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Orthorexia: The Socially Acceptable Eating Disorder

When the pursuit of health compromises social, mental, physical, emotional, and mental health.

What makes orthorexia so confusing is that behaviors are often hidden behind socially acceptable "health" behaviors so people do not see there is a problem. 

For years I was not well, but no one knew it. I did, but I hid it well. I hid it in a sneaky eating disorder, called Orthorexia. Orthorexia is not yet a formally diagnosable eating disorder, but it soon will be, because it is dangerous, and contributing to a rise in eating disorders. As an eating disorder therapist and recovery coach I have seen Orthorexia steal happiness, health, and confidence from many women. It did for me.

I was often praised by friends, colleagues, and peers as “Dedicated”. People admired how restrictive I was with my eating and how obsessed I was with working out. Eating disorders are not something to be praised, which is why Orthorexia is very scary. The behaviors associated with this eating disorder appear “normal” to society’s standards, yet the food restriction and exercise rituals cause a person to become malnourished and physically, mentally, and emotionally unhealthy. What makes this disorder confusing is that I was able to hide my anxiety and obsession behind “healthy” behaviors so other people do not always see there is a problem.

I ate. In fact, I ate several times a day. I worked well. I had friends and I attended dinners and adventures with them but I always brought my own food. I traveled, with food I pre-prepared. I successfully lived independently, but I was sad, anxious, and lonely most nights. I was hungry and because my diet was so restrictive I either went to bed super early or I spent more time alone because I could not enjoy the food with friends. Every hour of my day was consumed with working out and the food I was eating. In order to be more “healthy” and “good” I continuously cut foods out of my diet. No food group was safe, as I cut vegetables and fruits for having too “high” sugar counts. My body changed, but it was never good enough. Hours a day were spent either engaging in exercise or planning and researching exercise. I was praised, but it only fueled a desire to diet harder, work out harder. I didn’t see what others thought because to me, I was still not “perfect” so I continued to slave, workout and diet harder so that I could maybe like the image staring back at me in the mirror. Few expressed concern but it was easy to excuse behaviors as “healthy.” My identity was found in exercise and healthy eating, nothing else. Without those behaviors I was lost. I was doing everything diet-culture told me to do, and I ended up feeling anxious, lonely, depressed, insecure, and stuck.

Orthorexia does not look like any other eating disorder, because the people that struggle with it do not “look” sick. My weight was always “healthy”, per cultural standards. However because of low body fat I lost my period, which is a very dangerous symptom of an eating disorder. I also developed bradycardia, another dangerous health consequence of an eating disorder. But it was never caught because I was eating a “healthy” diet and moving my body in an “acceptable” way. People with orthorexia eat but in order to do so one must follow strict dietary rules. The list of acceptable foods is shorter than non-acceptable foods. Food restriction interferes with a person’s ability to live life freely. Rather than going to friends houses, I would stay home because I was not sure what food would be available. I talked about health food all the time and was very concerned and worried about what other people were eating, so I stopped getting invited to dinner. Someone with orthorexia appears healthy because they move their body in a socially acceptable way. Working out was more important than friends, family, and work. If I didn’t workout, I was filled with self-doubt, self-hate, self-disgust, and anxiety. My eating disorder went unnoticed for many years because I was living a lifestyle motivated by a culture that promotes, praises, and values these behaviors.

The obsession with healthy living interferes with someone’s ability to freely live their life. Working out came before friends, family, work, or responsibilities. The fear of food becomes so great that food restriction causes health problems like hormone imbalances and heart palpitations and bradycardia – slow heart rate. Emotional health declines because of frequent anxiety due to fears of food and body changes. Self-esteem and body image suffer because the body is never “good enough” and the inability to perfectly follow a diet or workout creates feelings of shame, anger, and self-hate. Health declines because living the “healthy” lifestyle supersedes physical illness, injury, or the need for rest. I was not able to properly nourish my body because I could only eat “health” foods that did not give me what my body truly needed to be OK.

Many will argue that a “healthy” lifestyle is a wonderful thing, and I do not encourage or want anyone to be unhealthy. However health should not compromise social, mental, physical, emotional, or mental health. If you, or someone you love:

  • Compulsively checks food labels and ingredient lists

  • Has increased concern about the health of ingredients

  • Cuts out an increased number of food groups

  • Will only eat a narrow list of foods that are labeled as healthy or pure.

  • Unusual interest in what others are eating.

  • Spending hours per day thinking about food at events, meal planning, and planning for exercise.

  • Experiencing high levels of distress when safe and “healthy” food are not available.

  • Obsessively following food and healthy lifestyle blogs, accounts, on social media.

  • Body image concerns.

It may be time to reach out for help. There is a way to find balance and freedom and not live a life consumed with thoughts about food, exercise and your body. Being consumed with thoughts about your body, obsessing about food and exercise is not comfortable but there is support and relief. You can change your life without changing your body. 

Bio:

Dr Stephanie Waitt specializes in treating eating disorders at her practice, Texoma Specialty Counseling. In her work with people she aims to help young men and women find balance, peace, confidence, and happiness with their bodies, relationships, and life. She emphasizes the importance of self-care and encourages people that being a little selfish is a really good thing. Stephanie is also an online body image and self esteem coach. In her recovery coaching Stephanie helps people learn to find peace with their bodies and ditch dieting. She helps people find confidence and the power to live the life they want right now! You can learn more about her practice and online recovery coaching at www.texomaspecialtycounseling.com. She offers you a free self-esteem video training at her website and when you sign up for her email you receive FREE weekly coaching emails.

Author of the teen self-esteem e-book, I Am Awesome! 

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