Food Hysteria: The New Eating Disorder?

05/08/2015 10:01 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

As a lifelong foodist and longtime food professional, I have always taken a keen interest in what I put in my body and share at the table with others. Lately that table has become a matter of dining diplomacy as more people are concerned less about what to eat and more about what not to eat.

I am thrilled that communities and the media are focusing more on diet, health and sustainability. But I'm less thrilled by what I see as growing confusion about what to eat and what not to eat. While much of it is science-based, I feel we are all taking it too far and need to reel ourselves in. At any given dinner table or event we'll have a combination of people who are: gluten-free, dairy-free, meat-free, sodium-free, soy-free, sugar-free, or allergic to nuts, shellfish or chocolate.

I've also learned a few new terms that I wish did not exist:

Orthorexia nervosa is a term for people who are overly obsessive about eating healthy food. Can you imagine? There's an eating disorder for people too focused on eating healthier. In the worst case someone with orthorexia nervosa can become so obsessive-compulsive and fearful about eating anything that's not healthy that she becomes unhealthy, socially isolated and potentially self-destructive.

Term two is food insecurity. When I first heard this term, I thought it meant being insecure about what you ate, afraid to eat in front of people or hesitant to try new foods. What it really means, in short, is limited, or lack of, nutritious food. Food insecurity spans the world. It hits a rural county or an urban neighborhood in the United States as much as it does a village in Africa. Childhood hunger is often a side effect of food insecurity, but so is childhood obesity. A young boy who may develop Type 2 diabetes from a poor diet rich in sugar and junk food and lacking in fresh, wholesome food has one type of food insecurity; so does a little girl whose belly is distended from lack of nutritious food. Both lack nutrients to help them grown and stay healthy. It's a sad statement in such an advanced society as ours that either of these conditions exist.

Which leads to the third term: food hysteria. While I haven't found an official dictionary definition for this term it is referenced in a number of articles usually applied to hysteria over GMO foods and big food companies.

My own definition of food hysteria is this: confusion over what we should eat and a growing fear of some food categories.

We're seeing so many conflicting reports about what to eat/not to eat that it's causing confusion. One minute popping fish oil capsules is good for you. Then you read that new research says claims can't be supported. These kinds of reports are usually released after I load up on the item in question at my health food store. Do I take back the bottle of fish oil capsules?

Another example are eggs. For years we were told to watch our intake of eggs to reduce dietary cholesterol, which could contribute to elevated blood cholesterol leading to a number of health risks such as clogged arteries and heart disease. Now the 2015 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Committee says dietary cholesterol in eggs has little or no effect on blood cholesterol.

Nuts are good for your cardiovascular system, nutritious and a great source of fiber. But they are also high in calories. Yes, you can have too much of a good thing. Even plain old water can be over-consumed to a point where your electrolytes can be thrown off balance. The term is called water intoxication. Moderation needs to be maintained in what's good for you and what's not.

I won't get into other foods that set people gnashing their teeth in food hysteria: Carb-Vader, Scary Sugar, Tubby Butter, FrankenFoods and GMOnsters. You get the point.

Understandably we all worry about eating foods tainted with pesticides, chemicals, artificial ingredients and scary names we cannot pronounce. But we also have to be rational. It's hard enough to get kids to eat healthy; make sure you set an example when you set your table. Plan more home cooked meals utilizing nutritious foods and talk about food with your children in a positive, engaging way rather than nagging, preaching or criticizing.

Food hysteria demonizes the pleasure we should all derive from eating good food. Real food is to be enjoyed and shared. If you want to be scared, worry more about food scarcity as we disregard our planet. Otherwise, enjoy your meal.