My Fight with Orthorexia: How Healthy Habits Turned Into an Eating Disorder
One writer shares her story on her unhealthy obsession with eating only "healthy" foods
Easter dinner was my downfall. Nope, I wasn't scared witless by a dude in a rabbit suit. Instead, it was food that had me in the bathroom, crying so hard I used up an entire roll of toilet paper, waterproof mascara running down my face. See, I'd been invited to a friend's home to eat a feast that she'd spent all day preparing-I remember roast beef, a ham, two kinds of homemade rolls, potatoes, gravy, fruit salad with whipped cream, buttered beans, asparagus glistening in oil, Greek salad, and at least four different desserts-but there wasn't a single thing I could eat.
As everyone chatted and filled their plates and unseasonably warm spring air filling the room, I got more and more panicky. I had to take something. I couldn't be "that girl" and just sit with an empty plate while everyone around me gorged. Finally, I settled on the salad. Usually those are safe bets for me, but this one had been pre-dressed and had cheese-mounds and mounds of finely grated fresh Parmesan. But it was my only choice, I thought, so I grimly sat in my place (labeled with a cute name card straight off of Pinterest) and scraped bits of cheese, one by one, off each leaf of lettuce. (Read more Is Being Neurotic About Food Unhealthy?)
I thought I wasn't being obvious, but soon everyone was watching as I painstakingly denuded my salad. "Oh, I made sure there were some vegetarian dishes for you, Charlotte," my friend said helpfully.
"Well, it's the cheese..." I stammered, blushing up to my hairline.
"She must be vegan!" someone else said. I heard my husband sigh.
I wasn't vegan. I wasn't even a vegetarian. I was something so far beyond either of those things that there wasn't even a name for it. I had exactly five things that I would eat: apples, cashew nuts, green leaves, artichokes, and pomegranates. My weirdly strict menu wasn't because I had a lot of food intolerances or because I was super picky. The truth was that I have always adored food, all kinds of it. Every single thing on that table looked amazingly delicious to me-and I was sure it would taste good too. But I couldn't eat it because I didn't think it was healthy. I was paralyzed by my sad plate of salad; I couldn't even eat a bite. There was no way I could get all the cheese dust off.
"You need help," my husband whispered to me. "And when we get home, we are getting some for you."
I started crying.
For anyone who has ever gone to a holiday meal while on a diet, this isn't exactly new territory. But the lengths that I would go to to preserve my so-called healthy eating were so extreme that they became, well, downright disordered. My eating disorder had a name, I just didn't know it at the time: Orthorexia.
Orthorexia is "a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods in the belief that they are harmful." It isn't officially classified as its own eating disorder, although I and many others think it should be. Similar to other eating disorders, orthorexics are obsessed with controlling their bodies through their food intake and will go to great lengths to do so. But that's where the similarities mostly end. I wasn't concerned with calories or even really with my weight or appearance; for me it was all about food purity. Could You Be Orthorexic?
Ironically, this descent into madness had all started with a sincere desire to "get healthy." Unfortunately, I had no idea what that meant.
I'd grown up, like many of my peers, on white-bread sandwiches with processed cheese followed by a Little Debbie chaser. Adding peach slices in heavy syrup made it healthy (in addition to rounding out the "processed orange" theme on my plate). I'd grown up in the fat-phobic 90s. As long as everything was fat-free, I thought I was set. Obviously, I needed guidance.
So I read every book, website, and magazine article I could get my hands on. I determined that if I did exactly what the experts suggested, then I could figure out what the "perfect" way to eat was. For instance, take this little gem about milk (one of the first studies I ever read): Lose Four Times the Fat and Build Twice the Muscle Drinking Milk! The study sounds believable. But then, they almost always do, at least to me. My love of research was probably one of my worst orthorexic weaknesses. Even the best study is not infallible, and I know it, but those researchers, they always sound so sure of themselves! And they're smart! So I did what they said and drank a cup of milk post workout.
But it wasn't long before I realized that researchers' second job (after doing all their cool experiments) is to argue with each other. For example, this study, Milk Studies Misleading-Milk Does Not Aid in Weight Loss, manages to refute all milk studies. Since I trust other people's knowledge (particularly science-y types) more than my own, I just got confused. Was milk the best thing ever or the worst? Should I drink it? I tried to logic my way through by analyzing each study. What were the sample sizes? Research institution? Longitudinal? Case study? Animals? Oijia boards?
Eventually, I would give up and just make an arbitrary rule: Dairy products are out. Once you're that far down the crazy path, you either let your brain explode or you have to decide something. And this rule might have been fine-lots of people don't eat dairy and live healthy lives! The problem was, I then repeated the rule for grains, eggs, meat, soy, nuts, fruits, tubers, beans, cheese, bread, sugar, artificial sweeteners, cereals, canned produce, frozen produce, juice, anything microwavable, and caffeine…which is exactly how I got to that fateful Easter dinner, crying my eyes out in the bathroom.
It took seeing myself through my friends' and loved ones' eyes to realize how unhealthy my "healthy" diet had become. I started a treatment program for eating disorders. (Which makes it sound simpler than it was. Real life is messy.) My extreme food restriction combined with my love of exercising had really damaged my body. It took months to work through the physical and mental issues I'd created. Eventually, I found real healing through medication, cognitive behavioral therapy (a treatment typically used for obsessive compulsive disorder, which makes sense since orthorexia has a lot in common with OCD), and Geneen Roth's Intuitive Eating program.
It's been years since that Easter dinner. Today, I proudly say that I eat everything. I still make an effort to make mostly healthy choices, but nothing is strictly off-limits. In fact this year, I'm the one cooking the holiday meal and I've already bookmarked dozens of decadent recipes. I plan on trying them all!