There is a new eating disorder coined every decade. Obesity: you eat too much. Anorexia nervosa: you ingest too little. Bulimia nervosa: you do too much of both – but not at the same time. Now, there is orthorexia nervosa (ON): you worry too much about eating healthy food. Maybe we should just stop eating – if only we could.
Part of the problem is that healthy eating has become an obstacle course that most of us are running blind. Reading a food label requires a detailed knowledge of “food language” or a leap of faith about the assertions on a label, akin to believing a politician promising a brighter future.
Even if we had the knowledge and tools to interpret the quantities and nutritional value of what we buy, the landscape is rapidly changing, and there seems to be no way of ensuring that consumers don’t get caught between marketing hype and emerging facts.
It is time for some creative thinking about how we help each other understand the nutritional nightmare without having to have a personal nutritionist in tow. Current labelling is too focussed on daily requirements for preventing malnutrition, not preventing the world’s number two killer – obesity. Short blogs, podcasts, handouts or even accessible nutritionists at the site of purchase, would allow consumers to make the best choices for themselves.
Obesity is a dangerous example. Dietary recommendations for obesity usually focus on two major goals: to increase the diversity and nutrient density of the foods consumed, and to reduce the intake of certain components known to increase risk of excess weight. Consequently, that is the stated aim of every new diet coming onto the market whether it is based on low carbohydrate, low fat, high protein, or high saturated fats and vegetables. To date, there is no evidence that any one diet works better than any other one in achieving sustainable healthy weight.
Maybe we are still looking at a too macro level at nutrition and disease: remaining obsessed about the quality of fat (e.g., saturated/unsaturated) and carbohydrate (e.g., whole grain/simple sugars).
Perhaps orthorexia nervosa is not a bad thing. For example, it has spawned a new interest in the micro level of proteins – the amino acids that make up proteins. Have you ever wondered why you have plateaued on a diet? Consider the possibility that your diet contains too much obesity-promoting amino acids such as: glycine, alanine, methionine, lysine, histidine. Or perhaps too little of non-obesity promoting amino acids: phenylalanine, aspartate/asparagine, tryptophan, valine and glutamate/glutamine.
The Paleo diet has the highest levels of aspartate and asparagine, which negatively associate with obesity. However, the Paleo diet also promotes the highest intake of alanine, methionine and lysine, which all positively associate with obesity incidence.
Complicated – you bet! Especially when the composition in some ingestibles, such as wine, can vary from year to year.
Then there is the other villain, cancer. Several amino acids have been implicated in cancer, including serine, glycine, asparagine, histidine, and methionine. Fortunately, glutamine, largely viewed as positive and mainly in plants, is the most abundant amino acid in human food and cancer-associated methionine, found mainly in meat, dairy and eggs, is one of the rarest.