Feels great to be healthier than thou

If the wellness craze upsets your eating habits and affects your relationships, reconsider the meaning of the term

I live in a family of health-fad addicts. One discovers miracle superfoods via the Internet and adds them to the daily juice he insists should replace regular breakfast.

Another wants me to try the meat and vegetable diet, where we sneer at potatoes and consign bread to the bin.

A third touts the virtues of ginseng oolong tea over coffee, inhaling the scent calmly from the most comfortable chair.

We should have all achieved a state of pure healthy Nirvana by now. Unless maybe the wellness-detox-health fads flooding the market aren't the miracle cures they claim to be.

Maybe the problem is that we don't stick strictly to the right diet. There are so many, it can get confusing.

The caveman or paleo diet promises to cure diseases - and eliminate flabby bellies - if eaters ignore the bounty of several centuries of agriculture and return to the way their caveman ancestors ate.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

That doesn't mean "eat as much as possible once food is found since food is not found every day". The paleo diet means swearing off grains, refined sugar, maybe even dairy products, and making every meal a plate of meat and vegetables.

There is the vegan diet, where eaters ignore meat and dairy, but enjoy lentils and soya. Like paleo, it is often paired with the word "gluten-free".

Those with coeliac disease eat gluten-free because they are intolerant to wheat. Others have their own reasons for submitting to the restriction, which, incidentally, cuts out high-calorie pastries that can contribute to a jiggling belly.

There is the raw food diet, based on the idea that subjecting vegetables and fruit to high temperatures destroys their natural goodness.

An extreme version of this is the cold-pressed juice fast, which I encountered at a gym.

A new convert, who also sells bottled juices, showed off his skinnier frame. Even as he vibrated slightly - either because of compressed energy or low blood sugar - he swore the liquid pressed from organic fruit and vegetables would eliminate all toxins from my body while providing all the nutrients I needed.

I thought it over at my favourite health food cafe. It is one of several near the gym touting the virtues of "real food" over the fried fishballs and laksa sold at nearby hawker stalls.

From the glass wall, I could see a competitor offering to return customers to a state of health through food without cooking oil and which contained no sugar, grains, dairy or MSG. I sat in a wooden chair under soothing yellow lights and ate organic mushrooms filled with soya cheese and lentil-based "meat".

I felt a warm glow which might not have been from the caffeine-free herbal tea which accompanied my meal.

The glow of self-satisfaction has turned food fads into a multi- million-dollar industry.

Our relationship with food is cultural and personal. Some avoid meat for religious reasons, others shop for only meat marked as kosher or halal.

Diet is a way to define oneself and who doesn't want to be defined as healthy?

Even better, identify yourself as healthier than the next person, especially on social media. Some people love to share photos or videos of themselves exercising and even more populate Instagram with pictures of the food they eat.

Search Instagram for #cleaneating and close to 30 million posts pop up. Other favourite hashtags are #healthyfood or #organic (26 million each), #healthyeating (16 million) and #wellness (11 million).

The hidden hashtag here is #eatingdisorder. The sad truth is that strict adherence to clean eating or other wellness regimes can mask a bad relationship with food. Clean eating is a good idea if it means cutting down on processed food and fast food, and cooking more often at home. A good diet is important to maintaining one's health.

Unfortunately, many shapely men and women have built social media careers out of so-called healthy eating habits that promote an unhealthy obsession with thinness. Side by side, celebrities including Gwyneth Paltrow rake in cash - not dough, she is anti-bread - with their recipes and wellness supplements that hint (without promising) that the consumer will be transformed into the twin of a well-known blonde Hollywood name.

Gone is the emphasis on health, replaced by the disordered eating patterns based on unhappiness with the way one looks.

Food is fuel for the body. It is a way of enhancing relationships with family, friends and colleagues. It is fundamental to our physical and emotional health.

Certain types of vegetable matter are poisonous and should be avoided by humans.

Carbohydrates - bread, potatoes, cake - are not poisonous yet the words "low-carb" pervade the diet industry.

Certainly some varieties of bread and cake have an excessive amount of preservatives and sweetening agents. Healthy behaviour is cutting down consumption of these items.

Unhealthy behaviour is refusing a slice of cake when a friend or colleague has a birthday, while feeling a warm, internal glow that one has not submitted to the carbohydrate frenzy gripping everyone else at the party.

"When I eat any food I regard to be unhealthy, I feel anxious, guilty, impure, unclean and/or defiled; even to be near such foods disturbs me, and I feel judgmental of others who eat such foods," goes part of the six-point Bratman test to self-diagnose orthorexia.

Orthorexics are obsessed with following a healthy diet. This is not the same as eating healthily.

According to the test on www.orthorexia.com, orthorexics spend so much time thinking about, choosing and preparing healthy food that it affects their relationships with others as well as work or school commitments.

Perhaps you have seen it happen. Someone on a no-carb diet making disparaging remarks about the potatoes or bread others are eating. Someone eating only vegetables and later - not even noticing their behaviour - deliriously emptying bowls of chips and nuts.

My hairdresser has several times tried a diet of aloe vera, vitamin supplements and water, combined with exercise. She confesses with great shame that she broke the last time she tried this and ended up eating the meal her husband cooked.

It was a personal defeat that she could not survive five days on a calorie count that would barely feed a mynah.

She was persuaded to stop when her husband pointed out that her beautiful hair lost its lustre during the regimen.

A nutrition specialist I once consulted at Singapore General Hospital used realistic models to show the portions of carbs a healthy individual needed. I was shocked at the sizes because I had thought we needed far less to survive. Moderation is key, the nutritionist emphasised. Eating sensibly means eating the right amount for your physical needs, not more and not less. Worried about nutrients? Rather than supplements, eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables.

Health is important to me and my family. We want to remain mobile, creative and curious about the world for all the years of our life.

The boring, medically approved ways to enhance health are exercising, forming healthy relationships and eating according to nutritional guidelines that are scientific and practical.

But it is more exciting to trust social media stars and Hollywood celebrities who endorse alkaline diets and the transformative power of a life without potatoes and cheese.

Take the "Recipe" section on actress Paltrow's website. It includes a recipe for Detox Truffles, made by blending dates, cacao and coconut. Even the name hints at the dessert's purity and goodness. Eaten along with the coconut-milk concoction known as Calm, doubtless it will transform the consumer instantly into someone healthier, lovelier, worthy of being a celebrity.

Won't it? Let's think about that over a glass of alkaline water.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Feels great to be healthier than thou'. Print Edition | Subscribe