How do I start the process of orthorexia recovery? What are the specifics?
Do you have an eating disorder-related question, thought, or story you’d like to share? Let’s talk about it (anonymously or not).
Well, as I said last week, that’s a question I can’t fully answer for you (without us working together, one on one). But, I can share the specifics of my recovery process, and hope that it helps. I can direct you to nutrition professionals who preach a message that may be helpful for you to digest. I can steer you away from social media accounts that feed an eating disorder. I’ll remind you that every orthorexia recovery story is its own. Yours will be yours; mine is mine. They are not the same. But it may help to read, and acknowledge, that there is another way to think about food, your body, and your health. It may also help to know that I’ve been working on a project that combines many of the things I wish had been available to me during recovery. (More on that below.)
Last year I wrote about three things that felt like game-changers for me: running, eating more plant-based foods, and developing healthy personal relationships. That’s still true, but maybe it will help to address a few more specifics. (Also, maybe you weren’t reading last year. I get that!) And if we’re all being honest, we could probably write a book about the whole process. Maybe one day we will. Today is not that day. I’ll try to keep this brief, but helpful.
First: Remember that recovery doesn’t happen in a day, a week, or even a month. My recovery took a few years, and each one of these things was a process of its own. Some days were hard, some easier. Like any process, it requires mental, emotional, and sometimes physical work. It requires wanting to learn and learning, wanting to grow and growing, wanting to heal, and healing. These things helped me. I hope they help you in some way, too. (For additional professional resources, see the note below.)
Ignore the scale.
The very first thing I did for myself, while I was still wrapped up in my eating disorder, was get rid of my scale. After two years of stepping on it every single morning, I was tired of staring down and waiting for the numbers to pop up, deciding my mood for the day. I wanted to stop caring if the number was higher or lower. My logical, starting-to-learn-nutrition mind knew that it could not possibly be the exact same number every day. My irrational eating disorder wanted it to be lower. Somewhere in the middle, my sanity spoke up and said, “FORGET THIS THING.” I did just that. In one fell swoop I threw it away, and vowed to refrain from weighing in for as long as possible. The small part of me that wanted to recover knew how important this was. I listened to that intuition on a day when I felt strong enough to do so.
I still avoid the scale. I’ll never own one again.
Feed with fat, don’t fear it.
At no point in either my nutrition education or my eating disorder was I convinced that eating fat would directly result in weight gain. Fat simply has more calories per gram, therefore anything with fat had more calories than something without it (or something with fewer grams of it, anyway). Therefore, I didn’t eat very much fat for a very long time. When I started caring more about the quality of my food than I did about the quantity of calories it had, number of fat grams became much less important. Now, I eat or cook with any of the following every single day: nuts, peanut butter, oils, seeds, cheese, avocado, and fish. (But, that’s just me. Someone else’s list may include yogurt, milk, poultry, beef, etc.)
Move your muscles.
Running was crucial to my orthorexia recovery, but that is far from true for many people. For me, training to run long distances meant shifting the way I thought about food. Instead of just eating calories, I wanted to fuel and respect my body. I built confidence through running. I knew that if I really wanted to see what I was capable of accomplishing in the sport, I had to eat enough to do so. Training taught me how good it feels to be dedicated to something, recovery was part of that process. Running has always felt like a reprieve, and a much-needed lesson in self love, to me.
That said, for some people in recovery running is too intense. It’s too easy to shift the focus from calories and weight, to paces and distance run (and calories burned). So I’m not saying you should start (or keep) running to give your orthorexia recovery a boost. I’m saying that I think movement is part of recovery, because it shows you what your body can DO, while a mirror or a scale will just show you what it looks like. Move your muscles by walking, hiking, practicing yoga, swimming, riding a bike, running, or trying Tai Chi. You do you! Move in a way that provides reprieve, not a redirection of obsession.
Talk it out and write it down.
I cannot stress this one enough. TALK about your eating disorder with somebody. I wasn’t great about this, but eventually I opened up. If I had sought out a dietitian, therapist, or confidant earlier, maybe it would have helped. If you’re ready to talk it out, WRITE something (or many things) down. I did do this, because writing has always been part of every process for me. Whatever your outlet of choice, get your (restrictive, negative, harming, obsessive) thoughts OUT of your head and put them somewhere else. It helps to see or hear them. It may give you a different perspective, or simply open up a little bit of brain space. Either way, it can’t hurt.
Another thing I do sometimes is write down what has made happy (we call it the “rose” of the day), what I’m grateful for, or what’s going well.
Eat when you’re hungry.
This sounds simple, but for someone with an eating disorder it can be very complicated. It took me a long time to learn this, and I wish it hadn’t. I’m going to keep this plain and simple: if you feel physically hungry, eat food. Your body needs something, and you can provide that.
Find your people.
My people are everything. I’ll share them with you, if you ever need them.
At some point in my orthorexia recovery process, I knew that I had to be careful about who I spent time with. Some people and situations seemed to trigger the need for control, the restrictive tendencies, and the desire to keep my weight at a certain point. This is true of real-life people and social media people. Be very careful with both, for as long as you need to.
I first noticed the importance of this with a relationship in college. We spent the day together, laughing and exploring and talking and getting to know each other. We ate meals when we got hungry. We had cookies for dessert because I love chocolate chip cookies. Not once during that day did I tally up the calories in my head. Not once did I feel insecure or unsure of myself. Not once did I think about my weight, or obsess over what we might eat next. I just had a damn good time. It was a glimpse into another world, one where my mind was at ease and food didn’t manipulate every decision I made. I needed to know that this world existed, and on that day, I felt like I discovered the door to it. I wasn’t fully ready to walk through, but I knew it was there.
Time will tell. You may already recognize patterns with relationships, and may already know what you need to do for your health. I found runners, people who LOVE to eat (and taught me to love food), yogis, and kind, loving, thoughtful, nonjudgmental people. They are everywhere, I promise.
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The Lane 9 Project: A gift from my recovery to yours.
A combination of these recovery things came together when I met Sam and Alexis, we got to talking during a run, and decided to start the Lane 9 Project. In the lowest points of our eating disorders, we needed to know we weren’t alone in the experience. We needed our physicians, coaches, or mentors to know what was going on and that it wasn’t normal or okay. We need to write our stories, to share them. We needed lady role models to help us get through the tough process of orthorexia recovery. So, we’re creating that now.
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If you are recovering from an eating disorder, please seek help. This list may give you things to think about, but it is not prescription to go at it alone. Reach out to me, a friend or family member, your physician or therapist or an eating disorder specialist—start where you can.