Eating disorders come in many forms. As someone who experienced it first hand, an unhealthy relationship with food is a complex psychological and physical battle, which literally drains the life out of you. For me, however, I didn’t even know I was suffering from an eating disorder until after I had recovered.
Orthorexia nervosa’s name was introduced in 1997 by American physician Steven Bratman. The term literally means a “fixation on righteous eating” and is used to describe patients with an unhealthy obsession with food. The disorder develops differently from person to person, but for most (myself included) it started with an innocent interest in being healthier. Little did I know, a year after this health-kick started I would be emotionally, physically and mentally inhibiting myself from living a normal life.
When I was fourteen I started going to the gym; I loved dance at this time and wanted to get fitter to improve my performance and chances of making it professionally. I must also admit that my dream of going into the performing industry provoked me to desire the ‘ideal body’, as my naïve teenage-self believed this was the only way I could be adequate. I struggled at first, barely motivating myself to go twice a week and when I did, sat on the rowing machine for forty minutes barely breaking a sweat. But I powered through, eventually finding enjoyment in running and weight lifting.
After a couple of months I was in the gym three times a week without fail, watching fitness Youtubers and downloading new workouts to inspire me. I felt great. I felt fit and healthy. I then read somewhere that fitness and the ‘ideal body’ was mostly based on diet. I didn’t think I ate unhealthily until I read hordes of information naming sugar the enemy, carbs a one-way ticket to flab and processed foods an inhibiter to any fitness progress. I realised I needed to do something, so I stopped having sugar in my tea, cut out junk food and made healthy meals. But it wasn’t enough.
Then came my biggest mistake. I downloaded the calorie counter app on my phone and began logging my daily food intake and exercise. At first I told myself it was interesting and simply a tool for me to use in order to be more inwardly healthy. Looking back, that was a lie. I began to stick religiously to that app; planning my meals to keep in line with my macronutrients, and ensuring I did not exceed my calorie restriction. By this time I was going to the gym at least five times a week, doing intense calorie burning workouts each time. It scares me to think at this time I was fourteen, balancing school with this oppressive lifestyle.
These apps are not designed for kids, so when I put in my measurements and stupidly picked the ‘lose weight’ setting, my daily calorie intake was set to around 1,200. This ridiculously unhealthy number which I stuck religiously to, is not enough for an active, growing young person. I eventually stopped having my periods and didn’t get them back until about a year later.
I think the scariest aspect was that everyone around me was inspired by me and were proud of my ‘healthy’ lifestyle. My parents made healthy recipes and told me they were proud their daughter was so independently health conscious. My friends asked me for diet tips and praised my figure. That’s the awful thing about Orthorexia in particular; in most cases the effects are mostly psychological not physical, which is why no one suspected that I had an eating disorder. On the outside I was a determined, motivated, healthy girl but really things were taking a downturn.
I couldn’t eat at restaurants unless I had looked at the menu before and saw there was something ‘healthy’ enough for me to have. I would eat before parties because I knew there would only be junk food. It sounds silly but I think the most upsetting part was the fact I refused to have cake on my fifteenth birthday because in my stubborn mind, the slightest slip up would reverse everything I had worked for during the past year. I believed every stupid fitness article I read and ended up restricting my diet even more, to the point where foods like bread and pasta were viewed through my eyes as unhealthy due to their high carb count.
I find it hard to put into words what life was actually like during this time, but it was more the things I missed out on that define it. For eighteen months of my life I didn’t eat one piece of chocolate, or a McDonald’s, I lived on salad and boiled veg and baked chicken and fish, I was constantly fatigued from exercising every day. Imagine a life where food and exercise are the only thing on your mind 24/7. It got to the point where I was getting up at 6am to go on a run before school, as well as going to the gym every evening. Despite this all sounding so extreme in hindsight, under this disorder I never once felt like I was doing enough.
I began to suffer with depression and anxiety around this time; it was not until after I recovered from orthorexia that I recognised the correlation between these mental health issues and my eating disorder. I was so obsessed with being ‘healthy’ and ‘perfect’, and so harsh on myself that I developed an extremely negative opinion of myself and experienced devastatingly low self-esteem. I was putting my mind and body through hell in order to reach a goal that realistically was non-existent. I isolated myself from friends and lost interest in things I loved, to the point where I felt so alone that the only thing I could turn to was my obsession with health. It was a vicious cycle that felt inevitable.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly how my recovery started. I was not seeing any doctors or councillors, so overcoming my eating disorder was utterly self- motivated. I channelled my determination and stubbornness that had enabled me to develop Orthorexia, into the goal to get my life back, but most importantly, my happiness. I deleted all the toxic apps and information that was poisoning my mind and took up other activities like writing for a music blog, in order to find enjoyment in other things. After a couple of months I was eating out in restaurants without a worry, eating food without even considering my calorific intake, and exercising in a healthy way. I am now seventeen, a healthy weight, a healthy relationship with food and the happiest I’ve ever been.
Orthorexia is not currently classified as an official eating disorder, but after experiencing it and how it majorly affected my life at such a young age, I definitely think its awareness should be raised. My most crucial piece of advice is don’t believe everything you read and if you begin to feel oppressed, sad or worried about yourself, talk to somebody and seek help.