This year’s National Eating Disorder Awareness Week theme is “It’s Time To Talk About It.” If you need to talk or want to share your story, let me know. I’d love to talk with you.
I wasn’t sure I would ever be transparent about my experience with orthorexia. For a long time I considered it a mild brush with disordered eating—just a little too “healthy,” with good intentions—not something worth sharing. I thought that since I wasn’t anorexic or bulimic, it wasn’t serious.
I assumed most nutrition students were counting calories. I figured we all had a little too much information about food to not overthink it in some way. I convinced myself everyone must spend at least part of their day thinking about food. I wondered how it was even possible to not think about lunch immediately after eating breakfast. I wondered how many other women missed their periods, and why that happened. Sometimes I wondered if I would spend the rest of my life in this spiral of thoughts.
I didn’t ask. I didn’t talk for a long time. I decided my story wasn’t unique.
I can’t recall the exact moment, day, or even year I read about orthorexia. I just wish I had known a little sooner. That’s why now is as good a time as any to talk about it.
Orthorexia: an unhealthy fixation on eating healthy or “pure” foods, as defined by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
“Do you think you need to talk to somebody about it?”
There aren’t a lot of dinner options when you’re working a baseball concession stand, much less when your brain needs an even calorie calculation. At 18, I was always hungry, always adding up the numbers, always contemplating what and when to eat next. Between parents, coaches, and kids buying chili, candy, terrible coffee, popcorn, hot dogs, and sodas, I checked the back of every snack package. One soft pretzel was 200 calories (of enriched wheat flour, corn syrup, and salt). A package of peanut butter cups was 220 calories. Let’s do the math: 200 + 220 = 420 calories. That’s enough for my dinner (because I don’t need 500 calories, I thought). Sold! Bon appetit!
This decision-making sequence had become my norm. By this point, I had been counting calories for almost one year. I had lost a lot of weight. I had memorized my food staples so I didn’t have to spend mental energy counting those calories every day. I routinely tallied up the day’s eats between meals. Clearly, I had not applied many lessons from that Intro to Nutrition class. The dinner I just outlined to you is not considered a “balanced” meal. I only cared about total calories consumed.
This particular evening is when I realized that I felt something akin to a high when I knew EXACTLY how many calories I ate. I preferred packaged foods, because they provided me with that exact information (or so I believed). That night, I stepped outside my own head for a minute and observed my decision-making behavior. I watched myself decide on the pretzel and peanut butter cups because the math worked. I spent the rest of my shift mentally tracing the timeline of my behaviors, how they had developed over the past year, and what that meant.
I talked to my Mom about this when I got home.
At the moment, I didn’t frame it as a problem. I just thought it was “interesting.” I justified it, noting that a lot had changed in my life in a short amount of time, assuming it was natural to search for control somewhere. With sympathy and concern, she asked, “Do you think you need to talk to someone about this?” I said, “Nope.”
That was a turning point for me, after which I didn’t want to count calories anymore. I wanted to be healthier. I didn’t think I needed to talk to someone about it, though, because I was going to study Nutrition, so I could figure it out. I didn’t know that “figuring it out” would take years. In that moment, I didn’t know that I would replace counting calories with a low-fat obsession, which I later replaced with a variety of food aversions that transferred the sense of control from one thing to another. I didn’t know that I would date someone who had similar issues, or that on the brink of recovery, I would regress because I was inundated with his obsessions.
A need to feel in control was the beginning of a disordered relationship with food for me. Initially, it was an obsession over numbers, not eating for health. As I studied nutrition and learned more about nutrients and nourishment, I cared less about numbers but more about dietary rules. I fixated on what I deemed “healthy” and rarely strayed from those perimeters. I wanted my body to stay a certain size, and developed these food rules to feel like I could control it.
I didn’t know Orthorexia was an eating disorder, or that I had exhibited so many of the signs and symptoms. I didn’t know it would have been helpful to talk about it.
Orthorexia is an eating disorder.
It is a ‘fixation on eating healthy or “pure” foods’ and that may look different in each case. To some people, “healthy” means low-fat, low-calorie, raw, vegan, or something-free. To some people, “pure” means fresh and whole. In many cases, it’s difficult to distinguish a general interest in nutrition from an eating disorder. Sometimes, it starts with an honest desire to improve health.
Orthorexia runs rampant on “healthy eating” blogs and Instagram accounts, in cleansing or detoxing programs, and with nutrition “experts” claiming you MUST cut X, Y, and Z out of your diet. All of the above have normalized this fixation on idealizing certain types of food.
“Eating food that they don’t consider pure, or that someone else has prepared, causes an extreme amount of anxiety for orthorexics.” The AND’s article emphasizes the intense fixation with which orthorexics follow food rules. This is where the differentiation between orthorexia and an interest in healthier eating may be clear.The article notes symptoms of orthorexia include: anxiety in social situations, a need to control most aspects of food consumed, and a lack of food enjoyment. These disordered eating patterns may lead to malnourishment, transform into other eating disorders, or impact health in other ways. Orthorexia may been seen in people of all weights, from under to over weight, or even obesity.
The more we talk about orthorexia, the better chance we have of helping someone recover from it.