This blogpost is going to be all about my experience with orthorexia, how I recovered from it, and my mindset towards food after going through it.
So what is orthorexia anyways?
Orthorexia is the term for a condition that includes symptoms of obsessive behavior in pursuit of a healthy diet. The individual with orthorexia has this obsession with defining and maintaining the “perfect diet” that will make him/her feel pure inside. The types of foods an orthorexic will avoid are:
- Artificial colors, flavors
- Gmo foods
- High fat, high sugar, high salt foods
- Animal/dairy products
- Foods very high in calories
Symptoms of orthorexia are:
- Obsessive concern over food choices and health concerns
- Drastic reduction in acceptable food choices
- Spends lots of time thinking about food/planning
- Fear of eating out (cant control what you are eating)
- Avoiding food brought or prepared by others
- Mood swings
- Distancing from friends/family who do not have the same beliefs
As I’ve discussed earlier on my blog, I struggled with orthorexia and disordered eating from freshman year of high school through junior year. It got particularly bad during late freshman year when I was rowing crew, and also throughout sophomore year when I would workout excessively and was on the swim team. I was burning way more calories than I was consuming, which allowed me to maintain an extremely low weight. I was only 115 pounds at my lowest weight the winter of sophomore year. As a comparison, now at 20 years old, eating mindfully and working out everyday, I am 135 to 140 pounds depending on when I weigh myself (which is almost never).
Orthorexia completely took over my life. I would basically eat the same foods every single day, the ones that were “safe” and I considered to be healthy for me. These would include 100 calorie packs of almonds, pink apples, raw vegetables, salad, Lunabars, Fiber one low calorie cereal, Low calorie salad dressing, plain chicken/plain tuna. I wouldn’t have anything too high in carbs like bread, potatoes, or pasta. I would never treat myself to ice cream, cakes, cookies etc because I had this irrational fear that eating something bad would make me gain weight right away.
I would avoid going out to eat with my friends, and if I did, I would say I had already eaten or I wasn’t hungry. Obviously, they became concerned for me. My mom would buy me high-calorie breakfast bagels, telling me I needed to eat, she was worried about me, I was just skin/bones etc. I would say okay, and take the food up to my room and flush it all down the toilet. I remember thinking anything she bought me was disgusting, and if I ate it, it would immediately make me gain weight.
So, not only did I have orthorexia but I also had an eating disorder during this time. During my junior year, I got more interested in eating healthy and working out in the gym with weights. I started to eat more, like big smoothies, salads, and allowed myself more carbohydrates like sweet potatoes/rice. I was feeling a lot better, but I was still very wary about what I consumed. I adopted a vegan diet, and cut out all meat, dairy, fish, eggs, and only ate plant-based during the end of senior year of high school and beginning of freshman year of college. I am not saying a vegan diet is unhealthy in any way, but for me, I found myself constantly obsessing over what I was eating and it was adding more stress into my life than I needed at that point. I decided to drop all the labels my sophomore year of college, and finally started to find myself eating a balanced diet, not always worrying about food, and being comfortable with treating myself when I wanted to.
There is a very fine line between eating healthy, and having a good relationship with food. It is important to be able to treat yourself, go out with your friends, have a slice of pizza if you want, eat some ice cream, indulge when the time is right. Obviously, I think having a good diet is critical to having good health, but eating well should not take over your life and everything you do. Nowadays I eat healthy because I genuinely enjoy eating healthy foods and I love how it makes me feel so good, but if I am craving something, I’ll eat it. Life is to short to waste stressing about what you are eating all the time. The general guideline is that if you can eat healthy 80 percent of the time, and 20 percent of the time you eat what you want, then that is a fair compromise. This is not a rule for everyone though.
Here are some ways that I have a healthy relationship with food nowadays that was not the case when I had orthorexia:
- I don’t strictly count calories. Calorie counting works for some people when trying to drop a few pounds, but as I have discussed before, I do not think calorie counting helps establish a healthy relationship with food. Food should be judged on the nutrients it delivers to your body, not how many calories it has. An average packaged, processed bag of chips has about 100-200 calories, whereas a smoothie with avocado, banana, berries, almond milk and chia seeds has about 300-400 calories. The healthier option is the smoothie, even though it has more calories.
- If I have a craving, I allow myself to eat the food, or I make a healthier alternative. It is pretty easy nowadays to make healthier alternatives to pretty much any of your favorite treats (ice cream, cakes, cookies, pancakes, pasta, pizza and so on). Of course, nothing can really replace the real thing, but a quick google search can provide you with lots of healthier alternatives to your favorite foods.
- I don’t weigh myself everyday. Our weight fluctuates often throughout the day depending on how much water we drink, what we do for exercise, bloating, foods we consume, etc. I used to get so stressed about weighing myself each and every day to make sure I was not gaining any weight. Even if I gained a pound or two, I would then restrict my calories and exercise more. This was so silly looking back on it, because the body can easily be 5 pounds lighter in the morning vs. the night after you’ve drinken, eaten etc.
- I eat when I am hungry, and stop when I’m satisfied. Noticing your hunger cues and responding to them is a key aspect to having a good relationship with your body. During my disordered eating phase, whenever I would have hunger pains, I would tell myself it would go away if I just drank more water/chewed gum/drank 0 calorie beverages, etc. This is so so dangerous, because it causes your metabolism slowing down drastically. Food is fuel, it is energy for your body to function properly. When you are hungry, and don’t eat, the body basically runs off fumes to work properly and that is why you feel so tired, sluggish, and drained. Your cells will be starving and malnourished, leading to brittle hair, brittle nails, lackluster skin, and bags under your eyes. If you are hungry, that is a sign your metabolism is working properly. So eat! Eat until you are completely satisfied and feel good. If you are hungry, you’re not going to be motivated to work out, get things done, be productive etc. Trust your hunger cues, don’t view them as the enemy.
If you struggle with orthorexia or an eating disorder, it is very, very difficult to overcome it alone. I would recommend therapy, where you can get medication, psychotherapy, and other forms of treatment that will help you recover. I luckily did not need to take any sort of medication for my condition, but got over it over time with support from my family and friends, seeing a therapist regularly, and trusting the process.
It is also important to note that when you start eating normally again, it is very normal to gain weight very quickly. This is because since the body has basically been starving, as soon as you start to feed it, the body is confused because it is not used to receiving normal quantities of food, so it stores it as fat. This is normal, and part of the recovery process. As your metabolism becomes healthy again, and the body receives the right foods/nutrients, your weight will naturally stabilize.
If you know someone who struggles with disordered eating, it is very important to remember how to express your concern. Do not make comments like “Do you eat?” “You’re so thin!” Never mock them, make sarcastic comments, things like: “Oh you’re eating today?” “Wow, a salad, what a surprise!” These types of comments may seem harmless, but when people said these sorts of things to me it made me feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, and even more unlikely to share how I was really feeling.
I know this is a very sensitive topic but I think it very important to discuss. Eating disorders are so prevalent in today’s society, especially with social media and unrealistic standards of beauty/body type. At least 30 million people of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder in the U.S.
It is very important to be aware that so many people struggle with this condition, and to be sensitive around individuals that do. I am so grateful that I am now in a place where I have a good relationship with food and fueling my body properly, but not everyone is in that place yet. By spreading information about eating disorders, intuitive eating, and signs of orthorexia/anorexia/bulimia, it can help people suffering eventually be able to recover and get to a better place.