My Experience with Orthorexia

I'll preface this by saying the situations I'm describing took place 10+ years ago. It's taken me awhile to wrap my head around sharing my own experience with this time in my life.

I don't identify with the person who felt this way about food, and didn't want anyone to misconstrue the situation. Frankly it makes me feel vulnerable.

Recently an old friend and I got on the subject, and she said "I bet people would really benefit from hearing about your experience. You are this healthy, happy person but people would probably appreciate hearing how you got there."

There's so much confusion over what "healthy" really means. There's an ongoing narrative around vilifying certain foods. It's a fine line - and one that's incredibly difficult to define.

I no longer have food rules, and if I don't eat something it's simply because I don't care for it or want it.

I also have people in my life who I watched go through hell and back with anorexia, and severe eating disorders. This wasn't my experience. But what I've learned is eating disorders and ED issues don't discriminate. They can effect people in many different ways.

This is a longer one, friends. Grab your coffee or matcha and settle in.

Orthorexia is defined  as “an extreme or excessive preoccupation with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy.”  

Standing in the narrow aisle of the Health Nuts Market on the Upper East Side of Manhattan I perused my dinner options . I peered into the glass case at the premade vegan dishes in front of me. There was the usual kale and quinoa salad , a few seitan entrees, some baked tempeh, and tofu with a mystery greenish sauce.

My stomach was growling after a long day at work where I ate a wimpy salad for lunch , and chose an iced coffee with almond milk as my afternoon snack. The whole subway ride back to my apartment I had been thinking about what I would eat for dinner.

Now standing there I was faced with my usual dilemma - what option would provide my body with the "cleanest" ingredients?

I chose a side of plain blanched vegetables, the kale salad , and some steamed brown rice. At the last minute I grabbed a box of pea protein crackers, and checked out. The cashier gave me a warm smile - I was one of his best customers. I was there picking up dinner several nights a week.

My brain found a certain comfort in the routine.

That night sitting in my living room, with the hum of the city and reruns of Arrested Development playing in the background I ate my little, slightly sad meal.

Afterwards my stomach continued to growl. I double checked the ingredients on the pea protein crackers to make sure they were "clean" enough before opening them. Yep, just three things listed - I felt safe.

Something had shifted for me over the past months. I couldn't eat something without knowing exactly what was in it. I had become obsessed with "clean eating."

I portioned the bland pea crackers into a bowl, and ate them. I became impatient realizing how hungry I really was, and began rapidly eating the crackers straight from the bag. Within a few minutes I'd consumed most of the bag.

An hour later my stomach felt bloated, and what I can only describe as fake full.

Knowing what I know now I can say without hesitance that I was eating below my calorie and macro nutrient needs many days. Because I was so rigid about what I put into my body I thought I could willpower my way through the day. It was about discipline I told myself....

But I'd end up restricting to the point where I'd have nights that I overate on things like "healthy" crackers.

This was the era of food bloggers posting every meal and morsel they ate on their blogs. When I had downtime at work I'd pour over their blog posts like a true voyeur. As time went on it was only those I deemed the very "healthiest" eaters that interested me.

It was also the height of juice cleanses. It wasn't unusual to hear from friends and acquaintances- particularly those living a similar early 20 something lifestyle in the city - that they were also on a 3 day, liquid cleanse to "detox."

I did cleanses fairly regularly - finding a perverse joy in arranging the brightly color coded juices in my refrigerator. While on a cleanse I was typically cranky, freezing, and tired. I'd daydream about cookies, but I wouldn't give in to my cravings because again I wanted to practice "discipline." I chalked it up to part of my healthy lifestyle.

Words like clean , and detox are thrown around a lot. And I was for sure as we say - influenced.

I can't pinpoint just one factor that prompted me to take healthy eating to an extreme. I was always a pretty healthy eater , and I grew up in a household where we ate balanced meals with vegetables on our plates nightly.

There were occasional treats and my parents never made me feel fearful of foods. They were, however, early adopters of trendy diets - like Atkins, and the cabbage soup diet. As a kid I don't think this felt note worthy. But the messaging surrounding diets - whether we like it or not- is that something needs to be fixed or improved upon.

I had slowly starting eliminating entire food groups.

I hadn't been feeling well, and was getting frequent stomach aches . I went to a gastroenterologist who wasn't particularly helpful. He told me I wasn't allergic to any major food groups, but I was highly sensitive to many (dairy being one) and if I wanted I could try an elimination diet.

I have nothing against elimination diets - they have a purpose and can be a helpful way to identify triggers. But in my case I went too far.

I had stopped eating meat the year prior and at this point decided to cut out chicken, and fish. After reading and watching documentaries I was  grossed out by the way chicken and meat are processed in our country. I watched and rewatched forks over knives, and read books condemning meat - remember Healthy Bitch ?

Next I eliminated dairy. Then I thought why not go vegan?

At the time I was running an environmental blog with a friend. I had been deep diving into the negative environmental impact that the industry has. Deciding to adopt a completely vegan lifestyle felt like a conscious, if not helpful choice.

It felt good at first.

Until I got to a point where anything that didn't pass the "clean" test was off limits.

Veganism wasn't my root issue. For me at that time it was unfortunately a gateway... I had become consumed with the idea of CLEAN EATING. To others I may have just appeared to be a healthy eater. I'd always had friends and family tell me they wished they could eat as healthfully as I did.

More and more of my thoughts became consumed by food as I narrowed down my diet. Suddenly situations where I wasn't in control of my food options gave me anxiety. I liked to map out exactly what I'd be eating the day before. I'd write in a little notebook and carry it with me.

White carbs felt particularly scary to me. Holidays, or work dinners where I didn't know what was on the menu made me feel uneasy.

The thing was I genuinely enjoyed a lot of the food I was focused on consuming. I still am that person that likes the taste of vegetables, and fruit. I eat plant based meals regularly.

But it's also crucial to have some flexibility - and at this time I had very, very little.

I was newly engaged. My career in publishing was going really well, and I had just been promoted to director level. I was happy... but I was also stressed and anxious. Two emotions I was not big on taking ownership of at the time.
Looking back I now know I was trying to find a way to exert control.
What was going on in my head wasn't something you would suspect just by looking at me. I was fit, and slim - during this period of time I didn't physically change drastically. I stayed within my weight range for the most part. I might see the scale go down, but I'd also see it go  up a few pounds even though I was eating so little because my body and hormones were under so much stress.

Brad ( my then fiance, now husband) traveled during the week for work so for awhile it was easy to keep my behaviors to myself.  

Somewhere along the way I opened up to him. He'd noticed I'd become more and more rigid with food. I had once loved heading out in the city and seeing where the night would take us, walking around and picking a restaurant on a whim. Now I wanted to plan everything in advance. I wanted to decode a menu, and decide what was cleanest. (Again that word dominating so many of my thoughts...)

I remember one night while Brad was out of town talking to him on the phone, and he asked what I had for dinner. I confided that Health Nuts was closed by the time I got home so I had eaten half an apple and a scoop of almond butter. He was confused as to why in a city where I could get anything delivered at any time I'd choose such a lame dinner.

The next week I returned home - with my blanched vegetable brown rice dinner in hand and saw that Brad had left me a post it note on the counter that said "You DESERVE to eat a good, delicious dinner."

Tears sprung my eyes. Honestly it still gives me a lump in my throat thinking about it.

It was such a simple thing... but why couldn't I properly nourish myself? Why was I consumed by making food choices as though there was morality attached to them?

One day at work we had an in house marathon meeting with a catered lunch. The understanding was you'd eat there - so I couldn't run down to my usual salad bar. There were plenty of sandwich and wrap options but I ignored them. I sat there clutching my green juice. My stomach growling loudly.

As the afternoon meetings wore on I started to feel light headed, and ran to the bathroom. Looking in the mirror I saw a girl whose face looked pale and drawn.

I was tired. Tired of living my life obsessing over food. Tired of putting so much energy into something that ultimately was pulling me away from many of the things I loved.

I hadn't gotten my period in almost a year. I no longer had the stamina for long workouts, I'd skip meeting friends and fun social events. My life felt watered down.

I was a watered down version of myself. I'm naturally social, and interested in other people - because I was so worried about what I'd eat I'd lost these qualities.
In a culture where we are infiltrated with phrases like detoxing, clean eating, and good or bad foods it's too easy to get wrapped up in being a "perfect eater." The truth is there's no such thing.

For a long time I didn't think anything was wrong with me. I thought I was being healthy. It wasn't about weight or appearance - it was truly almost a morality thing. Of course I cared about how I looked, but mostly it was about CONTROL.

My NYC life was fast paced, things in my personal life were changing (mostly for good but change can make us cling to what we can control.)

With Brad's encouragement I contacted a therapist who specialized in eating issues. She was kind, and smart. After spending time listening and asking in depth questions about my diet she said I had what's known as orthorexia.

The good news, she said, is I clearly wanted to get better.

She gave me challenges - eat a dessert. Eat a food you enjoy but have been restricting - I had a bagel. The first white carbohydrate I had in a long time. And guess what? Nothing bad happened.

My diet expanded, and I didn't gain weight. My body was happier and I was less bloated. I felt clearer. I got back into cardio workouts, and running. I had energy.

Things didn't change overnight. But I no longer saw eating a goldfish cracker as a sin.

So much has changed since then. I studied nutrition. I changed careers, and fully embraced my passion for fitness and wellness.

Do I still care about food quality more than the average person? Yes. But I also seek to educate myself - and I encourage others not take everything they read on social media at face value.

I continue to pay attention to ingredients and labels. But now it's for completely different reasons.

I want to nourish my body, and feel really good. I know that balance is POSSIBLE.
There can be a happy medium. You can care about how you look and still enjoy indulgences. You can actually like eating salad, but also enjoy chips and a margarita.

There's a lot of pressure in the wellness world to pick a lane. Are you paleo, keto, plant based, an intuitive eater etc?

I say screw the labels. The only way you are going to have a healthy relationship with food is by doing what works for you. This can take time, and trial and error. It's not a linear path, and that's OK.

It makes me really, really happy to say with certainty that I've found that balance (for lack of a better word.)

I'm not afraid to admit I care about what goes into my body, but my life is no longer stifled because of it. What I've learned has helped me coach, and empathize with my clients.

It's extremely important to me that my daughters grow up with examples of healthy relationships to food. I don't want them to have a Mom who is afraid to eat a slice of birthday cake.

Food is medicine. Food is something to celebrate. Food is also just food - and no amount of manipulating or obsessing over what goes in your mouth is worth the mental toll that restriction can take. There is so much more to life.

Thank you so much for reading. XO- Beth

If you or someone you know is struggling with eating disorder issues please consider seeking professional medical guidance. Sending you love.

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