Orthorexia: How my pursuit of ‘health’ resulted in an eating disorder
I grew up with thin privilege and a balanced relationship with food. When I was 9 years old my family moved from England to Australia and all in all, my childhood was happy – I loved school and did well academically, I had friends and outside of school I really enjoyed dance as a hobby. I was a bit of a shy and anxious teenager, the kind who didn’t have a boyfriend or go to parties, but I had nothing to worry too much about – until I was 15.
When I was in Year 10, through being weighed in PE classes once a term, I had noticed that my weight was increasing, and I wasn’t getting any taller. I’m still not 100% sure why, but I suddenly became terrified of becoming ‘overweight’ and so I decided to try to lose weight and be ‘healthier’. Of course, I saw getting thinner as becoming ‘healthier’, and it’s pretty much a given in our diet-culture ridden society that a thin person is almost always assumed to be healthy.
I started out as making changes that society deemed ‘healthy’ but I wasn’t sure why. Before I knew it, I had an enormous list of food rules in my head – from what times my meals had to be, to how many calories I could eat and all these foods that were suddenly ‘bad’ that I was forbidden from eating. I began weighing myself frequently in secret, and on holidays all I could think about was how to restrict and not eat ‘unhealthy’ foods everyone else in my family was having.
I became so scared of going out to restaurants because I couldn’t control what was on the menu and always had to plan what I was going to eat in advance. For four and a half years I was in the throes of Orthorexia. I didn’t have a clue. Neither did anyone around me.
‘Orthorexia’ was a term coined by American physician Dr Steven Bratman in the late 90s that literally means ‘correct diet’.
Although not an official diagnosis in the DSM-5, Orthorexia is becoming increasingly recognised in some areas as an eating disorder that sits outside of the current diagnosis. People identifying with Orthorexia often become obsessive about ‘clean’, ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’ eating.
Although not the primary aim, people with Orthorexia often end up losing significant amounts of weight due to their restrictive eating. Now you might be wondering, ‘what’s wrong with healthy eating, isn’t it a good thing?’. And you’re right, there’s nothing wrong with eating a balanced diet.
The problem lies with how the word ‘healthy’ has been co-opted, misinterpreted and warped by diet culture into something divorced from what it really means. In my experience, when people say they’re concerned about ‘health’, almost all of the time they’re actually concerned with their appearance and wanting to be thin.
The reality is that people of all shapes and sizes can be healthy and health can be pursed completely separate from weight or aesthetics, but this is something many people fail to recognise because we still assume that health requires us to be thin or in some arbitrary BMI category. Unfortunately for people with Orthorexia, too often their pursuit of health turns into something very dangerous and actually undermines their health, and this was the case with me.
The ironic thing for me is that my eating disorder, which was supposed to be all about ‘health’, actually made my health worse in the long run. For starters, my mental and social health were completely ruined by my Orthorexia. My relationships with my mum and sister soured as my eating disorder often made me project negative emotions like guilt and anger onto other people.
I was constantly stressed and anxious about food, exercise and how much I weighed, and my self-esteem was terrible. My physical health suffered too. My hair got thinner and even wearing my school jumper and blazer, I was still cold in winter. I lost my period and one year my nails were so brittle they started peeling off. However, the biggest effect on my physical health happened at the end of 2014, when I was in Year 11 and was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis (UC).
UC is a chronic autoimmune inflammatory bowel disease. Fortunately, I only have a mild form of UC, but even now that I’m recovered from my eating disorder, I will live with this chronic condition for the rest of my life.
Whilst I don’t have confirmation that my condition was caused by my eating disorder, personally, I believe that all the stress and pressure I was putting on myself was at least a factor in giving me UC. All of this is to say that my blind pursuit of ‘health’ was in fact just an excuse for my eating disorder to keep me in its grips. There were all these red flags and yet neither me nor a health professional considered my relationship with food and how bad it had become.
At this point, my eating disorder was more than just wanting to be ‘healthy’, it was my identity, my source of achievement and self-worth, my source of control and stability and I couldn’t just stop. This demonstrates how a well-intended lifestyle change or goal of being ‘healthy’ can easily be taken to extremes and can even permanently damage our health.
Fast forward to today and I’m doing much better. I’ve been in recovery since November 2017 and identify as pretty much fully recovered. A key part of my recovery was shifting my view of what ‘health’ is. It was very challenging at first, but now I firmly believe that health has to be holistic – not holistic like your yoga teacher tells you when they really just mean getting ‘lean & toned’ – holistic in the true sense of the word.
Health involves how you feel, your safety, doing things you enjoy, being social and connecting with people, having meaning in your life, healthy relationships, getting enough sleep, relaxing, moving your body in a way that supports your mental health and yes, eating well – but this doesn’t have to mean cutting anything out, having rules, dieting, being vegetarian or vegan or only eating ‘healthy’ versions of foods.
Unlike what diet culture would have us all believe, much of our health is already predetermined by social determinants, our genetics and our biology so really, we only have the ability to influence about 30% of our overall health anyway! This was one of many things I had to come to terms with during recovery.
The most important lesson I’ve learned and something I hope you can think about too, is that your relationship with food is so much more important than any food, meal or snack you will ever eat. There’s no point having a ‘healthy’ diet but losing everything else in the process. Believe me, I know what that’s like. I lost relationships, memories, spontaneity and most of all, joy and happiness because of my Orthorexia.
At the end of the day, food is just food – it’s not medicine, superfoods aren’t going to save you from all ails , and everyone gets ill and injured and eventually dies, we just can’t escape that! If you take one thing away from my experience please remember that if something – no matter how enticing or ‘good’ it seems – costs you your mental health and happiness, it simply isn’t worth it.
Sophie (she/her) is an eating disorders advocate and lived experience advisor. She is passionate about sharing her own experience and raising awareness around eating disorders, whilst taking down diet culture! Among other projects, she has consulted with the Inside Out Institute for Eating Disorders and currently writes blog posts for Body Matters Australasia. She is also a bit of a social justice warrior and is currently studying a Master’s of Social Work and aspires to work in the eating disorders field. You can follow her on Twitter @SophieClare1103