I’ve been blogging about food and nutrition for a while now, and at times touched on my past experience with eating disorders. But as I embark on a new decade (having just recently turned 30!) I’ve decided it’s time to open up a little and share with you some of my history of orthorexia. I hope that in doing so, it may encourage you to reflect upon your eating habits and attitude toward your body, or perhaps become alert to someone else close to you who may be finding things a little tough. This first post will explain how I initially became very obsessed with my diet and exercise habits and some defining behaviours. So here goes…
Something that sadly shaped my early twenties was a sustained pattern of restrictive eating and rigid exercise – what we’d now probably call orthorexia*, though I didn’t recognise it or call it that back then.
My interest in “being healthy” was sparked by a period of living in exactly the opposite manner. I was going out a lot, partying and living without concern in terms of my diet. I had a gym membership and made the occasional attempt at a class, sure, and did cook for myself sometimes. But all up I was living as what I’d categorise as quite an average Australian twenty-something, maybe one going out a touch too much. There was plenty of time for friends, boys, drinks, music festivals, clubs.
Reflecting back on this period I think some of my behaviour didn’t really sit quite right with me, and I found myself feeling down. As much as I liked going out and hanging with my pals, I felt a bit empty. There were times where I felt like I was doing things just to be cool. I went a saw a doctor to talk about how I was feeling. She suggested I have a think about what I really enjoyed doing, and perhaps explore different hobbies instead.
What happened next was all my own doing (the doctor was extremely kind and well intentioned!). What do I like doing? I went away and thought about it, looking for something to work toward. Being healthy, feeling fresh, fit and in control…that appealed to me big time. It was everything I wasn’t really feeling at that point. I wasn’t overweight in the slightest, but thought that of course there was much room for improvement.
And so my “health transformation” began. I went from Friday night regulars at Hungry Jacks to making absolutely all my own “healthy food”, and I started running and doing as many gym classes as I could squeeze in. A typical day would start with a 6.30am gym class, plus running on the treadmill for 20-30 minutes afterwards, rushing to work, drinking a giant black coffee and sitting down to a bowl of fat free yoghurt and muesli. Yep, I’ve got this, I thought.
After a few months though – being a Type A, all-or-nothing perfectionist kind of girl – one or two lifestyle “improvements” weren’t enough. Gym times intensified to needing to hit at least 7-8 km on the treadmill each day, plus a class if I could. Then I read you should get off the bus a few stops early… so I started pretty much walking halfway to and from work. Sweaty, extensive exercise, plus walking, was scheduled in every day, without fail. I needed to do it.
At the same time, I bought in heavily to the low carb, low fat mantra that dominated popular media, shrinking my diet to controlled portions well under my daily requirements and bulking out meals with plain vegetables. I was scouring every women’s mag going, flipping to the diet and lifestyle section and cycling through all of the 1,200-1,500 calorie-per-day meal plans I’d find in there for more ideas.
Unsurprisingly, weight fell off me during this period, but I was unaware of just how much I’d dropped (over the whole period it progressed to be over ten kilos – and I was toward the lower end of healthy BMI range to begin with). In the early stages, people commented on how great I was looking and how “good” I was being with my food, and that was flattering of course. But the real pleasure for me was the feeling of comfort, of relief, that I got organising and completing my food and exercise “tasks” each and every day. A classic sign of orthorexia.
Is it wrong to feel a sense of achievement when you tick off a gym class or make yourself an awesome nourishing grilled chicken salad for dinner? Goodness, of course not. But this ran far deeper for me. If I couldn’t tick off my gym class or eat my low fat salad for dinner, I simply could not cope. I couldn’t concentrate on other things. Here are some of the behaviours that governed my days during this period in my life.
- Exercise was absolutely key to my routine. I took to exercising very early every morning (always on an empty stomach, or black coffee if I was feeling very tired), focusing on as much sweat-inducing cardio as I could.
- Meal scheduling and planning was also very significant. I had very specific habits, for example I preferred to withhold from eating my first meal of the day until as late in the morning as possible, so I could delay successive meals and reduce the amount of times I felt I needed to eat. (I was incredibly hungry from all the exercise of course, and at that point totally ignorant of the body’s requirements pre- and post- workout.)
- An essential part of meal planning was to measure and calculate every thing that I consumed. My preferred way was to use a cup or teaspoon to measure food, or if I couldn’t do that I would buy items I could easily portion. Consuming food from the same container every day helped with sizing too. I was most fanatical about eating my breakfast out of the same bowl every day at work, which was always the same thing: a particular tub of fat-free yoghurt that I could easily portion into daily amounts, topped with a specific brand of muesli I measured with a cup.
- As well as finding it easiest to just eat the exact same measured thing every day, I found it helpful to generally declare an aversion or intolerance to a number of foods I was particularly scared of and that were quite popular, like cheese, cured meats, and coconut milk (so I could excuse myself from ever getting a laksa, which was a popular lunch option). In hindsight, most hilarious was my declared hatred for avocado. I claimed to dislike the texture immensely, but really I was just petrified about how many calories they contained.
- To help maintain control when I had to eat out, I frequently consulted calorie reference guides, meticulously examined food labels and tried to limit food purchases to items I could easily visualise into portions. If I was going to a restaurant, I’d make sure to get the menu in advance and try to find pictures of the meals. Sharing meals and eating tapas-style filled me with absolute dread, as it was so hard to keep track of my intake in those situations.
- While all of this scheduling was happening on the outside, I was also filled with nerves and anxiety internally most of the time, for fear that my routine may be disrupted (as it often was, life happens). I’d be overcome with anxiety and anger if anyone or anything prevented me from completing my exercise and eating schedule; I felt these feelings so strongly it wasn’t unusual for me to develop the shakes or grind my teeth.
- On a few uncontrolled occasions, I’d come to tears at a restaurant if they “ruined” my order by doing something like adding butter to my steamed spinach. I eventually just took up the habit of making excuses to leave events early, or skip events altogether, to make sure I could be home to prepare my food and get up early to exercise.
- During this period of my life, I also noticed that sleep became very difficult, though I was often exhausted from managing my routine. I constantly slept very poorly, grinding my teeth and tossing and turning, sweating heavily, most nights.
Although I embarked on developing healthy habits innocently enough, these interests quite quickly crossed the line to orthorexia. I was hooked on feeling absolutely throttled by exercise and relishing in my “perfect” meals. While all of this was going on though, the rest of my life continued around it as normally as it could. My perseverance at keeping all outward appearances as normal is probably how I progressed so far into orthorexia before getting help. I was still studying law full time, working part time in a law firm, and trying to go out as much as I could.
So, this has been a snapshot of me as I was, powering along with anxious determination through my rigid exercise and eating routine. I became more anxious, thinner and more exhausted as the months drew on and I implemented more controlling behaviours. I’m sharing this information with you, readers, so you can have a better understanding of what this kind of disordered lifestyle looks and feels like.
In my next post on orthorexia, I will share with you when and how I started making changes and healing my mind and my body. There were things that started to change around me and steps that I took myself to get better, and it certainly wasn’t all smooth sailing! Until then however, I’d very much love for you to take some time out to think about how and why you choose to eat and workout. Absolutely it is a wonderful thing to adopt a lifestyle that incorporates nutritious food and regular movement, but “healthy” doesn’t mean taking these things on to an extreme.
If you’re not feeling comfortable with your approach to eating and/or exercise, or you’re worried about someone you know, there are plenty of organisations that you can reach out to, and you can also try speaking with your GP and/or a close friend or family member that you feel safe talking to. I’ve popped the details for organisations in Australia and the UK below. And please do share this post with anyone you think would benefit from reading it!
The Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders: thebutterflyfoundation.org.au
beat: beating eating disorders: b-eat.co.uk
*“Orthorexia” is not recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (current version), however it’s quite widely discussed by many people in popular media and in eating disorder awareness materials. I have linked to a helpful page by the National Eating Disorders Association in my first paragraph – here is the link again: orthorexia
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