“Sending love to everyone who’s doing their best to heal from things they don’t discuss.” ~Unknown
I used to obsess over healthy eating, and I mean OB-SESSSSS. I spent virtually every waking moment thinking about food. What should I eat today? Is there too much sugar in that? What will I eat when we go out next week? Should I claim that I’m allergic to gluten?
Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was suffering from orthorexia (that is, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating). Yes, I fully agree that eating nutritious food is good for you—there’s few who would deny that—but when you are thinking about food non-stop, something has definitely gone awry.
It all started innocently enough. My daughter (who’s my youngest) was about a year old, and I was ready to “get back in shape” and reclaim my pre-pregnancy weight. However, since I was against the idea of fad diets, I was looking for something else.
That “something else” turned out to be wellness culture, and I absorbed it all. I followed several influencers who said we must eat in a certain way for ideal health, which often meant organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, and absolutely no sugar. The influencers also used a lot of pseudoscience to support their ideas, and I totally fell for it.
With the idea of eating in a certain way for optimum health swirling round my brain, I decided to follow a thirty-day kick-starter healthy eating plan. It was all about focusing on health (and not weight loss). Easy enough, hey?
There was no counting calories, macros, or weighing food. No points. It was just about eating nutritious, wholesome food and having a protein shake for breakfast. What could be the harm in that?
Well, it was probably the long list of “not allowed” foods that you cut for thirty days (such as sugar, dairy, gluten, and soy)—essentially an elimination diet. The idea being that after thirty days you reintroduce the foods to help you identify your food intolerances. See? It’s all for health! Or so I thought…
And, as my “clean eating” regime was underway, I started to get a lot of positive feedback.
You’re so disciplined! How do you eat so healthy? Wow, you look really well.
It was alluring.
This was my slippery slope and the beginning of an unhealthy obsession with food.
Three years in, my life looked something like this: I claimed a gluten and dairy intolerance and was experimenting with being vegan, all for the sake of my health. Unfortunately, there’s not much food left to eat on this kind of restrictive diet.
Every few months I would follow an elimination diet (again) and would cut out all sugar, alcohol, caffeine, and soy (alongside the dairy and gluten that I was no longer eating). I started avoiding social events because the list of “safe foods” was getting so complicated; it often seemed easier to stay home.
All of this in the name of “health.” Except that it wasn’t healthy.
I was missing social events and avoided spending time with friends, my mental health was suffering, and I was developing an extremely disordered relationship with food.
While orthorexia isn’t classified as an eating disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, some healthcare professionals believe that it should be. And, personally speaking, my relationship with food was starting to remind me of the time when I’d suffered from an eating disorder back in my twenties.
I had a series of aha moments that finally woke me up to the fact that my behavior was not at all healthy and my extreme approach to food was doing me more harm than good.
It was when I started feeling embarrassed going to someone’s house for dinner and sending a long list of foods I couldn’t eat.
It was when I started to notice bingeing behavior: I’d binge on five sweet potato brownies because they were supposedly “healthy.” I’m sure that if I’d just had access to a chocolate brownie, I might have only eaten one
It was when I was doing my elimination diet so frequently, I had to make lots of excuses about why I couldn’t join evenings out.
Eventually I realized that my old eating disorder had morphed into orthorexia.
Thankfully, I had the resources to make a quick recovery, and my relationship with food has done a full 180 turn… In hindsight I can see clearly how very disordered my thinking, feelings, and behavior were.
With that in mind, here are nine lessons I learnt from my brush with orthorexia. My hope is that if you question some of your own food behaviors, you seek help before too much damage is done.
#1 There is no need to restrict food groups from your diet.
Unless you have a medical reason to do so (like coeliac disease), restricting food groups from your diet is unnecessary. Nope, you don’t need to be carb free; in fact, research shows that in the long term, a low-carb diet is actually bad for you.
#2 A flexible approach to eating is best.
You just don’t need overly rigid food rules. My food rules were too rigid, and I tried to eat perfectly all the time. Perfectly to me was organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, and absolutely no processed sugar. Alongside that, I stopped eating fruit because it has sugar in it. So, for a while, the only fruits I would eat were berries. Bananas, red apples, grapes, and tropical fruits were totally out of the question.
The problem with rigid rules is that all the fun things in life become stressful, like holidays, eating out, and going to a friend’s house, so flexibility is key.
#3 If you get overly upset when food rules are broken, something’s wrong.
I felt compelled to stick to my food rules, and I would feel emotional, distraught, and upset if I broke them. Like I had failed. I remember once crying in a French supermarket on holiday because I couldn’t buy the organic and gluten-free versions of food I wanted. It’s kind of missing the point of a holiday, isn’t it?
#4 Food is NOT just fuel.
Have you heard the quote “food is fuel”? It’s bandied around everywhere in the wellness and fitness spheres. But food isn’t just fuel. It’s about so much more, and this kind of thinking limits our potential to enjoy food to its fullest potential.
Food can be comforting; it can be a time to connect with friends and family. It’s nourishing for our bodies, and also nourishing for our souls; it can be nostalgic or related to our culture. A cup of tea and a biscuit can remind you of your granny, while a single meal can take you back to your childhood.
#5 All foods can fit in a balanced diet.
Yes, even sweets, chocolate, and pastries. It’s totally unsustainable to cut out “bad” foods for the rest of your life. I’ve also found that you’re more likely to crave these “bad” foods if you tell yourself you can never eat them again. When all foods fit, the ice cream comes off the pedestal and you can keep it in the house without bingeing. It’s a total revelation.
#6 It’s worse for your health to stress about sugar in food than to actually eat a damn cookie.
I used to stress about the sugar in food constantly. I would read every food label when shopping; I would calculate grams of sugar in things like raisins; I would only eat a green apple and not a red apple (too much sugar, apparently). Yup, I was one of those mums who cooked gluten-free, dairy-free, and sugar-free cakes for the kids’ birthdays. Yuk! Poor kids.
I’ve learned the stress of worrying about food is way worse than just eating the food itself. So relax, and enjoy that cookie.
#7 “Health” is more than just the food we eat.
Health is not just about what we eat; it’s way more than that. It’s about your genetics and your access to nutritious food and decent healthcare, which means it’s associated with your income level.
Also, what you consider “healthy” is different to what I consider “healthy.” Maybe my “health” is about being able to run around after my kids without feeling breathless, or improving my flexibility to keep my body feeling supple.
Your health might be about improving stamina and strength to run a marathon, or about sleeping seven to eight hours a night.
#8 Social events shouldn’t be awkward.
Quite the opposite. Social events should be fun, or relaxing and enjoyable. Not fraught and stressful. I had many an awkward conversation with hosts about things that I couldn’t eat.
I would avoid events when doing my cleanse, or re-arrange things around these months. And if I did venture out, I would endlessly worry about what I’d eat, sometimes calling the restaurant ahead to see what they had on the menu to fit my rigid rules. Or I would claim allergies so I could work out what was gluten-free and dairy-free. #awkward
And finally, if you are a parent…
#9 Your kids are watching you.
You might not say anything to your kids, but they are watching you. They notice what you do, reading those labels, and how you talk about food. They see when you skip the fun meals or cook something separate for yourself. They see when you are down on yourself and your body.
They are watching. Everything.
If I’m truly honest, this was the biggest driver for me to heal my relationship with food. The last thing I wanted to do was pass my disordered eating down to my kids.
Finding food freedom was the best thing that happened to me. I no longer fall to pieces in a restaurant or on holiday. Eating is no longer a stressful experience. I love food for all the things the eating experience gives us—connection, chats, family, and friends. I hope you can too.