Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with eating healthfully. I’ve written about it previously and described it in detail in a previous series of posts. In this post, I want to talk about the mental challenges involved in recovering from orthorexia and other eating disorders. Specifically I will focus on my own journey with orthorexia and several episodes of bulimia which I’ve never talked about publicly until this sentence. Also, this post applies to anyone who has ever attempted a strange form of eating in order to lose weight, build muscle, or anything of the like. If you’ve ever attempted counting your macros to lose weight, that can result in disordered eating. The path to optimal health requires the casual dieter as well as the extreme dieter to change habits. The difference is that the longer one has spent eating rigidly, the more unlearning and identity-change must be performed.
Permanent recovery is possible
First I would like to start out by saying that permanent recovery is possible. But the more severe the eating disorder the harder it is to recover. Most people with anorexia nervosa do not recover completely, whereas rates of full recovery are higher with bulimia. With orthorexia, which isn’t technically classified as a real eating disorder, recovery is definitely possible. Orthorexia isn’t classified as an eating disorder in the DSM-V probably because it can range so widely, and its health consequences aren’t so clear. Some people can be very orthorexic and not suffer from immediate health problems. Other orthorexics may have severe health problems but health professionals will not suspect inadequate diet as the cause. In this separate post I discuss the health problems with having orthorexia.
The Mental Game
Healing from a severe obsession with the foods you put in your body has mostly to do with severing your beliefs surrounding it in my experience. For me, my obsession with achieving a lean physique had to be severed and replaced with a new goal (health). And then my obsession with eating “pure” foods had to be replaced (and retrained with new insights as to what eating healthfully meant). Overall, my obsession with food had everything to do with physical appearance and the pursuit of aesthetics. Below I’ll share a few of the strategies that helped me recover. I believe these strategies can help anyone with orthorexia recover but I am speaking from my perspective.
Learning to eat a balanced diet
I realized that a balanced diet involved far more than carbohydrates, fats, proteins, or the perfect portion sizes of starch, vegetables, and meat (as explained by most nutrition professionals and agencies). The idea of portion control quite frankly is one of the stupidest ideas regarding optimal nutrition ever. It’s on my top 10. And this is simply because “portion control” is about weight loss and emphasizes control over food, which leads to imbalances.
The desire to control is exactly what gets the individual with orthorexia in health trouble. They don’t listen to what their bodies want, but instead, force their bodies to take in a calculated amount of food based on a logical set of rules which aren’t even true.
So, I learned that a balanced diet is about taste, texture, as well as the macronutrients in my meal. I used to eat eggs with brown rice without any flavor whatsoever. I used to eat raw ground beef out of the package with barbeque sauce thinking it was healthy (raw paleo). From the perspective of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda, these meals were unbalanced because they represented minimal types of energy. Meat is warming, when cooked, but not as much when raw. Raw foods in general are cold.
I was on a raw food vegan diet for over one year. I ingested adequate amounts of carbohydrates, fats, and protein, but eventually developed intense cravings for cheese. Perhaps I needed far more fat than I realized, or other missing nutrients that have nothing to do with chemical constituents.
A balanced diet is a blend of types of foods that bring different flavors, colors, textures, and sensations to your meal. It is beyond the scope of this post to describe what that is but here’s my short video on it.
Focusing on new health goals
The next challenge in recovering was focusing on new health goals. Instead of fat loss, I focused on metabolism. It had slowed from dieting. After eating more calories overall, it went back up. I had more energy again, and I felt better. My mood increased in all directions. Beforehand I was pretty flat. After, I could experience more emotions again.
I was able to think better and also just feel less tired during the day. I was falling asleep in classes before I added in sugar, salt, and processed foods in my diet to recover (a story for another post) and this was fixed for the most part (boring classes made me fall asleep regardless) with the change in diet.
All of this led me to put having energy first. And the truth is, I realized two weeks ago from making an Instagram post that I was still recovering in a sense because some of my actions were incongruent with recovery. I was still trying to lose weight, because now, I weight 18 lbs more than I did at my leanest. Some of that is muscle mass, but most of it is in my belly. (You can see a before/after pic in this post).
I realized that in order for me to truly get my metabolism to healthy of a level as possible, I must avoid all activities that lower it, like fasting, skipping meals, and exercising when my body isn’t truly ready to yet (exercising because I need to hit a certain workout rather than because my muscles are truly recovered, or trying to cram in a workout late at night because I spent too long working during the day and missed my normal time–> this will increase cortisol at the wrong times of the day, creating a vicious cycle).
Reeducating myself on what “healthy” foods really were
The two steps above helped me realize that there was a place in a healthy diet for pizza as well as for kale. A pizza is not less healthy than kale by any means. The pizza is simply more anabolic. It has fast-absorbing carbohydrates, cheese, and some protein, and perhaps pineapple slices if I’m in the mood. A pizza is capable of being a perfectly balanced meal. A salad however usually is missing something important for your health, namely, calories.
I realized (years ago at this point), that what most people have been saying is “healthy” is simply catabolic. It’s good at cleansing the body by having it break things down rather than build things up. But only eating catabolic foods will after a while cause you to experience a slow metabolism, and essentially, all the effects of starvation. I had to learn to choose the calorie-dense foods when I wanted to and it’s still something I work on today because I do want to get leaner again. I’m going to eat some form of sugar within the next half hour, that’s for sure.
The last step I want to discuss here (this is not an exhaustive post on the matter) is letting go. You have to let go of your workout routine. You have to let go of the treadmill, or in my case, heavy weight lifting. (An example of the workouts I was doing in 2014 which were causing adrenal issues is discussed here).
You have to let go of looking at yourself in the mirror and looking a certain way. You have to let go of the “healthy” foods you were accustomed to eating and change it up. Change is hard, but it’s good for us. The progress you make in your recovery requires you to let go.
Consider throwing out diet journals, and perhaps taking a break from all exercise. Consider creating habits that require you to reinvent yourself. I always wondered for example if I would be lifting as heavy as I did by the time I was 30. I still wonder if one day, I’ll only do yoga and light weight lifting for a long period of time, because I still like to squat, bench, and lift to achieve certain strength goals. I just try to do it with an intensity that matches my state, and recover well. I also stop my workouts when I start to feel like I should go and don’t push myself too hard. I know my limits. This requires me to let go of the workouts I had planned beforehand and just go home to recover.
This is just my journey with orthorexia. This post is by no means a guide on how to recover from it for everyone, but I believe many of the steps in healing require some of these fundamental changes that I’ve made and which I try to teach people today. For further reading on this topic check out these posts:
- Orthorexia: the Good, Bad, and the Ugly – Part 1. (link to part two is in there).
- Intuitive Eating: How to and Five Steps for Getting Started.
- The Health Problems with Having Orthorexia Nervosa.