Orthorexia: A New Enemy

Orthorexia: A New Enemy

My eating disorder came about slowly, but it was based around my desire to be healthy. It was multifaceted for sure and consisted of restricting calories and overexercising, but it also included many of the characteristics of orthorexia.1 This focus on healthy eating drew my attention to nutrition, but that quickly spiraled into an obsession.

When I started getting help for my eating disorder, my therapist was the first one to expose me to the concept of orthorexia. We discussed how how “clean eating” and “healthy” are just new ways of saying “dieting”. Even though food is just food, “clean eating” suggests that some foods are “dirty” and that labeling foods “healthy” implies that some foods are “unhealthy”.2

My therapist did a great job of explaining orthorexia to me, but I was skeptical about having an eating disorder let alone one that I hadn’t even heard of. But being the nerd that I am, I took it upon myself to look at the National Eating Disorders Association’s definition of orthorexia, and, only after some painful self-reflection, did I realize that orthorexia definitely applied to me:

  • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels: I’d spend hours each week examining labels in the grocery store and online. It got to the point where I just did it online because I felt self-conscious standing for so long in the aisles of the grocery store.
  • An increase in concern about the health of ingredients: I made a vow of no processed foods and no preservatives. This is really hard to do in our society, so when I couldn’t avoid these foods, I felt anxious and like a failure.
  • Cutting out an increasing number of food groups and having difficulty eating anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed “healthy” or “pure”: I never cut out sugar or carbs, but I did become a vegetarian even though it was a diet in disguise. I told myself that I was doing it for ethical and health reasons, but it really was an excuse to limit the foods available to me. I also stealthily removed “naughty” foods from my diet by filling up on “healthy” foods because I thought that the more I ate of  “good” foods, the better off I’d be.3
  • Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating: My eyes would constantly wander to other people’s plates, mentally critique what they were eating, and compare their plate to mine.
  • Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events and showing high levels of distress when “safe” or “healthy” foods aren’t available: My stress level was at its peak when I wasn’t sure if I would be able to find food that met my healthy criteria. In response, I would either bring my own food or feign a lack of hunger and not eat.
  • Obsessively following social media related to food and “healthy lifestyle”: I spent so much time bookmarking websites and pins on Pinterest and this left little time in my day for other interests.
  • Body image concerns may or may not be present: Issues with body image were definitely present for me!4

Unfortunately, we are now seeing more diets presented as healthy eating or being fit. This rise in orthorexia is happening because who can argue with wanting to be healthy, right? Well, healthy eating is really just nourishing our bodies, and setting some kind of limit is crucial because it’s so easy to get caught up in a disordered type of healthy eating. Our brains have become inundated with terms like organic, BPA-free, non-GMO, etc., but when it is good enough? I think that if I have a general awareness of my purchases and I don’t let myself feel guilty about purchasing what might be considered “unhealthy” food, then I’m taking steps away from my eating disorder.

I had to put this into practice a few days ago when I read about how glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, was found in common products like cereals and granola bars. Was I surprised? No, but I was disappointed because I, once again, was fooled by the food industry. While I don’t dwell on food labels like I used to, I do know that our food is manipulated. I thought that I was being flexible by eating cereals that, while not organic, had fairly harmless ingredients. When I found that these favorites of mine came with a side of glyphosate, I chided myself for being so gullible and my former eating disordered brain began churning.

After taking a few days to sleep on this alarming information, I reminded myself that I cannot escape toxins. They’re in the air that I breathe, the water that I drink, and, yes, in the food that I eat. The glyphosate article even pointed out that a few of the products labeled “organic” were sometimes tainted. So, what can I do? I can do the best that I can to limit my exposure and keep in mind that the stress on my body from worrying about it may do more harm than the toxins themselves. Approaching it in this way is hard for my perfectionistic personality, but it’s something that I need to work on in order to not let orthorexia get the best of me.

Do you have orthorexia or orthorexic tendencies? If you feel comfortable, please share your experience in the comment section below.

1This is an eating disorder that isn’t even in the DSM-V, but I can’t imagine that it won’t be in the next version. If someone is exhibiting a behavior that impedes everyday life, then it’s a disorder..

2Now dieting comes with an extra dose of moral judgement. Yay!

3Broccoli is considered healthy, but would it be healthy for me to eat five pounds of broccoli a day? Nope!

4I could write a whole article about this. Wait! I already did and it’s called “Mirror, Mirror”.

Thank you so much for reading my blog! I am honored that you chose to read about my experience.

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