My Struggle With Orthorexia
I was initially really nervous to share this post. I received so much love after sharing it that I plan to indulge myself in more personal stories moving forward. Thank you all so much for the support, and for sharing your own stories! You're amazing.
By simply reading this blog title, you may not even know what orthorexia is.
I certainly didn’t when I was going through it myself--which is why I’m so happy to be able to provide some insight, because perhaps you or someone you know may be battling orthorexia without even realizing it.
When we think of eating disorders, our minds automatically go to what our culture knows: anorexia and bulimia. We’ve become so food and fit-obsessed that the extremes are no longer the only cases prevalent when it comes to disordered eating.
Orthorexia is a relatively new condition that didn’t have a name until 1997. (The first case of anorexia was documented in 1866, to put this in perspective).
It makes you wonder: what happened over the past 100 years that a new form of disordered eating made its way onto the scene? One that is REAL (I mean, I lived it), but has yet to be recognized by the American Psychiatric Association? Because it is not recognized by the APA, we can’t officially call it an eating disorder, but it is certainly a form of disordered eating.
There are so many reasons why this condition is something we need to be talking about out loud, in big rooms, filled with women who have concerns about eating healthy and their relationships to their bodies.
Because here’s what orthorexia is: a proposed distinct eating disorder characterized by extreme or excessive preoccupation with eating food believed to be healthy.
I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it’s a real thing.
But first, let’s back track to where my story began so you can see what this looks like and how common the behaviors actually are.
At 19 years-old, I was brave enough (before everyone was doing it) to study abroad in Australia, which is one of the reasons I went back and spent my honeymoon there.
Everyone in Australia was just so happy and healthy. It was impossible not to “pick up what they were putting down,” per say. They walked everywhere and ate local, fresh foods. Coming from a college in the middle-of-no-where Virginia where my local grocery store was a Walmart, this was refreshing and a completely new vibe.
My crunchy-granola-type study abroad roommate also cooked all of her food, so I picked up on her habits and started to cook all the time. I’m so grateful to her, and I hope she reads this blog so she can know what an impact she eventually had on my life, because I never had the chance to tell her in person.
Even when dining out, it’s difficult to eat badly in Australia. I was used to gas station Subway sandwiches and Quiznos and Dominos in college, so it was like going from a D- to an A+ overnight in terms of my nutrition.
So you see, my new habits were inspired by good intentions. I was trying to live a better life for myself and wasn’t super concerned with what I saw in the mirror—until I started to witness the changes taking place.
In what seemed like an overnight transition, I had lost the nearly 15 pounds I gained freshman year of college (and then some) in a matter of months, and had a holy sh*t moment when I looked at the below picture.
I had a six-pack and I was skinny and what?!? When did this happen?
Once I witnessed my “new body” and everyone seemed to be commenting on how good I looked, it wasn’t long before my quest for healthy living quickly turned into an obsession with eating healthy.
This was only the beginning, because the real issue didn’t start until I got back home.
I’ll never forget getting off of the plane in the Philadelphia airport and hugging my parents. My Mom was in utter shock with how thin I had become. I went from around 132 pounds to 110 pounds, which is very thin for my 5’7”ish frame.
My family expressed similar concerns just two weeks later while we were celebrating Thanksgiving. My weight loss was the hot topic of conversation at the dinner table. It got me thinking…
I knew I had lost weight, but I was also eating really healthy (or so I thought). I knew I was being somewhat restrictive with my calories, but I was only trying to follow the advice of the media. I knew I looked different, but what did I do wrong?
The above photo was taken almost a year later, and I had lost more weight. Yes, I was still being my goofy self and trying to fit into my boyfriend's (at the time) nephew's floaty, but the problem was obvious. My butt was totally gone, my ribs visible from every angle, and I was clearly a confused little girl.
My family would get on me about my decisions around food and tell me I was “too skinny,” which only pushed me away. I made my Dad buy egg whites, veggie burgers, and fat-free cheese and yogurt, along with other fake health foods at the grocery store. I was on a very low-fat, low-calorie diet, but would eat sweets whenever I wanted.
Therein lied the problem.
I was completely obsessive about what I was eating 90% of the time. It had to be what I deemed as “healthy”—which actually wasn’t healthy at all, but again, I was paying attention to what the media was telling us to eat…
Low-fat, low-calorie, very little meat, fake soy products, whole grain bread, artificial sweeteners galore. That was my “healthy” diet.
Notice how I said 90% of the time. Because if I went out drinking with friends or was at a holiday party with family, all bets were off. I let myself have whatever I wanted to the point where it got very extreme. I would eat beyond my capacity for the foods I loved because I was being so restrictive in everyday life.
That other 10%? It was a free-for-all. Muffins, cakes, pizza, ice cream, pasta, whatever I wanted. I ate an entire Hawaiian pizza one night in college. And after a night out for a friend’s 21st birthday party, I ate half of her chocolate birthday cake. We laughed about that for years afterwards, but I now recognize that it was a result of my struggle. Earlier that day, I wouldn’t even have cheese on my pizza. But half of a chocolate cake once I had been drinking and “it didn’t matter anymore?” Sure.
There were several times where I took it too far and I ate SO much that I had to take laxatives to ease the discomfort in my belly. And FYI, taking laxatives on the reg is a totally different form of disordered eating, but luckily, I only did it out of necessity a few times. I have a close friend whose sister overused laxatives in high school and college, and to this day (in her late 30’s) she has GI issues that will never return to normal.
Ladies, this sh*t is real. (Pun intended). There are so many ways we struggle with food and body image and we’re only starting to peel back the onion and be honest about what really goes on when no one’s watching.
My story doesn’t end there. In fact, the above back-and-forth went on for a matter of four years until I started studying nutrition. I was obviously interested in it, which is where my disordered eating stemmed from.
While living in San Diego (where everyone and their mother and their mother’s yoga teacher are super healthy), I decided I wanted to pursue a career as a clinical nutritionist. This was the ultimate turning point.
There wasn’t a specific “a-ha” moment. But maybe that’s because the entire year I was back in school was full of “a-ha” moments.
I realized the advice I was listening to for all of those years around how to be “healthy” was wrong.
- I didn’t have to eat low fat all the time. In fact, this was doing more harm than good.
- I didn’t have to be a vegetarian. My body was craving burgers and salmon, so I realized I should probably listen to the cravings.
- I didn’t have to give up the foods I loved such as cheese and ice cream if I wanted to be healthy.
- I didn’t have to run 5 or 10 miles in order to feel like I could eat what I wanted.
- And most importantly, I didn’t have to be “perfectly thin” in order to be happy.
It was as if I “woke up” from years of living someone else’s life. I could be me, wholly and completely, without the constant internal battles over whether or not I was doing things right diet-wise.
There was so much more to life, and I was going to LIVE IT. Since that time in my life at 24 years-old, I’ve never dieted, over-exercised, or obsessed about food.
To celebrate my body and remind myself of what I’ve been through and how far I’ve come, I took bikini shots (despite my fear!) during a photoshoot for my 30th birthday a few years ago.
It was a process of healing, rather than an overnight transition. Even though there were difficult times, I’m so grateful for all of those years. They taught me to focus on how I feel in my body, rather than consuming myself with what I saw in the mirror. They taught me that I can live a healthy life and have green smoothies for breakfast, and enjoy other foods I loved just as much that may not be as “healthy” without guilt, like pizza, meatballs, eggplant parm (can you tell I’m Italian?), ice cream, and warm chocolate chip cookies. They taught me to find peace with my body, and as the years go by, I continue to feel stronger, sexier, and more confident than ever before.
Most importantly? The experience led to my now career as a nutritionist. Without the hard times, I never would have realized that this is what I’m supposed to do with my life. And it’s been one of the greatest gifts life has given me!
My story is not unique. I’ve seen so many women struggle with food and exercise obsession, especially where I live. This circumstance is clearly abundant in areas of New York City and Fairfield County in Connecticut from what I can see (and have witnessed in my practice), and I’m sure it’s prevalent all over the country.
Do I have an end-all solution? No. But I do want to help women who are struggling with orthorexia or are perhaps deep in their own food obsession know that they are not alone.
I also want women who believe they know someone who may be struggling with orthorexia to understand that it is a problem, and goes beyond a preoccupation with food. If you have a girlfriend who may be exhibiting behaviors that represent orthorexia, don’t judge her. Be there for her, because deep down there’s something going on in her life that has nothing to do with food.
To flip the paradigm, here’s what we can do together:
- We can stop defining our self-worth by our looks.
- We can educate ourselves on what “healthy” really looks like, for us as an individual.
- We can create happiness within our own selves and our own lives so we don’t have to turn to outside sources (food) for comfort.
- We can do this by creating a supportive, loving community of women around us who will be there when we need a hand to hold (because sometimes significant others just don’t get it:)
- We can also create happiness by educating ourselves about food. Knowledge is power, love. I run a group coaching program called Food or Fiction that covers all of this and more in a matter of six weeks.
- We can stop judging each other for our food and lifestyle choices.
- We can do the spiritual work necessary in order to figure out what has us stuck in our emotional food rollercoaster. For me, my spiritual work consisted of lots of yoga, following a passion and going back to school, and being gentle with myself throughout the years it took me to heal.
- We can ask for help.
- We can wake up, and realize there’s a lot more to life than perfection; whether we’re trying to achieve the perfect body, the perfect diet, the perfect relationship, or the perfect (you fill in the blank).
Sound like a plan? Good. I’m still working through all of the above, especially numbers 4 and 7.
This is by far the most vulnerable post I’ve ever written, so I want to thank you for allowing me to be so open. It’s not easy to share the nitty gritty TMI details, but I know by doing so, we’ll open up conversation and help each other along the way.
I heart you all! I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you’ve ever struggled with food obsession (it doesn’t have to be orthorexia) or food confusion, or if you know someone who has. Or anything that’s on your mind. I’d appreciate any and all of your thoughts! Let’s start the conversation below.