points here, but to me the point of exploring nutrition and dietetics is to help solve the global health issues we are currently facing, and therefore to assume what a few people experience is therefore proof that their lifestyle is suitable for all is ignorant of underlying factors. I too know an elderly man who is fit and 'healthy' and yet has been smoking and drinking his entire life to no ill effect. I also know that his daughter died of lung cancer at 27 without ever picking up a cigarette. Which part of the anecdote should inform the behaviour of many? And so the same issue can be made regarding diet – if perpetually-raised blood glucose only causes diabetes in SOME people, does that make it ok? Should we ignore this danger because some others cope 'just fine'?

      The danger of health science does indeed lie in the boundary between information and action, but to say that to act on the best information and education available is somehow a 'disorder' is painfully ignorant and dangerously generalised. To pick on one “ideology” (for want of a better word) reeks of bias. As pointed out, orthorexia nervosa was coined to describe those cutting back on fat intake etc, a behaviour that is encouraged by, well, pretty much everyone these days. Vegetarianism also gets lots of warm and fuzzies from the media. Why are these restrictive diets not labeled disorders then?

      I believe that if you have the information, which you have spent time and effort engaging with as well as applying the same attention to opposing information, you will not end up in the psychotic/neurotic situation you found yourself in regarding OJ.

    • KetoWarrior says:

      Name, your criticism of PaNu is rather weak. Neolithic agents means basically sugar, grains, legumes, high omega-6 seed oils and of course any hydrogenated oils. Dairy protein is questionable. Dairy fat is okay.

      On his “Getting Started” page at Dr. Harris advises the reader to start at the top and make his way down the 12-item list at a rate that is comfortable to him. How far down the list he makes it, the healthier he will be for the effort. He also states: “If you can do step 1, that is about 50% of the benefit and alone a huge improvement on the standard american diet (SAD) By about step 6 you are at about 75% , by step 9 about 80% and at 10 you are at 99% for most people.”

      A diet without sugar, grains, vegetable oil and limited fruit still provides a pretty big tent and allows for flexible eating.

      Improvement in insulin sensitivity (which is 50% of the thrust of PaNu) is a good thing but for many can be an uncomfortable process. From my own experience and others, it seems that the intensity of discomfort is proportional to the degree of metabolic derangement of the dieter. The more one needs to give up sugar, the more uncomfortable it can be but also the more benefit that person will derive in the long-term from doing so.

      You have to be comfortable with the health choices you make and I hope you find the eating style that suits you and provides you good health. If your current or future choices don't work out then I hope you will revisit PaNu. Of all the restricted-carbohydrate eating regimens available, I find PaNu to be the most thoughtful, comprehensive, easy to follow and effective there is. I find that it is the only one of all the plans that I can recommend to family and friends without a single caveat.

  15. johncampbell says:

    I think there is some truth in all of these comments.

    A primal diet is great – it changed my health and life, but I have toned down the obsession that I had for the first 15 months. We each have to find our own way in this world and this Guardian article is just another small part of the background blather in the ether. We just get exposed to more nonsense along with more truth in this media and info rich world we live in. Thanks to Richard we are exposed to more truth, but the nonsense continues and will as long as humans are around.

    It struck me recently that humans are indeed defined by our evolutionary past and a big part of that is our social nature. We are social creatures and we are wired to follow the herd and check out our neighbors for validation. If the tribe suddenly jumps up and starts running, it may be wise to do the same before you actually see the tiger yourself. Bucking the mainstream is not a particularly natural thing to do for many people. So lame ideas march on – not forever, but it takes brave people to fight them and it takes time.

    Me? I am chilling, enjoying my health, and starting a support group for other orthorexics – pass the bacon. Richard is hereby invited to cook for our meetings. All are invited but no tofu is permitted – vegans can get their own support group – sorry.

  16. I thought that MikieK made a great point about not getting too obsessive about how healthy our healthy food is. It's something that's incredibly important for any sort of movement like paleo eating if it hopes to go mainstream or get out of the internet ghetto and into doctors' offices.

    I know Richard has made that point as well, at least I saw it in one of his comments over at Art's site. If people who broadly agree about diet and exercise get into angry arguments over whether somebody buying Costco blueberries vs. local organic is a sellout or not “truly” Paleo then it makes the whole movement look crazy. We all (correctly) spend a lot of time beating up on the conventional wisdom and certain doctors, but if the goal is really to replace their faulty thinking with better information it's important not to get bogged down in the dietary purity tests this kind of food obsession can lead to.

    I know from just talking to friends and family about eating that that food obsessions strike most people as annoying at best. I've had far more success simply trying to change peoples frame of reference from fat being unhealthy to grains and sugar being a problem. People's eyes glaze over if you start telling them that non grass fed beef is some kind of gigantic issue. Sure it's not great, but compared to a big plate of pasta… The first step is rarely to go 100% paleo, but my goal is to get the people I care about to eat better for one or two meals a day and then go from there.

  17. I'm on this paleo disorder also. What we need is a Support Group!

  18. Did anyone else read this article and just laugh? Seems like an article The Onion would come up with…

    Don't worry, pretty soon there will be a pill to take for this 'disorder'.

  19. Lots of great comments and I'm generally in agreement with many of the points made by such astute readers & commenters.

    While I tend to think that one man's “obsession” can easily be another's standard fare — we are individuals and our values are our own — I do see various tinges of what for me would be unhealthy obsession. But even that changes, and I think that's the biggest part.

    How willing are you to make changes to your eating habits? That says a lot. If you are rigid and getting only more rigid, maybe not so healthy. What about the stress factor? One could essentially wipe out their health gains in one area by being in a constant state of diet and exercise stress.

    Another aspect is the core focus. While I spend a decent amount of time writing about what's not in the diet,I spend at least as much talking and justifying what's good, like meat, like goof fats, etc. So, the healthy focus is what we can eat t our heart's content, with far less focus on what we can't, or are “missing out on.”

    And yea, even though I ought to have an order of grassfed beef show up today, and I will endeavor to continue to source it as it has become important to me, I'm certainly not going to go hungry if my freezer happens to be empty and all I can easily get at the moment is some meat from the market.

    But that's just me.

    It's easy to say that it's the whole world that suffers a sugar-adicted eating disorder, but I'll resist the urge to make to fine a point of it.

  20. Richard,
    This reminded me of a gal I dated late last year. Turns out she works with kids that have eating disorders and as I explained my diet (mostly Paleo) and why I cut out certain foods the only thing she could say is “that is what people with eating disorders do…they focus on certain foods.” So, to her, even if I was focusing on healthy foods to maximize nutrition she deemed it an eating disorder. Brilliant.

  21. Maybe the medical establishment needs to come up with this 'smoke'n'mirrors babble' because it is failing to adequately treat the (mostly young, mostly female) sufferers of genuine eating disorders like anorexia/bulimia.

  22. The only reason why anyone would ever develop a psychological problem as a result of refusing to compromise on nutrition is that in the modern world, with so much fake food pretending to be real food, one has to be more diligent than he otherwise would be in order to stay healthy.

    The article is blaming the victim.

  23. NO-ONE WILL LOSE WEIGHT UNLESS THEY WANT TO! Stop dieting; keep track of everything that you eat each day. Secret information will help you to get the body that you want. Each day keep your body properly hydrated with plain water and definitely limit your sodium intake. Keep mindless grazing to a minimum. Remember; eat to live, don’t live to eat! A daily regimen is needed by everyone and that regimen includes proper nourishment. Diets and diet aids do not help anyone! The only way to successfully lose weight and get the body that you deserve is by using secret information. This information is in the book Lose Weight Using Four Easy Steps which can be ordered through the website Everyone who has gotten a copy of these secrets has lost weight and become healthier.

  24. NO-ONE WILL LOSE WEIGHT UNLESS THEY WANT TO! Stop dieting; keep track of everything that you eat each day. Secret information will help you to get the body that you want. Each day keep your body properly hydrated with plain water and definitely limit your sodium intake. Keep mindless grazing to a minimum. Remember; eat to live, don’t live to eat! A daily regimen is needed by everyone and that regimen includes proper nourishment. Diets and diet aids do not help anyone! The only way to successfully lose weight and get the body that you deserve is by using secret information. This information is in the book Lose Weight Using Four Easy Steps which can be ordered through the website Everyone who has gotten a copy of these secrets has lost weight and become healthier.

  25. I’m amazed at some of the delightfully Orwellian material the UK has been pumping out lately! “If you eat healthy food you are metally disturbed!” “War is Peace!” “Ignorance is strength!”

  26. “Nothing in weeks has triggered more anger in me than this article.”

    That’s not a good sign. The diagnosis of the disorder clearly focuses on the psychological occurrences that underly the desire to engage in certain kinds of eating. The focus ultimately is on HOW a person eats, not WHAT they eat. If someone is looking for virtue and purity through eating, uses this to feel better about themselves in relationship to others, and is obsessive about it, it doesn’t need a name to be an obvious problem.
    If you’re getting extremely angry by reading that article, chances are, you’re a nutcase.


  1. News: The Healthy Eating "Disorder" | Gaiatribe says:

    […] The summary article then inspired a post by the author of Free the Animal, a healthy living/sustainable lifestyle blog that spans paleo diet, exercise, and personal awareness. The Paleo Eating “Disorder” – Sign Me Up […]

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