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.