Health Food Nation: A Growing Obsession; What Does It Mean for I-522?

The six dietitians and 25 therapists who toil at The Moore Center eating recovery center see their share of patients suffering from anorexia and bulimia, binge and compulsive over-eaters. One can say their plate is full. Each week, 100 new people with acute eating disorders come to the state’s largest treatment facility, nestled in a woodsy office park in Bellevue.

The environment is warm and cozy. Soft music plays a round the clock. Lovely paintings and mosaics line beige and mauve-colored walls. Embers glow within the enormous gas fireplace inside the lobby, as soothing as a cathedral.

Some of the patients here require intensive therapy. It is not uncommon for some clients to spend 70 hours at week at The Moore Center, seven ten-hour days. Bathrooms are monitored for purging. Some clients on “exercise restriction” are not allowed outside. Amenities at the 30,000-square-foot clinic include an art and yoga studio that looks out upon streams and duck ponds, a medical exam room, psychiatrists offices with plush couches and picture windows, and a serene, well-appointed dining room.

There are two large kitchens, as well, cabinets flush with cereal, pasta and other dried goods., which are neatly arranged in packages whose labels have been blacked out with Magic Markers.

“We have a lot of people here who are obsessed with the quality of their food, as opposed to the quantity,” explains the clinic’s lead nutritionist Raven Bonnar-Pizzorno as to why labels are blacked out.

There is a name for this: Orthorexia nervosa, a not-yet classified – and not well researched – eating disorder characterized by an excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthful. The term was first introduced in 1997 by Steven Bratman, M.D., a specialist in alternative medicine.

It is not known what percentage of the estimated 24 million Americans inflicted with some form of eating disorder suffer from his unhealthy obsession with healthy food. But one thing is clear, food labeling will do more harm than good for those with orthorexia.

Says Bonnar-Pizzorno. “Labeling serves a great purpose, for a lot of people, but it’s not helpful for people with eating disorders as a whole.”

What happens with health-food obsessives, adds the clinic’s nutritionist, is that they will steadily eliminate food they believe are not good from them to the point that their diet will become so strict “that they’ll become malnourished as they keep eliminating foods.”

The effect of food labeling on those with eating disorders has not surfaced as a debate point in the battle over Initiative 522, the measure that, if passed, will require labeling of genetically engineered food.

Bonnar-Pizzorno said the issue has not come up among clinic employees – as to whether passage of I-522 will exacerbate the problems of those dealing with eating disorders.

Liz Kuula, director of operations at The Moore Center, said the clinic has taken no position on I-522 and doesn’t expect to do so before the Nov. 5 election.

Scientific American, meanwhile, surprised some within the food community, last week when its editors penned an editorial titled “Labels for GMO Foods Area Bad Idea.”

As they wrote: “Instead of providing people with useful information, mandatory GMO labels would only intensify the misconception that so-called Frankenfoods endanger people’s health . The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the World Health Organization and the exceptionally vigilant European Union agree that GMOs are just as safe as other foods.

“Compared with conventional breeding techniques—which swap giant chunks of DNA between one plant and another – genetic engineering is far more precise and, in most cases, is less likely to produce an unexpected result. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tested all the GMOs on the market to determine whether they are toxic or allergenic. They are not. (The GMO-fearing can seek out “100 Percent Organic” products, indicating that a food contains no genetically modified ingredients, among other requirements.)”

On the local front, opponents of the measure appear to be focused purely on cost, arguing that taxpayers will be out millions if voters were to require the state government to monitor labels on thousands of food products in thousands of stores.

The GMO food labeling initiative was derailed in California last year by a 53-47 percent margin after huge out-of-state chemical and agribiz interests such as Monsanto, Dupont and Dow poured in $45 million – this after initial polls showed Proposition 37 with 60 percent support.

In Washington, as Seattle Weekly reported earlier this month, I-522 backers have raised nearly $2.3 million to just under one million by the opposition, according to the last filing with the Public Disclosure Commission.

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