Let’s just get something out of the way: Healthy eating is important.
Our generation knows this more than any other. In fact, a 2016 Google food trends report revealed that millennials are 10 times more aware of ingredients and more interested in staying healthy than any previous generation.
We’re more likely to choose food based on how it affects our health and performance: We limit fats, sugars and salts, and prioritize proteins, probiotics and organic produce; we’ll eat vegan, paleo, clean, gluten-free or raw if it’ll help improve our health.
But at what point does healthy eating become, well, unhealthy?
Just like binge eating and comfort eating are often external manifestations of internal problems, extreme healthy eating may indicate underlying spiritual issues as well.
When Eating Right Goes Wrong
You can die from obsessive healthy eating.
It’s called orthorexia—an eating disorder that’s characterized by an extreme, psychologically limiting and physically dangerous obsession with healthy eating. The word means a “fixation on righteous eating,” and it’s becoming a dangerous trend among millennials.
A 2017 study from the University College London found that 49 percent of Instagram users who follow health food accounts show signs of orthorexia, compared to 0.05 percent of the general population, and the more active these users are in healthy food communities, the more prevalent their symptoms.
Consider the following questions, adapted from a test developed by Dr. Steven Bratman, who first coined the phrase orthorexia in 1996:
Do your thoughts and preparation of healthy food interfere with the rest of your life?
Does eating unhealthy food make you feel anxious, guilty, impure or unclean?
Do your peace, happiness, joy and self-image depend on how well you follow your diet?
Do you find it impossible to relax your food rules for special occasions?
Do you eliminate more and more foods to maintain health benefits?
Have you lost excessive weight or experienced other signs of malnutrition because of your diet?
Ironically, our obsession with healthy eating may make us unhealthy by excluding important nutrients. Other dangers include self-imposed punishment for slip-ups, like excessive exercise or restrictive eating, struggling with an all-consuming need to control the purity of every bite, and social isolation that limits creativity and spontaneity with friends. If you think you might be struggling with orthorexia, please seek medical attention.
But there’s another aspect to this, and that’s the spiritual dangers that are rarely discussed in secular journals.
The Spiritual Battle of Food Fixation
The truth is that food is not the enemy.
Food is a good gift from a good Father meant to turn our hearts toward Him in worship. Think about it: God could have created us to subsist on solar power, but He made us dependent on daily food. He could have given us only manna, but He chose to give us a veritable cornucopia of delicacies that are both beautiful and delicious.
And God doesn’t make mistakes.
We serve a creative God who gave us the gift of food not just to nurture our bodies but also to teach us something about Him. Jesus instructs us to ask the Father for our daily bread (Matthew 6:11), and just a few verses later declares that He is the Bread of Life (John 6:35). One of food’s purposes is to point us to the only One who satisfies us heart, body and soul.
That’s how we can worship through eating (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Food itself is a wonderful gift. But as with anything else, when we replace the Giver with the gift, we turn it into a soul-crushing idol.
Scripture tells us we have a very real enemy who comes only to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). Satan will use whatever tool he can to distract us from seeking satisfaction in God, and if money, sex or power don’t hold any sway over you, then protein shakes or organic chocolate power balls just might.
And to some degree, this tactic of food fixation seems to be working, as 63 percent of practicing Christians report feelings of food guilt, compared to 47 percent of non-Christians.
Personally, I also struggled with food fixation, and I understand how consuming it can be.
So how exactly does food fixation relate to our spiritual lives? That topic is at the heart of Full: Food, Jesus, and the Battle for Satisfaction, but for starters, consider the following scenarios:
If you eat healthy because you fear death or illness, perhaps you’re struggling to trust in the God who counts every hair on your head and knows every day of your life.
If you eat healthy because you feel guilty, perhaps you’ve aligned your self-worth with what you do instead of resting in Christ’s sacrifice and who He says you are.
If you eat healthy because your life feels out of control, perhaps you’re settling for the illusion of control when what will give you freedom is surrendering completely to Christ.
There’s no doubt: We’re engaged in a spiritual battle. But where the enemy is a thief, seeking to draw our attention and affection from Christ, Jesus has come to give us life, and life to the full (John 10:10).
Diets don’t save. Workouts of the day don’t save. Organic produce and lush greens don’t save. Only Jesus saves.
The real danger in healthy food fixation is making it an idol: giving it power over our self-worth and our destiny. Becoming consumed by our choices. Giving us the illusion of power and control. Allowing it to consume our thoughts and feelings. Worshipping at the altar of self-control and rigid self-discipline.
Our food choices do matter, not just for our physical bodies but also for our souls. It’s time we examine the underlying motives that compel our food choices, and hold them to the light of Scripture.
Are we slaves to our food choices or are we free in Christ? Are we defined by last weekend’s slip-up or are we secure in God’s eternal love?