Orthorexia: A Dangerous Coping Strategy in Plain Sight

Recently, I was shown a set of tweets, which may have been well-intentioned, from a mental health professional and a campaigner, trying to create some sort of exposé on the healthiness and purity of a type of dietary lifestyle. To the public, this may seem like a discussion into the reality of some healthy food. However, due to the nature of the tweets, the intended audience, and the authors, I began to question whether this was an example of orthorexic language, hiding in plain sight.

Orthorexia is an eating disorder, whereby the person eats according to rules which dictate the purity, healthiness, and “right-ness” of the food consumed. If you follow my work and story, you will know that I have a history of orthorexia, and, up until recently, I believed I experienced only once before I became further unwell with atypical anorexia nervosa. For years, I really doubted the seriousness of that part of my life, focusing more on the latter. However, during a guest lecture I had taken last year, I came to the realisation that orthorexia plagued my life a lot longer than I originally thought. And, this, as well, as the language mentioned above, demonstrates the insidious and sneaky way an eating disorder such as orthorexia works.

Orthorexia is already depicted as the ‘clean eating’ eating disorder. It hides in diet and fitness industries. People look passed it as someone simply being very health-conscious. In fact, often, someone with orthorexia or orthorexic behaviours may be praised for their dedication and healthy way of living. When I was first unwell with orthorexia, I didn’t understand that what I was doing was harmful, and neither did the people around me. I was often told I was a healthy eater with phrases like “I wish I could eat like you” and “I wish I had your willpower” thrown around very casually, but only pushing me to excel further at the disorder. What I was doing, in today’s diet-obsessed world, was a positive thing, and went completely amiss, thus opening the door to another restrictive eating disorder waiting patiently for me. Many, like me, thought that what they were doing was what they were meant to be doing.

I mean, we were, and still are, regularly consuming media that pushes intensely healthy diets with daily demonisations of food and drink items. Even popular health foods eventually find themselves being vilified and made out to be dirty and impure. And, to someone with orthorexia, or someone struggling to eat food without a level of guilt and shame in general, they become anxious and fearful over eating foods that are being touted as wrong and unhealthy.

It took a while for me to realise that what I was going through was part of my eating disorder. It took a while for me to put a name to it. And, it’s taken a while for me to realise that, despite believing I was in recovery post-atypical anorexia, I was actually using orthorexia as a coping strategy, and fooling myself and others into thinking I was recovered and had return to regular eating patterns. Funnily enough, or not so funnily enough, it wasn’t until I was speaking with my masters dissertation supervisor (and I guess I can call her a contemporary now, because we’ve done a lecture together?) that she brought up the research going into orthorexia and its potentiality in being a coping strategy following anorexia recovery. This discussion caused some reflections on my part in what I actually believed to be a recovered me, following my recovery from anorexia. At the heart of it, I probably wasn’t recovered, when I was still adopting orthorexic behaviours.

So, it does frustrate me quite a bit when I see eating disorder recovery advocates, researchers, and healthcare professionals continue to vilify foods, drinks, and dietary lifestyles. Not because what they are doing is intentionally harmful, but because there is still so much stigma towards food and our perception of health and loving our bodies; nourishing our bodies, without creating an anxiety around what we are eating. There is still so much work to do even with professionals. There is so much to learn. And, this is why orthorexia research, support, and treatment is needed.

What is the real need to call out diets and food unless it’s about the fact a diet is pushing things like intermittent fasting? If you are putting information out there, saying lifestyles or food people have chosen to adopt or eat, for whatever reason i.e. environmental reasons, and then pick at the amount of calories in it, or pick at the ingredients… Like, orthorexia has a whole thing where the cleaner you can eat the better, the purer you can eat the better, the less “ingredients you can’t pronounce” the better. As though you are whipping the carpet out from under the person by exposing them and making them worry that the dietary lifestyle they have adopted isn’t actually as healthy as they thought therefore making them worry even more? I mean, call me soft all you like, but if you’re saying that to someone who has orthorexia or in recovery from another eating disorder, then this isn’t very sensible or responsible to make people stress about what they are eating? Especially, when we live in already “health conscious” society, and a society that simultaneously climbs in its disordered eating and eating disorder numbers.

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Okay, okay, I’ll get off my soapbox.

But, I would love to see more exploration, and better understanding of orthorexia and the language that surrounds it, because I think it would be largely beneficial to people going through eating disorder recovery; no matter the disorder. It may prevent it becoming a coping strategy, delaying recovery overall and continuing to perpetuate an unhealthy attitude to food and nutrition. I think orthorexia has completely and utterly been a detriment to my perception of health. It took me so long to figure out how to be healthy, without going overboard and veering into orthorexia territory again. And, this might be the case for so many directly affected by eating disorders. I have had discussions with people about moments where they have noticed they have become obsessed with eating cleanly, or in a way that aligns with orthorexia, and they have had issues trying to navigate how to eat regularly and well.

I have noticed it in my own life, especially when I have tried to get a grasp of how to nourish myself after being reintroduced to exercise, and taking part in a high-intensity sport. My grip on exercise was generally good, because I was using sport as a way to channel it, as I had a goal and a different drive to exercise that didn’t surround maintaining an eating disorder. For me, this was something that worked, and prevented me from over-doing it. However, while I was improving in my attitudes to exercises, re-learning what it meant to be active, I was tripping over myself trying to grasp what it meant to actually be healthy. I was sticking to a rotation of meals; not for convenience, but rather what I thought was healthy, and, to me, after a very distorted time with “healthy” I thought this was meant food that was low in calories and as clean as possible. Yes, I was doing better in eating, more forgiving to myself in general, not technically tracking to the same degree. But, because I still didn’t understand health, I was still monitoring what I was eating, and often missing out important and nutritional food. A lot of the time I was hungry, but I didn’t always recognise it, because I thought that because I was eating “well” and, according to what I was looking at online, then I thought it was all okay, and I was recovered.

And, it didn’t last each time I tried to get a grip of eating healthily again. I would just feel emotionally awful, and consistently worthless. While I was getting stronger in the gym, and pushing through athletics, I still wasn’t at my best, because I didn’t know how to nourish myself. What I was looking at online, what I was being told from others who also had distorted views of healthiness, it just left me underfed, unhappy, and not giving my body the chance to cope with the sport I was doing.

It’s only recently that I have learned how to nourish myself, and even now I have to give quick reminders from time to time to be kind, and not beat myself up if I have not eaten particularly “well” on a certain day. A sports nutritionist has been helpful in guiding me to a better understanding of how to eat in a way that helps my body to cope and recover from high intensity exercise. However, I have learned that I can eat according to how my body feels. You know, I try not to be so overly focused on the food I’m consuming. I eat if I am hungry. I can actually answer hunger cues without guilt, because, even though, I did this generally quite fine when I was recovering from atypical anorexia, I am now in a more comfortable and secure place there.

I don’t necessarily have all the answers, and my recovered body and mind is not always perfect. However, what I do know, is that we need to stop the obsession with eating in a way that aligns with orthorexia, and instead promote the absolutely wild concept of eating according to how our body feels. Or, as they call it “intuitive eating.” Honestly, there would be no such term as intuitive eating if we weren’t so negatively impacted by diet culture. I think there needs to be a certain mindfulness in recovery in that we may not know how to eat healthily, especially if we have recovered generally on our own, therefore when we try to regain control of our eating then we might fall into orthorexia, because we don’t actually know how to look after ourselves. Because, we’ve had it ingrained in us that obsessive healthiness is a good thing and not problematic or harmful. It’s hard to say what we can do here, which is why we need better and more research into disorders like orthorexia, so it can be understood as a disorder and a coping strategy in eating disorder recovery overall. It’s a tough thing to navigate, but, at the heart of it, there should be a focus on kicking out the thought processes of demonising and vilifying foods; actually knowing what is good for us. How to be happy in what we are choosing to eat and making sure we are fed and fuelled for the day. Pushing away, and seeing through the fitness and diet gurus pedalling clean and pure foods. Not trying to expose generally okay dietary lifestyles, especially when someone is trying to make the diet accessible for their budget.

I am in recovery, yes, but orthorexia took a lot longer, than I thought, to be put to bed alongside atypical anorexia. And, I’m sure it has for a lot of others too.

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