Orthorexia: Not a Kind of Dinosaur, but Just as Scary
By Lorna Porter
It began simple enough. Disappointed with my health after a semester in the dorms, I was determined to make a change. I was going to be healthy, get back in shape, eat right, and get back to being the athlete I had been in high school. It was a goal that millions vow to achieve every year, a goal that society promotes extensively, a goal that has thousands of websites, books, magazines, and products devoted to it, a goal that has become a huge part of American culture. It was also a goal that would almost kill me.
Food had always been a wonderful part of my life. I loved to bake, to cook, to try new foods, to experiment in the kitchen, and most of all, to eat. Yet, the second semester of my freshman year, my relationship with food changed. I began doing extensive food research, learning calorie counts and nutritional compositions for the first time, and food changed from something that I loved to something that I feared. I decided to listen to the thousands of people who felt they knew what was best for me to eat, and began drastically cutting foods out of my diet.
I began by cutting out dairy products, then animal products, then processed sugars. I finally decided that I would avoid all processed foods I could. Left with few options in the dining halls, I subsisted on a diet that was severely limited. Fruits were okay, but only in small amounts because of their high sugar content. Vegetables were okay, but avoid the starchy ones! Carbs were okay, but only brown rice or plain oatmeal. The only acceptable fat? Avocado.
I became consumed. My life was dictated by food, and the effects were immeasurable. I had absolutely no energy, wandering from class to my dorm room in a daze, always slightly off-balance and dizzy. I was so disconnected from my body that I couldn’t realize that my muscles, with absolutely no fuel, were consuming themselves. Every time I went running or cycled, every second I continued to workout, I was literally destroying myself. Weeks later, as I began my recovery, I would find out that I was eating only six hundred calories a day. Combine this with an hour workout (sometimes doubled up with a soccer game or another run) and the simple act of walking to class and other daily activities, and I was left in a deficit of at least 1500 calories or more each day.
I was so overwhelmed by this orthorexic mindset that I believed I was living a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. I ate pure, raw foods, I exercised, I went to bed early; I avoided all the things that were killing the Americans around me. I was going to be the healthiest person I could be, I was going to live the longest, I was going to be the perfect example of healthy living. Instead, I ended up the perfect example for orthorexic anorexia, and ended up nearly killing myself.
Orthorexia nervosa is a term used to describe a form of an eating disorder characterized by a fixation on healthy eating that can lead to severe malnutrition, and in some cases, death. Currently, it is not a medically recognized term. Yet, all of the doctors, nutritionists, and therapists that I saw were aware of the increasingly popular classification.
L.M. Donini was one of the first researchers to study orthorexia nervosa, and his conclusions made clear that healthy eating is not an eating disorder, yet when it is taken too far, the obsession, loss of moderation, and withdrawal from life lead it to an eating disorder. The disorder has been linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, yet the lack of research done on this relatively new phenomena means that there no clear diagnostic criteria, and very little awareness within society. This means, also, that there are potentially many orthorexics being treated as anorexics who could benefit from receiving an alternative treatment based on the knowledge of how orthorexia dictates one’s eating habits, and how to address it.
Steven Bratman was the man who coined the term othorexia. In his essay, “The Health Food Eating Disorder” he suggests that orthorexia can reach a point where eating healthy becomes a ‘pseudo-spiritual’ experience that requires penitence if one slips up, and that healthy eating can also bring a sense of superiority over others and their ‘poor’ diets. I experienced all of this, the need for control, the sense of accomplishment, the abject horror when I ate the Hershey Kiss passed out in my discussion group, and the constant loss of awareness of myself and the world around me.
A list of questions developed by Donini and his research team help diagnose orthorexia. Six months ago, I would have answered “always” to every single one. Eating at restaurants terrified me and I wouldn’t even let my own mom cook for me if I wasn’t watching every ingredient she used. Socially I was a nightmare, as food is often integrated with social interactions. Every time people wanted to go out, every late-night IHOP run or trip for ice cream after the beach, I would make some excuse, and escape to my home where I could prepare my half-cup of oatmeal, or my undressed salad. Every morning, I woke up thinking about breakfast, and what I would eat throughout the day. As soon as I finished one meal, I was planning out the next one. I missed out on so much.
To me, being thin was not the ultimate goal, it was simply a welcome byproduct of healthy living, a symbol of my dedication to health. It’s hard to explain the disconnect that I experienced from my body. To everyone around me, it was unbelievable that I couldn’t see what I was doing to myself. I never once weighed myself, and when I looked in the mirror, my thinness simply did not register.
It sounds incredible that I couldn’t realize the magnitude of what I was doing to myself, but studies have shown that people who can be defined as orthorexic struggle with seeing the big picture. I was so focused on the nutritional qualities of foods, and so afraid of the consequences of eating one milligram too many of sodium, or one gram of saturated fat, that I couldn’t see that my drive towards health was in fact killing me. I was so terrified of what I saw as unhealthy eating that I refused to eat processed sugars, when in truth my body had reached a point where it would have benefitted from straight glucose.
It wasn’t until my parents came to pick me up to go home for the summer that I realized the magnitude of my situation. My mom took one look at me, having not seen me in a month and a half, and burst into tears. I will never forget the panicked, helpless look on her face, the shock as she took in my sunken eyes, my stick-like arms, my collar-bone jutting out, all curves gone as I stood there, clothes hanging off me. It was the beginning of the strangest summer of my life, as I struggled to work with my parents, doctors, nutritionists, and therapists to overcome the disease that had taken over my life, and had almost taken it from me.
When I finally saw a doctor, my vital signs were dangerously low. My body temperature was way below normal, my heart rate was in the forties, and I was classified as severely underweight. There were days over the summer when the doctors were afraid I wouldn’t wake up, as my heart rate was so low that they were afraid it would simply stop while I was sleeping. Every time I snuck out to run, unable to give up exercising, I was at high-risk for a heart attack.
Now, months later, I have gained seventeen pounds, but I still have a long way to go until I reach ‘normal’ weight. My life has been severely affected by orthorexia, and I am so glad that I have now come to realize the severity of my actions, and how unhappy I was throughout this whole experience. Even as I was ‘achieving’ my goal, and ‘succeeding’ at being healthy, I was not enjoying life. If I have learned one thing from this, it is to relax. To relax in regards to my diet, my future, my health, and life in general.
Nutrition is important, and I still feel that being educated about one’s diet and monitoring the quality of the foods one eats are very important. However, everyday I wish that I could wipe calorie counts out of my mind, and just eat food without thinking of it as a number. I wish I could just eat when I am hungry, stop when I’m full, indulge when my body craves it, and eat healthy because it makes my body feel good. I wish food could become the experience it once was, one to be enjoyed and shared with friends. I want food to be a fun part of life, but I also want to leave room for all other aspects of life to be enjoyed. Food should add to life’s fun, it shouldn’t be a source of stress.
I’ve been hesitant to share my story, knowing that being seen as an anorexic would change people’s perceptions of me. I didn’t want to become defined by my eating disorder. However, by becoming open about what I went through, I hope that I can help to show people how dangerous of a trap obsessive eating can become. I hope people will realize that balance can be found in life and that food can be a fun, exciting part of it. There’s more to food then nutrition. Food is cultural, familial, social, and pleasurable. One should strive to find balance in life, a balance between healthy eating and indulgence. One should realize that there can be a balance between caring about what one eats, and realizing that there is so much more to food than its nutritional content. Life is meant to be enjoyed, and food should contribute to life’s pleasures, not detract from them.
Lorna is a second-year student here at UC Berkeley, looking to major in Interdisciplinary Studies, concentrating on the relationship between globalization, international politics, and community health and development, with a minor in Public Policy.