Culture At Large

Orthorexia and a theology of feasting

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

Food culture can be a funny thing. I’ve been interested lately in the ways diet buzzwords have shifted during my lifetime. Yesterday my husband and I went into a Panera with a sign announcing that all their salads are “clean.” When scrolling Pinterest, I’m always interested in what causes pinners and bloggers to name their various recipes the “healthy version” (this includes everything from crock pot dinners to dips to chocolate desserts). In an article in Vice, Ruby Tandoh describes her own shift from bulimia to something people are starting to call orthorexia, which she describes as “a preoccupation with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ foods.”

I think Tandoh is correct in her diagnosis of a cultural problem: people are combining specific diet prescriptions meant for specific cases, such as celiac disease, with other random ideas about what is “good” or “bad.” The result is a strict food morality that does not seem to have any relation to nutritional science or morality in a traditional sense. And this cultural food morality often covers up much more sinister cultural problems: the obsession with controlling women’s bodies; the elevation of thinness even when it means malnourishment; and eating disorders. Tandoh offers a lot of evidence that the various lists of “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods often have more to do with marketing and misunderstanding than nutritional science.

Where I think Tandoh could go further, though, is in resetting to a healthier understanding of food. She emphasizes intuitive eating – eating “with pleasure and without shame.” This can be very important for people recovering from an eating disorder, but does not consider other factors: how the foods we choose to buy and consume might be better or worse for the environment; how the people who work to produce and deliver that food are treated; and how the people who live near where foods are grown or produced are affected.

Perhaps a theology of feasting can help us enjoy the gifts of food without falling into either orthorexia or gluttony.

Perhaps a theology of feasting, in addition to that of fasting, can help us enjoy the gifts of food without falling into either orthorexia or gluttony. I loved this essay from Katherine Willis Pershey about giving up on her Whole30 diet when hospitality called her to do so. Pershey’s understanding of the New Testament call to community certainly resonates with my understanding. I wonder, too, how much of the New Testament discussion of food and morality might translate to today. For instance, Peter received a vision from God that all animals were made by God and not impure. Paul informed the Corinthians that if it did not hurt someone else’s faith, they were free to eat meat offered to idols. What does this mean for my consumption of sugar or Big Macs, quinoa or kale?

One thing I can take from those two New Testament examples is that the food itself is morally neutral. The relationships and identities that food represents, however, can be a problem. This makes our food choices complicated because our food system is complicated, as it represents a lot of economic, cultural and biological relationships. If we could escape the idols of thinness and orthorexia, I wonder what Christian eating would look like? I suspect a few things: it would emphasize relationships over rules, it would try to include as many people as possible and it would hope that our eating would nourish not just our bodies, but our relationships with each other and with God. That’s not exactly a diet trend, but maybe it’s a way forward.

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