Understanding Orthorexia

I know in the past I’ve mentioned my issues with disordered eating. Incase you don’t want to read my About Me (I don’t blame you, it’s lengthy :p), I’ll sum it up: From ages 15-20, I was overweight and wanted to change. I thought the only way to lose weight was to severely restrict calories. I hate to call it anorexia for a BMI of 31, but that’s essentially what it was in terms of lacking food. Of course, this never worked for long term weightloss. At age 20, I finally understood HEALTHY eating and exercising, which is what ultimately led to my successful weightloss and maintenance.

What I’ve merely hinted at in the past, but HAVEN’T really discussed with many, is how my healthy eating eventually led to another form of disordered eating called orthorexia. What is orthorexia? Orthorexia is not an officially recognized eating disorder, but it is just as consuming and harmful in my opinion. It is defined as the obsession to eat healthy. An unhealthy obsession with healthy. This might be hard for many to understand; my boyfriend was by my side through the journey and he still doesn’t get it… While anorexia and bulimia stem from the desire to remain thin, lose weight, control your food, etc….orthorexia…I consider a fear.

I think back on my emotions then and I just think of fear and anxiety. Extreme anxiety. Fear of eating the “wrong” food, fear of eating “toxic” ingredients/chemicals that would knock years off my life, fear of storing fat from some “weight-sabotaging” ingredient… I was afraid if I had any sugar, I’d fall back into my unhealthy days and crave/consume it 24/7. I was afraid of certain foods for reasons that made sense to me at the time, but were honestly all made-up rules from my imagination and seem so absurd now. Timing of certain foods/food groups freaked me out. I was afraid people would see me eating something unhealthy, then judge me and assume I’d “fallen off the bandwagon”. And god forbid I eat food prepared by anyone else because surely they’d slip in a half stick of butter or a tablespoon of sugar to screw with me #endsarcasm.

Where did these rules stem from and how did this begin? Well, in all honesty, as much as I love Instagram and how it’s changed my life, I can say with confidence that it developed from Instagram influence. My journey into healthy eating began harmlessly; I switched to whole grain pasta, I got low fat cheese, I bought sugar free pudding mix, I snacked on apples… But then I started to avoid certain foods I didn’t consider healthy enough. The low fat cheese became “bad” to me, sugar free pudding mix was the devil’s powder because it had chemicals, apples could only be eaten after a workout because the sugar content will be used to restore glucose levels so it’s “okay” then… I suppose you could argue that if you want to “eat clean”, avoiding low fat cheese and sugar free pudding makes sense, but I started to avoid natural food too. I was afraid of coconut, dried fruit (even the no sugar added kinds), any nuts (except almonds were “okay” in my head ._.), and more… I could make an endless list. But the point is, I made ridiculous rules based on what I perceived was the most perfect way of eating. The perfect way of eating from what I observed on Instagram. I modelled “okay” foods and “bad” foods based on what the people I looked up to were eating. I wouldn’t pin it on any specific person or account, it was just a culmination of influences. Eating what they eat would allow me to look like them right? Wrong.

I let this take over my life. I would let myself go hungry at family events because I was afraid the food was “toxic” (toxic to me meaning that there were heaps of butter/oil/sugar/whatever in it). I would avoid dinners out at restaurants unless I was certain I could trust the restaurant to bring me grilled chicken and steamed broccoli, no seasonings or oils added. The tears and breakdowns were so emotionally taxing I’d just try to avoid restaurants altogether. And even when I got the courage to eat out, I always convinced myself they screwed up and added “junk”.  Who knows who was right in the great butter debate of 2012. I remember taking a vacation to visit a friend (hi Andrew) in March 2012, when my orthorexia was beginning to really manifest. Grocery shopping for me for the week was one of the most frustrating things for him; he didn’t say it, but I could tell. He’d suggest food after food, and I’d decline it all. “Why not this?” I’d have no reasonable answer… All I could do was fumble over words and say I just don’t eat it. This is how my social interactions became for about 6-8 months.

How I started to overcome it, was I first realized WHAT was going on. I had a problem. I was socially withdrawn and physically underweight. I told my boyfriend and my mom (who I was living with at the time) what I was going through. And I asked if they could help. I asked them “You know when you offer food and I decline? Keep doing that. Except pressure me not to decline. Please. Just keep offering.” I asked them to question my silly rules of “good” and “bad” foods and help me gain perspective. I also asked them to remain patient with me… And they were. You can hope that a person will change for the better, but you can’t force it. Just be supportive and push their buttons, question their logic, but never make them feel stupid or inferior for their thoughts and actions. Most of the time I was fully aware that my thoughts were twisted and ridiculous, but you just. can’t. help it. So they treated me exactly as I asked and remained patient, and I’d say it went successfully.

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I don’t talk about this issue often because honestly, I still deal with traces of it. Yes, almost a year and a half after making changes to overcome it. Orthorexia now does not affect my daily routine, but there are instances 1-2x a week that remind me I’m still constantly winning minor battles. I still can’t discern if I avoid cheese because I honestly don’t like it or because I’m afraid of it. I still couldn’t give you a reason why I refuse to eat honey/agave/maple syrup. Last week, I had a VitaTop (processed dessert type snack) and was okay with it. This morning, I had apples with breakfast, not postworkout, and was okay with it. It’s embarrassing to announce publicly, but privately I am so proud. Little hurdles like this give me anxiety, but slowly and surely it really does get easier. Rather than letting it consume my day as I would before, it’s a fleeting, brief moment of anxiety.

I have always held the belief that someone that faces/faced an eating disorder will always struggle with disordered eating, no matter what. As dismal as that sounds, I believe we are biologically more prone to the thoughts of disordered eating and body issues. The thing that changes is how you deal with those thoughts and how you manage yourself. I will admit – I don’t know how to eat. I just don’t. I grew up overweight as a spoiled, only-child in a well-off family with excess food. Food is yummy so I ate it. Then I restricted my food for years. I have been a vegetarian. I have done Whole30. I have dieted down. I have bulked. And I can tell you still, I don’t know how to eat. I don’t know portions. My body, eyes, and logic can visualize the proper amount of food, the inner disordered eating thoughts will always tell me it’s too much, and my inner foodie will always remind me how delicious food is and that I should eat in excess. So that’s where the struggle lies.

Programs like IIFYM (if it fits your macros) can really help people with similar mindsets like this. I would really recommend looking into it for others. While it’s not for everyone, for me it helps me be at ease with eating the previously considered “bad” foods. I very leniently track macros, and don’t stress if they vary from day to day. I also take frequent breaks from counting because it is time consuming and eventually makes you feel controlled by it. It’s all about some give and take.

TL;DR: Please don’t restrict foods. Live life. There are more important things than what your macros were 4 days ago and if other people think you’re eating healthy or not.

Update: This is a great relevant article to read.


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20 comments

  1. AimeeNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you so so soooo much for this post. I started following your instragram a while ago an that is how I found your blog. I have this exact same problem and have thought i was crazy! I have realized in the last couple months that the problem is real and something i need to work through. Orthorexia has been so hard and really caused a lot of problems in my life and a lot of unnecessary anxiety. I just wanted you to know this post just helped me so much. I think you are amazing and so brave for being willing to share. Just wanted you to know your post really made a difference for someone like me. Thanks so much!

    • KimNo Gravatar says:

      Thank you for your thoughts! I was very hesitant to post this and still uncertain if I will to Instagram. But your comment reassures me that it was the right choice to post! It’s unfortunately pretty common in people who choose to eat healthy and be active, and I feel many can relate to the problems orthorexia causes. I hope that things will turn around for you to where you find a happy balance and enjoy yourself :)

  2. SarahNo Gravatar says:

    Kim, I’m so proud of you for being so open about this. I know how scary it can be to talk about, but I am a firm believer that it helps! You’re awesome :)

  3. MeredithNo Gravatar says:

    YES thank you for posting this! I can’t even tell you how reassuring and inspiring it is to see people experiencing the same thing, yet having confidence that the thoughts become less and less. Instagram has given me great ideas but at the same time has led me to accounts that I’m not sure are preaching the best food “rules”. BUT, on the other hand there are accounts like yours who always have the most creative and delicious recipes and positive posts :) Going from restricting to gaining for so long, I feel like I have no idea what a true meal or hunger/satiety cues are so I FEEL YA on the fact that I have no idea how to eat. Thank you agaiiin for really inspiring me. I’d been trucking along on the physical recovery, but this post gives me a reminder that mental recovery is just as, if not even more important :)

    • KimNo Gravatar says:

      Thank you for such kind feedback! :) Isn’t it strange how we all experience such similar things? It’s definitely reassuring to know others can and have gotten through it. And you’re right! I’d say the mental aspect is even more important! Keep at it; you’re strong :)

  4. AmyNo Gravatar says:

    You’re so brave to post this. Thank you!! I know it helps me and will help many others out there. Stay strong, my dear. We’re always here for you! :)

  5. EmilyNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for this! It hit closer to home than I could have thought. Very glad you posted it to your Instagram or I likely wouldn’t have ever seen it.

  6. TaKaraNo Gravatar says:

    Thank you for sharing, Kim! It was a great read. I am currently struggling with what I “can” & “can’t” eat and how much of it to consume! Instagram has also helped me tremendously with proper eating, but also hindered me in a way. I’m glad to hear it’s not just me out there struggling with WHAT to eat and HOW MUCH.

  7. Sara LangNo Gravatar says:

    I think the most inspiring part of your story is that you saw yourself in a bad place and you were able to dig yourself out. There are some many women who struggle with these same issues who can’t, and then end up going inpatient and receiving lots of therapy and medication, but not you. You are truly a role model for any woman with disordered eating to strivefor those goals and to fix yourself without having to go down that darker road to recovery. Sometimes, treatment is the best option for some, but your a beacon for proving that you don’t have to. I love your recipes and I change them a bit, adding brown sugar, honey, agave, etc,replacing protien powders with other flour,etc., and my husband does too (we live for your chicken and waffles) and its nice to find better ways to eat the foods that we love. Your story helps me stifle to urge to fear food, and you are truly an excellent woman. Keep on keeping on.

  8. NaomiNo Gravatar says:

    I found your Instagram a little while ago. Truly did not realize what I was going through was an actual thing with a name and everything! I’ve been overweight my whole stinkin life. Never been able to figure out the proper balance of things and for awhile now I’ve been thinking that my stress is what’s keeping me fat. Not the food! Okay, food too, but mostly the stress. I truly have convinced myself that my body is broken and can’t ever be fit. Even if I’m eating “clean” and perfect and exercising. It hurts. I felt like I had written those words (except the part where you lost the weight) but besides that I feel like I am falling into this hole and taking my family with me. I have five kids and I’m trying to not pass on my problems. I do want to eat healthy, I do want fun new healthy recipes. I do want the body I’ve never been able to get because of lack of knowledge, but I don’t want to go overboard and do more damage in the process. Especially to my husband and children. At least now I know it’s a real thing. That does help. Thank you!

    • KimNo Gravatar says:

      Oh wow! Stress definitely can lead to your body holding onto fat; I wouldn’t go so far to believe your body is broken! Our bodies are amazing and adapt so well and can be changed. We are not static beings, we are always changing! When I was younger and overweight, I came to believe that I was “stuck” too. I thought “oh I was just born fat and I’ll always be fat and I body is just meant to be this way” but then I realized…no…there’s nothing special or cursed or magical about me. I’m just another human being and all bodies can be changed. Yes, we do slightly vary, but not enough to where our bodies’ metabolisms are “broken”! The same processes are occurring within everyone when you look at it metabolically :) Sort out the stress and keep trucking and anything you want can be made possible! Definitely be wary while keeping an open mind; always be open to new information!

  9. KateNo Gravatar says:

    it’s amazing to know that there are other people out there struggling with this problem! I especially love the paragraph that talked about how you got help from your family and overcame it! you’re such an inspiration and I absolutely am in love with you on instagram!:)

  10. EmilyNo Gravatar says:

    Kim,

    AHHHH. I have written to you before but I just see SO much of myself and my story in yours. I wanted to cry reading this because it is so so so so so so so me. I wrote a long comment on your article “The Importance of Food” a while back and I can so relate to being influenced both positively and negatively by the media (for me it was Pinterest).

    I feel like I lost something so natural when I slipped into orthorexia, which was knowing naturally what the correct portion was, for me, at that time of the day. Eating became a game of “What can I have?” and “What should I have?” instead of “What do I want right now?” God, the number of salads I ate…and fat-free ricotta cheese (thank you South Beach Diet)…and sugar free Jell-O (God forbid I accidentally ate the non-sugar-free one, who knows what would happen). I completely understand what you said about how some foods were “okay” certain times (pre/post workout) even though it really might not have made that much biological sense–because there is so much going on in our bodies at any one second in the day. And I SO get what you were saying about not knowing whether you don’t eat cheese because you really don’t like it or because it’s a remnant of orthorexia. I think sometimes in our minds we know that it probably is still the orthorexia and it’s almost comforting at times to avoid those foods, but conquering them really does make us proud.

    Yesterday, I had a really big moment. I don’t share this with anyone really, but my friend is going through a similar thing and I decided to be candid with her about my struggles and sent her this text:

    “I am so proud of myself. I know it sounds weird but it’s big for me. So I have plans to eat with my friend around 5 which is like really early dinner or really late lunch. So I was planning on just eating a really light lunch to save room or whatever. But when I got out of class I was REALLY hungry so I got a half sandwich and soup combo from Au Bon Pain and I didn’t look at the stupid calorie count or anything I just listened to my body and what I was craving which was a hearty bread with chicken salad and barley mushroom soup. Then after eating that I was still pretty hungry but my head was telling me I “shouldn’t eat” because I’m eating later. But I said F you. And I bought a luna bar and then I bought a huge hot chocolate NOT with skim milk with regular whole milk and a ton of whipped cream and chocolate sauce and real sugar. And I enjoyed every single sip of the whole thing it was delicious. And I shouldn’t deprive myself of these things that I love. Feeling guilty about eating things that I never used to think twice about is just so not worth it. what is life if you don’t enjoy the foods you love? I don’t freaking care how many calories it was I just listened to my body and my heart. I still have good days and bad days but my brain is always in this state of regulating what I’m eating and making sure I’m on track. And usually I try to override it when there’s something I really want or a special occasion but it’s always there. And today I feel like I really conquered it. Like when I was ordering I just let my mouth do the talking and not my stupid overly healthy conscious brain. ”

    I’m lightyears from where I was last year. Last year I would go through phases where I would only want my friends to see me eating healthy foods (like you said), but then I got scared that they would only think I’m eating healthy foods and that they’d think something is wrong with me, so I would make a show of eating a “normal” food like a cookie or something. Now, thankfully, I eat a lot of normal foods with my friends and they don’t comment much, but they know that I do “eat healthy.”

    One of the things that knocked me back into reality (besides the breakdown I mentioned in my other comment) was the realization that other people are skinny, or healthy, and HAPPY, and eat whatever the heck they want. Why can’t I? Why don’t I deserve to eat those things? My obsession turned into anger at what I was doing to myself. So at those deciding moments when a piece of food was in front of me and normally I wouldn’t eat it, my head would begin to say, “Stop depriving yourself. Your friends eat this all the time without a second thought.” And I’d almost force myself to eat it, and be happy about it. Maybe a little guilty but mostly happy. It’s a weird dichotomy.

    Like you said, there are still some things to deal with that just don’t make sense. For example, I’m still not at the point when I can add a sugar packet to my coffee without thinking twice, but I’ll eat some gummy bears which are obviously pure sugar, and I’ll be fine with it. And I sooo agree about the inner foodie making it hard! It’s really a constant battle.

    Last thing. At my school I have to write a senior thesis. I was planning to write within my major and do a Neuroscience thesis, but after my recent history I decided to change it, and my topic is now: The Role of Instagram in Aiding Recovery from Eating Disorders. You are a huge influence on me and my decision to write about it, and I think awareness needs to be spread about how prevalent EDs like orthorexia are, especially in the Instagram world.

    Thank you so much for being so open. I seriously think we are the same person (both trained for our first half marathons this year while trying to keep up a consistent weightlifting schedule, both science majors, both foodies, so much more) and I have learned so much from you. Please keep up the great work inspiring others!

    • KimNo Gravatar says:

      I remember your comments on the other post! :) I LOVE your words so much! Thank you for commenting and sharing. Everything you have said parallels with my experiences as well. I would agree with you on being the same person :p

      I am so happy you’ve come so far!! Definitely something to be proud of, yet something to keep working at around “the edges” of the orthorexia left behind.

      It’s really heart breaking that so many people, it seems, end up going through the exact same process/journey that we both have… Your senior thesis topic sounds incredible and definitely will make an impact. I agree that awareness needs to be spread. I would love to read it when you are finished; would that be okay? Your writing is so great and I’m sure I’d be completely consumed by your thesis.

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