Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Becomes an Unhealthy Obsession

2016-09-19-2

I used to have a special section in one of the drawers underneath my bed. It’s where they all used to go, saved for when I could use them again – for when I’d fit into them again. I used to try them out on the mornings I was “feeling skinny.” But of course, they didn’t fit. They squeezed my stomach and made me look two sizes too huge, made me feel ugly and unworthy.

These were all of the jeans and shorts I wore when I was at my lowest weight.

They were a benchmark for when I had been “at my best.” Surely, if I could get there once, I could get there again, right? If I looked my best before, I should look my best again. These were the unhealthy thoughts that plagued me, driving my unhealthy relationship with food and feeding my body dysmorphia.

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For a long time, I had followed a restrictive eating pattern that led to weight loss and smaller clothes. When real life got in the way (a new job, a new apartment, a trying work schedule, and daily stress), the tight control I had over what I ate slipped away. The weight came back quickly, and I desperately struggled to keep it down, like trying to push a beach ball underwater every time it pops back up.

I resorted to different methods to try and reach my lowest weight again. I did crash diets, avoided bread, denied myself dessert. I over-exercised when I thought that I ate too much, dabbled in juice cleanses. For several years, I was unhappy with my body and dissatisfied with my less than ideal weight, and I struggled with disorganized, disordered eating behavior. I wasn’t aware that my behavior wasn’t healthy because I saw nothing wrong with trying to get to a weight at which I thought I looked my best.

But a healthy diet becomes too healthy when trying to stick to that diet begins to have a negative impact on your day-to-day life.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is characterized by an obsessive focus on eating healthfully, so much so that trying to stick to the diet can impair other activities and relationships, and deviating from the diet leads to feelings of guilt, self-loathing, and anxiety.

While orthorexia refers specifically to trying to eat a diet that is healthy and pure, it’s valuable to apply the characteristics of orthorexia to the wide spectrum of eating disorders. In my case, what I failed to realize was that trying to achieve what I thought was my best physical health was taking a serious toll on my mental health (and activities – like the time I refused to go to brunch with my family because there was nothing healthy on the menu). Sure – even now, I could weigh less, wear a smaller size, have a lower body fat percentage. But at what cost? At the cost of my happiness and mental sanity.

Connect with Nicole Groman, MS, RD in New York City

There’s a quote that reads, “Your best weight is whatever weight you reach when you’re living the healthiest life you actually enjoy.” By the same token, your healthiest diet is one that frees up space in your mind for passions and interests other than what you eat. It allows you to go out to dinner with friends or family and eat all different types of foods without feeling guilt. It enables you to find freedom from food restrictions that once held you back. Your best weight is not synonymous with your lowest weight – and the healthiest diet for you is one that not only promotes your best physical health, but that also supports your optimal mental wellbeing.

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4 Comments

  • I really, really needed to hear this today. Just as I was about to plunge back into a diet phase of the diet-binge cycle, your post reminded me that there’s another option. Thank you. <3

    • Hi Shannon,
      First of all, I apologize for not replying sooner. I didn’t see your comment until now! Secondly, I just want to let you know that your comment has made my day. Thank you for sharing that the article made a positive difference for you. It means a lot to me that what I write can help someone. All the power to you for recognizing that there is a way other than that horrible cycle of restrict and reward!
      Sincerely,
      Nicole

  • Hi Jean,
    Thank you so much! I’m so happy you liked it and that the messages resonated with you. It really means a lot to me.
    Sincerely,
    Nicole

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