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3 NEDA Writers Share What It's Like to Struggle with Orthorexia

NEDA Contributors

Although not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, awareness of orthorexia among the general public and within the eating disorder community is on the rise. The word “orthorexia” was coined in 1998 and means an obsession with proper or “healthful” eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called “healthy eating” that they actually damage their own well-being.

Below, three of our writers share what it’s like to struggle with orthorexia: 

Be the Change

Kaitlin Irwin: It sounds like a made-up disease, but orthorexia is very real, and it could have deadly consequences. For me, I became obsessed with “clean eating” during high school. Prom season was fast approaching, and much of the talk among my female classmates centered around exercise, dieting, and fitting into their dresses. 

While I didn’t have a need to lose weight, the constant chatter infiltrated my brain until every waking moment was filled with toxic thoughts. Clean eating became a way of life, my religion. I began to make changes to my meals, eventually cutting out entire food groups and drastically limiting my portion sizes.

To my classmates, I was a super-healthy eater. I even had some people tell me they wished they had my willpower. Little did they know, I was spiraling out of control and feeling powerless. I wasn’t the one in charge because food was controlling me. My days became consumed with thoughts about what I ate yesterday, what I would eat today, and most importantly, what I couldn’t eat. Certain foods and food groups became off limits and I avoided them like the plague. Prom season came and went, but this disorder—orthorexia—showed no signs of slowing down.

I dropped weight like crazy. I was hungry all the time, but was too afraid to eat anything I deemed “bad.” My energy plummeted, my hair fell out, and my skin took on a grayish tone. Yet I continued to be praised for how healthy I was eating. My parents noticed my drastic weight loss and urged me to eat more, but I saw their efforts as a plan to “fatten me up” and foil my plans. On the rare occasion I did eat a “bad food,” I would compensate with hours of exercise. This helped to give me a small illusion of being in control.

What was really happening was that I was descending into a full-blown eating disorder: anorexia nervosa. The next six years were spent agonizing over every single bite I did (and did not) take. Even as I continued to severely restrict my food intake and increase my exercise habits, I still received comments about how healthy my lifestyle was. These comments stuck with me and drowned out any voiced concerns from others that I was unwell. It wasn’t until I met a beautiful, kind-hearted boy that I was forced to step back and take everything in.

As much as I wanted to believe that I was managing my illness, I knew it was a lie. However, I wasn’t sure if there was such a thing as freedom from food. All around me were ads telling me to eat less, people idolizing fitness fanatics, and that voice in my head telling me to keep up with my restricting. Yet this time I had someone who wasn’t going to watch me suffer in silence. My boyfriend (now husband!) helped me begin the long and tedious journey back to health. It wasn’t just physical health I had to restore, but mental health as well. My treatment consisted of restoring my weight, as well as re-socializing my brain and the way it perceived food.

It took a long time, but now I finally feel that I have a healthy body and mindset. I felt beautiful at my wedding, I enjoy a variety of foods, and I move my body because it feels good. Unfortunately, I still hear fat talk and diet culture beliefs all over the place. It’s going to take a massive movement to change the dialogue around bodies, health, and fitness. It’s a lofty mission, but not impossible. 

Start with your inner circle of friends and family and take it from there. Follow body-positive social media accounts. Practice self-care and positive self-talk every day. Challenge societal norms of “health and wellness.” Be the change you wish to see in the world.

Ditching the Resolutions 

Anna Kilar: It was late December, the New Year was approaching, and I was excitedly looking forward to what it had in store. Every year around this time, I deliberately set aside time to write out my New Year’s resolutions. There was fresh snow on the ground as I sat by the window curled up in a blanket, pen and paper in hand, preparing to contemplate what my resolutions would be this time. Among those resolutions: eat healthier. More specifically, eat more fruits and vegetables. I certainly didn’t want an involuntary lifestyle change, but that’s just what I got. 

Before long, it was time to return back to school with my healthy eating plan in tow. During this time, I had just transferred into the business school and declared a new major. I quickly found my courses to be unfulfilling, and I was struggling in school for the first time. I felt lost, confused, and in fear of having no plan after my undergrad. 

I took comfort in focusing on my healthy diet. In the beginning, my plan to eat healthier started off innocently. But as the days, weeks, and months progressed, I spent my time reading articles about “good” foods and “bad” foods for your body, purchasing books about organic foods and pesticides, and eliminating foods from my diet that my mind deemed “unhealthy” and “toxic.” During social events, a visit to a friend’s house, or even a weekend trip home, I would politely decline the food they offered and stick to only the foods I allowed myself to have. 

The snow eventually melted away, but my obsessions didn’t. It was a downward spiral that I couldn’t pull myself away from. I felt in control and empowered having a clear cut plan each day and following through. I couldn’t even imagine what I would do if I had a slip-up. 

Deep down, my self-esteem was squandered and my identity lost. It wasn’t until things took a turn for the worst, where I completely deprived my body of essential nutrients and fuel, when I realized that for months on end I had watched my eating disorder continuously dig a hole deeper and deeper into the ground. Not long after, an opportunity at recovery was presented, and I entered into treatment.

Recovery taught me a lot. In my early days of recovery, I quickly learned about the basic elements of nutrition, with an emphasis on learning that every body is different and has different nutritional needs. We need variety, we need color, we need carbs, fats, and proteins, in whatever sense that might be. Our bodies are equipped to do amazing things, allowing us to live, breathe, walk, run. I learned I can’t deprive my body and live in fear over my “slip-ups.” 

Waving goodbye to orthorexia/anorexia showed me that I can love and enjoy all foods. I’ve been able to step outside my comfort zone, exploring Indian restaurants and recipes, Thai foods, Ethiopian foods, and Italian foods. I can explore, create, socialize, taste, and experience. 

Fast forward several months after treatment, I signed up to run a half marathon. I knew this would be the ultimate test for my recovery, but I was ready to take on the challenge. During training, I quickly realized that in order to provide my body with the proper nutrients and energy, I needed to expand my diet. Utilizing foods I had once been so fearful of, and using them as medicine to fuel my body to train for a 13.1 mile race, I was able to exceed even my own expectations—running the race feeling empowered and in control. 

Late December came around once again, but this time I decided no resolutions would be formulated for the New Year. Instead, I would focus each day on moving forward in my recovery, continuing to listen and love my body. 

The Sun Always Shines After the Storm

Ana Bisciello: The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term healthy as, “in good physical or mental condition; in good health.” The definition within itself proposes a follow up question which is, “What does it mean to be in good health or in good physical and mental condition?” 

The definition varies from person to person, as it also extends itself onto other related terms such as exercise, clean eating, and weight management. The numerous and subjective meanings are similarly associated with the media’s depiction of beauty and health. For someone who is battling with or recovering from an eating disorder, the concept of being healthy always seems to be misconstrued and can differ from the average person. 

For those suffering from an eating disorder, “healthy” can be perceived as being extremely restrictive of food with a combination of excessive exercise to try and achieve the “perfect body.” The misconstrued definition of healthy can be the result of orthorexia. Orthorexia is a disordered eating habit in which the sufferer is obsessed with a “healthy” and “clean” diet. This type of behavior can also involve excessive calorie counting and weight tracking, which can eventually become overwhelming to someone’s life. This ideology can still linger in the mind of one who is starting to recover from an eating disorder, like me.

Throughout my eating disorder journey, I have noticed orthorexic behaviors in the midst of my dark battle with bulimia. I was constantly trying to find ways to eat extremely healthy, thinking I would lose weight and lose it quickly. This ranged from trying to become a vegetarian, a vegan, or restricting certain food groups. I also thought that by taking these actions, my peers would perceive me has a “healthy” individual. I was solely focused on how others physically saw me versus how I saw myself. It wasn’t long until my impractical methodology didn’t work and ultimately caused reverse effects. 

Additionally, I often felt that when I ate something outside of my restricted food realm, I would feel unclean and guilty. The anxiety that I felt inside was insurmountable to describe, as I would be scrambling through my thoughts to try and calm myself down. By putting excessive, healthy eating at the forefront of my life, these feelings would linger with me for days on end. Not only was it a physical battle but it was a mental battle while I continually wasted energy fighting myself to eat and exercise a certain way. It came to a point where I was just too exhausted and the amount of energy wasted exceeded the actual motivation behind the origin of my goal. 

I would be lying if I said that I don’t experience orthorexic behaviors during my journey through recovery. However, with help, I developed new strategies to better handle eating, exercising, and thinking. I have found degrees of balance between my diet and exercise. I never thought that I would find a solution to my disorder or any normalcy in my life. At my lowest points, it truly felt like my disorder was the end-all, be-all of my health, happiness, and life.

However, I am grateful for the help I received to break out of my fixed mindset. At the end of the day, my goal was always to find happiness within myself and to me that is the ultimate definition of being healthy. Having this shift in perception and definition of the term “healthy” has been the biggest takeaway from my journey through recovery. Although there are bumps in the road along the way, every day I remind myself of how far I’ve come physically, emotionally, and mentally. If there is one thing I learned throughout my journey, it’s that you have to believe that the sun always shines after a storm, because believe me – it does.