It's Not Just About Food

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Disordered eating and body images struggles are complex. It’s not as simple as defining one sole reason as to why one struggles with food and/or their body. It’s also very different from one person to the next. 

What is going on in the depths of rigid dieting and restrictive eating?

I speak from my own experience and observation working with others, as well as speaking to others who have been there. The restrictive mindset is one that breeds self punishment. In the fitness industry, yes body image is a commonly huge factor but this is not the case in all restrictive eating disorders. I’ve spoken to people who have overcome extreme cases of anorexia nervosa who explained that body image wasn’t a driving force for them.

Why punish?

Again, everyone is very different - there is not a universal explanation here. I used to punish myself through restrictive eating for several reasons:

I was body image obsessed. From the young age of 4 when I started dancing, I was never satisfied with my body. I finally made peace with accepting my body at the age of 31 in recovery. I’m very grateful for my dance background, however some dance instructors make questionable body comments to young impressionable children. These words can be perceived as hurtful and they can stick in our sub conscious and conscious minds for years afterwards. I used to compare my body to other dancer's bodies. I vividly remember as a child being so distraught during a costume measurement session that my friend’s waist measurement was 18 inches while mine was 19. I used to look down at my thighs when I was sitting and feel disgusted that they looked wider when flattened out upon a chair. I programmed my brain as a child to see myself as “fat” and never good enough.

I used emptiness to dodge my true feelings. By denying myself nourishment, I grew to exist feeling numb for quite some time. My ego perceived this as being easier than truly acknowledging and feeling the challenging emotions I encountered. It was harder. Much of society fears emotional pain, acknowledging their truth, and interpersonal transformation. When we resist pain, it persists. It grows and holds us back from being happy. I hear people all the time when struggling to accept their problems say “But then I have to change who I am!” I learned in my soul searching that ego will guard us and hide our true selves. Self development isn't a matter of changing who we are. It is an opportunity to learn who we truly are and become the strongest version of ourselves. 

I lacked the ability to stand up for myself. This I can tie into my past days of binge drinking as I couldn’t seem to turn down a drink, and my susceptibility to disordered eating. I struggled with emotions such as guilt, shame, fear, and self worthlessness. When I was seeking nutrition advice from an under qualified low carb advocate while desperate to prove myself through my physique, a part of me knew cutting carbs out of my diet was wrong, but I went with it because I longed to become leaner and I couldn’t stand up for myself. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself not only because I had low self esteem, but because I struggled with the emotion anger. How does this work? Women are often told we don’t have the right to feel or express anger because it is an “ugly” emotion. When it gets bottled up inside it causes us much harm. It may come out abruptly and irrationally at times after we painfully hold it in. Let me tell you, there is a healthy way to express anger and it is called standing up for yourself! It is possible to clearly state our perspective in order to release angry thoughts peacefully and move on.

I wanted control and fostered this into rigid dieting. I was bullied in my youth, fell into unhealthy emotionally abusive relationships as an adult and as such I blamed myself. Restrictive dieting was an outlet I perceived as a way to prove myself and I saw food as something I did have the power to control. Little did I know back then that I was allowing food to control me! I thought following rigid dieting rules made me “hardcore”, that being ultra lean would impress people, and my ego was guarding me from being my authentic self. I lacked the ability to understand why bullies bully, and I thought being mistreated was just a normal part of life so I put up with it from others as well as myself. I know now that I have the power to control something incredibly valuable - how I perceive situations, including how I see myself as well as how I react to the way others treat me. I learned how to let go.

Guilt, shame and fear. I was so afraid of being wrong, that righteous eating controlled me and I fuelled fear into food. I was terrified of eating carbohydrates partially because I was told cutting them from my diet would lean me out, but also because I was afraid of simply being myself and enjoying the journey of life. I struggled with guilt and shame and I couldn't separate my actions from my character. If I ate a food that I had labelled as “bad” I saw myself as a terrible person. A trait of orthorexia is defining one’s self worth based on the foods one consumes, so when someone struggling with orthorexia eats something “forbidden” the guilt and shame that follow are very painful. There were an abundance of reasons as to why I didn’t see myself as worthy and as such my eating habits became emotionally damaging.

Often disordered eating escalates from misinformation about nutrition. There are many extreme and unhealthy diets out there and these make for huge triggers. However when we dig a little deeper and define what’s happening in the depths of our emotions, we can heal. Once we get to know who we are, face our pain and let it go, we are equipped to leave the rigid diet world behind in a profound way.

 

When Eating Healthy Becomes Unhealthy

In this day and age, nourishment has become mentally and emotionally confusing. The diet industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it keeps people hooked. With wording printed on products such as “fat burning”, “skinny”, “detox” or tales of foods that “improve your metabolism” or “reduce cellulite”, we are in the midst of a crisis and orthorexia is on the rise. The term “orthorexia” stems from the Greek word "orthos" meaning right or correct, and is a fixation on righteous, perfect eating rules. Note - currently orthorexia has not been recognized as an official eating disorder, but I know it is very real because I am orthorexia-recovered.

People are reading up on diets and supplements that promise fast drastic body appearance changes, while the marketers behind these products are suggestively selling emotional distress. Words such as “fat burning” very much heighten the emotion fear as it suggests to a person that they are fat, that a bottle of pills is their solution, and purchases are driven from a place of anxiety.

On mainstream fitness social media we see rows upon rows of tasteless white fish paired with green vegetables and the posters are suggesting people live chained to identical tupperware meals, otherwise they will never succeed. Foods are being labeled as “good” and “bad” and people connect these words to their character when making their eating decisions. 

Several nutrition focused groups have given their food belief systems names and followers live by the food rules dictated by the gurus of these diets. For myself personally, I used to follow the paleo diet and ketogenic dieting. This became a force that held me so tightly I lost my mind. I developed the most severe case of orthorexia imaginable.

It started out with the intention to eat healthier. Later it became an obsession to get lean and I succeeded in that goal as I met the criteria for anorexia approaching my 30th birthday. I became obsessed with eliminating foods from my diet. I adopted the rules of no grains, no dairy, no soy, no beans or lentils, no sugar (not even fruit), no starch, no seeds, no nuts. If you are familiar with the paleo diet you might be wondering why one would go as far as to eliminate fruit, nuts, and seeds. Well, a paleo guru actually made that suggestion to me and I listened. However, emotionally what I was doing was fuelling the need for intense control into food, punishing myself and living in immense fear. Internet popularized diets and food belief systems are a very slippery slope for many. Also, in my most restrictive phase I fasted for extended periods of time. So basically I ate a meal of protein and fat in the form of ground beef with kale once a day with no carbs and was I miserable. A trait of orthorexia is a feeling of self righteousness and sadly I even began to judge others based on their food choices.

Eventually this ended with a binge. I was highly sensitive due to being so hungry and emotionally distraught, and I allowed someone to upset me one night. Feeling lost and lonely, I bought some chocolate covered almonds and banana chips. Both bags were finished off that night. I went on to eat fish and salads on weekdays, then binge eat on the weekends. I purged sporadically because I felt disgusted with myself if I binged and was desperate to rid myself of guilt. As a result of purging I injured myself badly deadlifting one day as my core was too weak to support a barbell my ego insisted on moving. I went on a vacation and binge drank for a week while consuming beef jerky and pistachios between odd restaurant meals. Upon returning from my drunken holiday, I decided I must try the “meat and nuts for breakfast” trend, another paleo/keto dieting rule and my body shut down. I spent 2 weeks violently ill off and on. I knew I had a problem and wanted to change.

Fortunately, my very good friend had shared his wife’s website with me as he knew I worked in the health and fitness industry. Oh my goodness - she was a counsellor who specialized in body image. I sent the life changing email “I have an eating disorder” to Tiffany Brown of Inspiring Pathways and she became the most influential person in my recovery. The amount of gratitude I have for her is immeasurable.

As time went on I opened up to more people about my eating disorder and told them I was in recovery. I obtained a lot of support from my loved ones. At times I received criticism from people, however those who put me down only made me stronger in the long run. I put my heart and soul into my recovery. I made it my financial priority after basic needs were met to invest in my recovery. I fought so that I could become happy, healthy and strong. This was the biggest battle of my life and I don’t foresee myself ever facing something this overwhelming again. Disordered eating on any level is painful. When taken to an extreme it is absolutely gut wrenching. However, in pain there is growth and I learned how to use pain to breed courage, strength, love and compassion.

Aside from understanding the challenging emotions I dealt with and fuelled into food, part of my recovery involved learning about nutrition as it was misinformation of nutrition that triggered my eating disorder. I’d like to leave you with these points regarding my views on nutrition and diets:

  • Everyone is unique, hence there is no miracle diet
  • Consuming mostly whole nutritious foods with some treats in moderation is sustainable, physically healthy and psychologically sound
  • From my own experience and observation with others while working in the health and fitness industry, a prominent reason many people struggle with weight is due to emotional distress and yoyo dieting. This cycle effects several elements of our health such as digestion/elimination, hormonal function, metabolic rate, adrenal function, and mental well being 
  • Eliminating foods based on self directed research and diagnosis can be problematic.  Proper food testing for allergies and sensitivity through a trained professional is an accurate way to learn about your own unique food compatibility. I personally learned through my naturopath that I have an intolerance to a healthy food that I once consumed daily, is not advised to be removed in the mainstream elimination diets and is in fact glorified by many of the popular food belief systems
  • Not all marketers are ethical and the psychology of selling diet products is often based on feeding our challenging emotions, which leads to us tapping into questioning our self worth, and a vicious cycle of fuelling guilt, shame and fear into diet after diet 
  • Because unsustainable diets result in rebound weight gain, people continue to buy into them desperate for a solution to change their bodies. This only feeds the multi billion dollar industry rather than people investing in themselves 
  • Popular cleanse and detox products are a slippery slope for bingeing, and do not allow us to obtain long term results or happiness
  • Our bodies obtain energy through 3 macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate and fat.  They are all essential for our health and wellness, and different people require different amounts of energy based on their lifestyles. Learning about adequate macronutrient intake for my metabolic type and lifestyle was a big part of my recovery and many of my health issues were resolved simply by eating enough. Very importantly this was the solution to ending 2 years of amenorrhea 
  • Our macronutrient intake and genetics determine our body composition and body type, not the individual foods we eat
  • Carbs get a bad rap through mainstream fitness pop culture. I used to be the biggest carbophobe on the planet. After learning how to eat for my lifestyle, goals and metabolic type I consume about 60% of my calories through carbs. I’m leaner than I’ve ever been in my adult life (other than my brush with anorexia) and I am in my thirties, proof that carbs don't "make us fat". Also always remember, our body fat in no way has any relation to our worth as human beings.  All bodies are worthy bodies

I hope that these points have helped provide some clarity around sustainable, balanced nutrition. I also hope that my story will build awareness of how dangerous orthorexia can become. Whether you have a severe case of orthorexia, you're showing signs of dipping into orthorexia or are constantly battling the yoyo dieting cycle, there is a way out and it is not sold in a box that says "burns fat fast" on it.