I have a lifelong journey with eating disorders and negative food relationships. They ranged from not eating or drinking for several weeks until I was VERY sick to hating myself deep inside for eating the “wrong” thing/being afraid for others who I thought did as well…or worst, fearing I would die if I ate the wrong thing. I’ve lived with anorexia, bulimia and orthorexia. I’ve been overweight and skeletally thin. Not many people know what orthorexia is and I thought I’d take a moment to share a little about my personal journey with it.
What I don’t want confused here is the fact that eating well IS a very good thing! Cut out junk and packaged, processed food, throw in more veggies, drink more water, and you will already be feeling and living better. What I am talking about here is the person who has done all of that and now finds his/herself in a bad headspace about otherwise healthy food or, worse, in a malnourished state because of irrational fears about food.
The Mayo Clinic’s website quotes Dr. Steven Bratman, the doctor who first described and named this disorder, as saying, “what tips the balance from being committed to healthy eating and having orthorexia is the extreme limitation and obsession in food selection. Orthorexics find themselves being unable to take part in everyday activities. They isolate themselves and often become intolerant of other people’s views about food and health.” This had become my life.
According to eatingdisordershealthguide.com,“Orthorexia in and of itself doesn’t pose the same health threats as anorexia or bulimia, but doctors and psychiatrists are concerned that it could lead to one of the more seri[ous] disorders. The severe restrictive nature of orthorexia could easily morph into anorexia. The limited diet also puts people at risk of being undernourished, which could cause them to binge, and later purge out of guilt – paving the way for bulimia. The character traits of people with anorexia and orthorexia are very similar as well (perfectionism, overly self-critical, etc.), which is also cause for concern.”
So, for me personally, orthorexia turned into yet another unhealthy relationship with food …and then into being undernourished and into making myself crazy with food limitations. A few years back, I started to deem anything eaten out (even at restaurants that are careful with ingredients and cater to their customers, or at friend’s homes) as being not just “on the naughty list” but literally “unhealthy.”
The salmon spinach salad I now get when I eat out had turned into “unhealthy” fare in my mind. I was afraid they would put canola oil in it, or a few measly sugar coated pecans… I wouldn’t eat out of my home. I stopped eating anything other than a few vegetables or a few pieces of lettuce out and I was literally afraid for my health if I ate anything that wasn’t a part of what my head now deemed “healthy.” With my hectic schedule, I was not home often; I would simply not eat anything. I had to catch myself eating this way. No one would identify it and even if they did, they sure didn’t know how to talk to me about it.
My doctor and the (IMHO lousy) nutritionist she worked with did not understand my repeated requests to help me develop a diet/lifestyle for myself that would provide my athletic body the calories it seriously needed with foods that made me feel good inside. They told me instead to eat plenty of “cake and goldfish crackers,” patted my hand, and checked off the “anorexic” box on their forms. In hindsight, I believe they needed to talk to me more about what was happening to me in thinking about food this way – and how I was pushing myself away from others – not just casually throwing out the idea of eating food that is really NOT healthy as the remedy – that just pushed me further in to it.
So, I came to the rather painful conclusion on my own that I was starving myself again – this time just in a different way. I began to recognize my unhealthy obsession with food and how it was translating to my relationships with other people. Because I was so afraid for anyone I cared about who ate what I deemed “unhealthy,” I worried about them to the point that I’d be in their face about it. Now, when someone tells me they are trying a new way of eating – unless it’s actually depleting their system or making them ill – I am happy for them in their journey to better health. And, if my friends order the decadent cake, I don’t worry about them having a heart attack. But when I was dealing with my orthorexia, if it didn’t match my EXACT self-concocted, so-called healthy diet, I only felt pain and worry for them. I pushed away clients, friends and family doing this. Additionally, I scared people who may have been interested in eating well and caring for themselves. Now, I counsel my clients who are working hard to eat better to quietly lead by example – never criticizing other’s choices, or judging them, but seeing the good they are trying to do. I do the same. I will never criticize you for eating something that just doesn’t work for me or that I no longer have a taste for…
I did have to find a sustainable lifestyle that would work for me and yet help me cope with the obsessive feelings I was having about what was “healthy” and what was not. Basically, because of my dairy allergy, and how much better I felt without gluten (less or no osteoarthritis), I took my personal version of the Paleo diet as my standard daily approach. To help my headspace, I now simply eat – I think of feeding the machine to keep it going. If I have to stop at a 7/11 and get some nuts and a banana because I couldn’t get it together to pack a snack, I’m not going to die, or gain weight or be sick, if the handful of nuts are cooked in peanut oil (which I used to fear before). I don’t do it daily, but it’s better FOR ME than catching myself starving, and it’s a way better choice than a hot dog, chips and a Big Gulp like I used to eat (one day I will share the story of the time I drank a Coca-Cola-flavored-icee during a distance run…REALLY). I know I still have issues with food. It’s a lifelong journey, but I promise, if I go back to New Orleans, I’m going to eat a sugar-coated beignet at Café Du Monde and that’s coming a long way for me.
At this point, without even thinking, I eat really well naturally by choosing foods that sound good to me. I don’t portion most of my foods, but I do eat mindfully. I taste my food. I do focus on vegetables but I eat everything I want. I eat out – yes, I need to ask what is in foods I eat but if I eat the wrong thing, I don’t purge and I don’t starve myself instead. I attend birthday parties and eat the gelato. I do listen to my body though… when I start feeling food addictions and obsessions coming on, drinking too much wine, or craving a whole bag of GF bread (and YES, I have done that, too), I know it’s time to eat more veggies and no or little processed sugars. I eat when I am hungry. I also listen to that little voice inside my head when it comes to food and my relationships with others vis-à-vis food. If I find myself off track, it may just be time to get those duck-fat fries I love and a glass of good wine with a good friend in whom I can confide.
Feed your machine. If you have little or no cravings (because you are satiated and well-nourished), no resultant health issues, no unexplained weight gains or losses, if your head and your gut feel good when you eat – and if you aren’t pushing your way down other people’s throats because you love them – then you are living well and eating well.
People need help in many ways when it comes to food in America. I suspect many teens (boys and girls) suffer from this type of eating disorder. Let’s open up a conversation or ask questions on this topic. I can only answer from my own personal experience, and I know some well-qualified people who may be able to help, but we can always look for answers, too. Here’s to living well.