Let me preface this by saying everybody has a different journey. I am no health expert, nutritionist, or psychologist – this is written solely from my experience. Additionally, I have never gone this in-depth into what my struggle was like. Needless to say, I was pretty [really] nervous to write this. This is what it was like for me, struggling with orthorexia.
After almost three years of maintaining The Blissful Balance, it has been easy to get caught up with different passions and ideas, and stray away from my ‘why’. But I started this blog with a strong mission: to help others find their blissful balance of food, fitness, health, and happiness. Because after struggling with orthorexia nervosa, I realized it wasn’t being talked about enough, I couldn’t find anyone to relate to, and I wanted to be that person for anyone struggling with what I’d gone through.
So, here I am. Revisiting my why. And to give you a little insight into that ‘why’, I thought I’d let you know exactly what it was like.
First, let’s define orthorexia. This excerpt from the NEDA website is a great description:
Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity. They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with “slip-ups.”
For me, everyday was a battle.
TBT to iPhone 4 photography; this is me at my low weight.
What it was like
My whole life I’d been known for being a ‘twig’ (a common name I’d been called by peers). Then, when I got to college, I gained the ‘freshman fifteen’. Looking back, I did not look unhealthy. But it was the comments from people [to my face] on how I had gained weight that really struck me. Never in my life had I had anyone tell me that I gained weight. (Can I just add that I would literally never tell anyone, “looks like you’ve gained some weight, eh?” Who does that?) Of course, I was used to being the ‘twig’. The one with the ‘chicken legs’. I had now experienced both extremes, and felt as though I had to ‘fix it’.
After transitioning from an innocent attempt to live a healthier lifestyle, to an extreme unhealthy obsession, I became fixated. For me, this meant looking at myself every time I walked by a mirror. Lifting up my shirt to see if I had abs yet. Standing straight to see if my thighs were touching. I was fixated on how I looked. Fixated on whether or not my ‘methods’ were working. My everyday, every moment, every second, was fixated on this part of my life. It just wouldn’t go away.
Restriction and Compensation
I was counting every single calorie that entered my body. If I was invited out to dinner, I made sure to check the restaurants website to see if they had nutrition information available, so that I could 1) choose the lowest caloric option and 2) track it in MyFitnessPal. And for anyone wondering why I never provide nutrition information for my recipes, this is why. More on that here.
And when I did let myself go a little bit, I would compensate with a workout. If I had a huge meal, I made myself go for a run or to the gym later on to make sure I ‘burned it off’. Exercise went from something I enjoyed (I played sports my whole life) to something I did because I felt like I had to. I rarely gave myself the day off.
I’m feelin’ myself
One of the descriptions of orthorexia I’ve found mentions that the person feels they are superior to others in their diet choices. I found myself ‘preaching’ to others about a healthy lifestyle, when I, myself, was at war with my own mind.
I was almost blind. The comments from people transitioned throughout my struggle. In the beginning of my ‘lifestyle change’, I was told that I “looked great”. Which made me dig deeper into the obsession. Then, the comments turned into me looking “too skinny”. For someone struggling with a food/exercise disorder, that comment oddly makes them want to keep going. And it wasn’t until my gynecologist told me that I was way underweight (I am 5’ 7” and got down to 107 pounds), and listed the risks associated with this, that I realized there was a problem. It was like I’d been pulled out of a vortex that I’d been spinning in for almost a year.
Photo by Bryan Angelo.
How I overcame orthorexia
The daily struggle was exhausting. All I wanted was to eat food and exercise like a normal person. I wanted to enjoy my favorite foods without feeling guilty or feeling like I needed to go burn it off later. I wanted to be able to eat without counting my food. I was tired of hating the way I looked. I was tired of being tired.
Find a role model
For me, my role model was my mom. I’ve always looked up to her for her dedication to staying active (without it being obsessive). If she wants to have a slice of cake, she will have herself a slice of cake. She’s never owned a scale, and has always judged her weight on ‘how her clothes fit’. She just goes with the flow, and has always set a perfect example for my sister and I on loving yourself, loving your body and doing what feels right for you. I strived to be like her, and always will. (And to my dad, who is probably reading this – of course I have always and will always look up to you, too.)
Delete all tracking applications
Were you using MyFitnessPal? Delete it. Were you tracking calories for your workouts with a heart rate monitor? Stop. Do you have a scale in your bathroom? Give it away. With orthorexia, it’s almost as if you are addicted to numbers and making sure your numbers fit within a threshold you’ve set for yourself. An irrational one. Get rid of anything that is enabling you and preventing you from having a care-free relationship with food and exercise. Go for a run, without a watch or a heart rate monitor, and see how amazing it feels to just… run.
Eat with friends
With any lifestyle change, it takes baby steps. Some ways you can start to push yourself into the normalcy of a healthy relationship with food is to eat with friends. Go enjoy yourself with a night out with friends. Invite friends over for dinner, ask them what they like, and cook for them.
Don’t put pressure on yourself
This process will not be overnight, so just preface your journey with that. Be ready for it to take time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s worthy one at that. If a week passes and you’re still feeling frazzled, remind yourself that that is normal. It will happen, you will overcome this battle, let your body and mind take the time it needs.
Get some rest
It helps to experiment with taking some time off of exercise to remind yourself that you will not gain 50 pounds after one week off of your fitness routine. With this you can also start with baby steps: take the weekend off from the gym. Come back on Monday, refreshed and ready to exercise because you want to and because it makes you happy, not because you have to.
The purpose of me sharing this story was to show you what I went through, and why I started my blog. To hopefully relate to anyone who is going through the same thing or something similar. And to show those who are, that it is possible to overcome, and it is so worth the journey. Food is one of life’s greatest, simplest pleasures that should be enjoyed, without guilt. Exercise is something important to living a healthy life, yes, but it should be done because it is something you enjoy, not something you have to do to compensate.
So, if you take one thing away from this post, I hope it is that life should be… enjoyed.