Orthorexia has been coined the clean eating eating disorder. It’s an obsession with righteous eating to the point that it is holistically unhealthy. You probably know someone with orthorexia in today’s wellness craze. I observe it in people all the time and I’ve supported many people struggling with orthorexia. Food has no moral value but those struggling with orthorexia believe their food choices speak about their character. They might eat a “bad” food, then wallow in self pity and believe they are a terrible person. Hence, the desire to eat healthy is motivated from fear as opposed to love and those with orthorexia tend to develop long lists of fear foods. Always remember, whenever we take anything too seriously it is fear driven.
I am orthorexia recovered and recovery was the best investment I ever made in myself! I may have battled an eating disorder and underwent a lot of crazy diets but I don’t refer to myself as a ‘body positive’ advocate because I don’t resonate with the anti-diet movement. I am a body love and health advocate, and of course I am as pro recovery as they come.
We live in a world full of fad diets, false promises, and food obsession. On magazine covers and social media we see things like:
“How to lose 10 lb in 10 days”
“Top fat burning foods”
“The next big breakthrough in weight loss”
So much talk about fat loss yet so many struggle to lose weight long term. Yo-yo dieting is VERY prevalent.
In my most restrictive phase I only ate one meal a day and my list of fear foods was so big I only consumed 4 foods. My struggle to find “perfection” and obtain fast results was a much deeper issue than misinformation about nutrition. Alas, the malnourishment I provided myself wrecked havoc on my health. Malnourishment and orthorexia come in many forms. I’ve observed orthorexia rooted in several different dietary belief systems and varying levels of orthorexia anywhere from mild to severe.
I was in a vitamin store the other day picking up some magnesium and the guy in line ahead of me was obsessed with his keto diet, buying all sorts of gimmicks to support it. He impulsively grabbed a super high fat packaged cookie at the til to top off his expensive keto obsessed purchase. He then turned to me wide eyed and said “Are you on the keto diet too?!”
In my head I said “OH NO” then out loud to him I said “nope, carbs are my friend!” He looked confused but he didn’t ask me any questions so I didn’t give him any answers. Little does he know ketogenic dieting ruined my health a few years ago. He likely doesn’t know keto was never designed to be a mainstream diet as it is meant for assisting in specific medical cases. For the general public, I believe keto is a suboptimal approach to nutrition but I can appreciate it is used effectively in some unique cases.
I recently watched a YouTube video of a former raw vegan extremist telling her story of how her body shut down when she was diet obsessed. She became so sick and it was consuming animal protein that nourished her back to health. She was in denial for so long that her diet was making her sick. Sounds like me when I was keto obsessed. Now, I know some healthy balanced vegans but the fact of the matter is we are biologically omnivores so many people’s bodies will completely reject raw plant based dieting.
Extremes are never healthy. Which leads me to discussing another extreme ideology we see on social media: The anti-diet movement.
‘Anti’ is such a firm word. You know whenever you see it in front of something people are going to have very emotional opinions. I’ve observed many things in the anti-diet movement that I don’t resonate with. For example advocates believe that wanting to lose weight is bad and reject scientific evidence showing the health risks of obesity, many claim we are victims of diet culture (as opposed to taking any personal responsibility for our own actions), we can eat whatever the fuck we want whenever we want because “all foods fit” (when I followed this “rule” in a phase of my recovery I got sick from eating certain foods), educating oneself about calories is disordered and heck even having a regular gym routine is scoffed at by many.
So on one end of the spectrum we have raw vegan lady who lived in denial that her diet was harmful to her health. And on the other end of the spectrum we have body positive influencers shaming weight loss and fitness. In some cases even glorifying binge eating! One of my life coaching clients did a group intuitive eating program prior to working with me and was active on many online forums. She saw a comment saying that it was A-okay to eat a dozen donuts in one sitting while several others supported this comment. What? How confusing! THIS is what people are portraying as eating intuitively?
When we take a closer look at orthorexia and anti-diet, both of these extremes have something in common: Attachment.
When we become attached to anything in life whether it be an idea, a past experience, our partner, a diet, a pair of shoes, etc we put ourselves in a position to become hurt. Not that we won’t experience pain if we practice more detachment in life, but attachment is typically connected to denial and resistance deeply rooted in shame.
For instance, if your partner left you and you were highly attached to them, you would go through a phase of disbelief. HOW could they be gone? WHY did they leave? And you may start to question yourself. Consider what would happen if you peacefully detached from the relationship and moved on. Sadness would be valid in the process but not to the point that it consumed your thoughts. Peaceful detachment would honour the bond you had, wish your former partner well in their future endeavours, and allow you to move forward with more peace and acceptance.
We see people with orthorexia denying that their extreme diets are problematic for their health and we see body positivity advocates denying that weight loss executed in a healthy way can be good for some people (but eating 12 donuts is totally fine?). The term ‘diet’ in itself has become offensive to many, when in reality ‘diet’ simply means the sum of foods habitually consumed by an individual. The term ‘diet’ does not mean ‘unsustainable fad diet’ at its essence.
We observe anti-diet advocates deny that there even are healthy sustainable weight loss solutions and these limiting beliefs consume the body positivity community. I see this keeping people stuck. Some stay stuck in their restrictive eating disorders because that movement scares them off. Some develop binge eating issues (I’ll say it again, 12 donuts?) Others stay stuck in the movement attached to anger toward diet culture and the fitness industry.
I’m not saying body positivity shouldn’t exist. It has its place. No one should be mistreated based on their appearance (or in general, because kindness is cool) and disabled and marginalized bodies need representation. Thin people with body dysmorphia need support too. There are a lot of people struggling with their bodies. However the way the agenda is being pushed is not positive. It’s giving people (women in particular) a space to point blame toward external factors rather than truly understanding their feelings. We are not victims of diet culture. Our body image issues and disordered eating issues are much deeper than the influences around us.
I went from underweight in my long term restrictive dieting phase to having a binge phase with a weak metabolism. I gained 20 lb fast, then another 10 lb somewhat steadily. I ended up about 15-20 lb over what a healthy weight is for me by the time I was creating balance. At 5’3” that amount of unfamiliar weight was very uncomfortable, my energy levels were crushed and I didn’t identify with my body. I wrote a blog about how I tracked my macros to reverse the female athlete triad, learn to eat to perform and lose weight in the process by eating MORE food. Read about that here if you’d like to learn more about that phase of my journey. Note I don’t recommend this approach for everyone but it was right for me.
I eat intuitively now, and I’m very grateful for the education I received about macronutrients. Like I said, I’m not anti-diet. I value GOOD advice that will help me improve my health.
And that’s a problem with anti-diet culture. There’s no such thing as good advice when it comes to weight loss in that community. I’d say the weight loss advice I sought out that had me eating more while reversing health issues was great! (Again, I don’t believe this method is for everyone.) Anti-diet is very much a social political focused movement. Many activists tell us if we value our body composition we are racist, sexist and so forth. Maybe you’ve noticed I stopped using the hashtag #bodypositive on Instagram. There’s a lot more going on behind this term than I think some people are aware of. Fear monger tactics telling people who’s beliefs don’t align with yours that their beliefs are linked to racism and sexism doesn’t resonate with me. I will not succumb to this fear mongering when having logical conversations about health, fitness, diet and body composition.
The average person who wants to improve their fitness but hasn’t been paying attention to diet or exercise can actually make great improvements to their health when they choose to expand their knowledge and embrace a balanced approach. In most cases, simply applying some nutrition and habit changes while exercising regularly will help people obtain results. It’s always important to remember that everyone’s story is unique and some people do suffer with weight related health conditions. These people deserve to approach their goals with sound advice, which we don’t see in diet culture. If chronic dieting, yo-yo dieting, binge eating, food obsession, compulsive exercise or mindless eating is an issue, I suggest making emotional support with a trained professional like myself your top priority in your health and fitness routine. It is our emotional issues that lead us to extremes in the first place.
One thing I see from the anti-diet movement a lot is this resistance to health. “Who owes you health?” is a defence mechanism activists often use when health and fitness professionals discuss health benefits of weight loss in overweight individuals, diet and exercise. Okay, we health and fitness professionals - you don’t owe us anything but we are passionate about helping people who value improving their health! It’s your choice whether or not you seek out our advice but we will continue to advertise our services seeing that it’s our livelihood. According to the anti-diet crowd discussing weight loss is ‘fat phobic’ which I will get to in another blog. I am aware of some of their perspectives and will honour addressing these concerns in the future. I know fitspo culture is confusing for people because we are exposed to very unrealistic unsustainable physiques in fitness advertising for fad diets and gimmicks that don’t work! We need to find a middle ground here, provide stronger mental/emotional health support and help people be reasonable about their fitness goals.
With all the food porn pictures we see online (we see this in the fitness community too. 10K calorie challenges for example, or junk food obsessed IIFYMers) amongst the claims that “all food fits” and that intuitive eating means we can eat a dozen donuts, I figured I’d share how I intuitively eat as an orthorexia recovered person. I know both fitspo culture and the anti-diet movement are confusing a lot of people these days.
First off, I did go through a phase of being a bit junk food obsessed in recovery when I began tracking macros. After not allowing myself to eat anything fun for so long, I tried a lot of different foods in recovery. Looking back, I see now that I was rebelling against orthorexia! The thrill of eating these exotic junk food items wore off and I transformed into eating mostly whole foods in my diet. Then when I transitioned from IIFYM to intuitive eating, my diet became even more whole foods based. Why? Because my innate intuition leads me to eat more natural foods! It’s how we are meant to eat after all.
The most valuable thing I learned from tracking macros was carb intake. I had been afraid of eating carbs during my eating disorder and having targets to hold myself accountable to for awhile really taught me about fuelling my body and helped me repair an abundance of health issues. My staple carbs are oats, rice, ancient grain pasta, fruit, maple syrup, good quality bread, potatoes and clif bars. Learning how to eat for performance was life changing and I choose to execute it eating mostly whole food based carbs.
I have food restrictions! According to some online influencers having food restrictions means you haven’t recovered. This is why the anti-diet movement is too extreme for me. There is a big difference between avoiding a food from fear versus love and honouring your health!
In recovery I developed severe IBS and battled excruciating stomach flare ups. I was tested for Crohn’s disease and colitis. Although fortunately neither of those were my reality I learned I wasn’t digesting vegetable fibres. I healed my gut with Traditional Chinese Medicine but still to this day there are some veggies I steer clear from. I also learned I’m intolerant to eggs, so why on earth would I eat them? I’ve observed some body positivity advocates in denial that removing foods from their diets could help them in overcoming health issues because it goes against their beliefs that all food fits. Not all food fits for everyone and there’s nothing wrong with that. For example in a social setting I won’t necessarily turn down dairy, I’m just mindful of how much I consume and don’t use it at home. Ethically speaking I have no interest in supporting the conventional dairy industry on the regular but that’s just my opinion. If you eat dairy that’s cool. I’m not here to tell anyone how to eat, I just want you to know that having food restrictions doesn’t make you “disordered” when it comes from a place of self love and personal values.
Despite becoming paleo diet obsessed in the past, I took the benefits of that diet with me long term and I value eating organic free range meat, usually poultry over other sources. That said I also enjoy some plant based proteins which of course obtain carbs too. If you couldn’t tell I am grateful I let go of my attachment to low carb dieting! I do use a scoop of iron vegan protein powder in my oatmeal but protein powders aren’t for everyone and that’s cool. As for fats, I insisted on eating red meat all the time when I had orthorexia which isn’t optimal for me so I prefer obtaining fats from fish and plant based sources most of the time.
I was once afraid of eating in restaurants, and avoided them completely. Today I don’t eat much restaurant food though, maybe a couple times a week. I feel better eating home cooked food, but when I do eat at restaurants I enjoy myself! Regardless of whether I’m eating at home, someone else’s home or a restaurant, I listen to my biofeedback when I eat. If something doesn’t feel good, I avoid it. When I’m satisfied, I stop eating.
Balance is important! I eat dairy free ice cream, vegan cookies (egg free living) and dark chocolate at home, as well as some other random treats I find. It’s rare that I eat conventional junk food because I value food quality and feeling good. That said, pizza can never be replaced with cauliflower, spiralled zucchini isn’t pasta and once in a blue moon I will even support the dairy industry for some real deal cheesecake.
My emotional relationship with food would be best described as feeling grateful for nourishment but detached from moral and emotional value of food. I enjoy eating and choose foods I like but I don’t think about food much. I never over eat or restrict. Eating is not complicated for me now, it’s not meant to be. This is how I intuitively eat and you may eat differently because that’s the point of eating intuitively - we are all unique.
How I choose to eat supports my mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. Isn’t that the goal? Well, I suppose it depends on what your values are. It is possible to recover from orthorexia and if you value health and fitness, you don’t have to join the dark side of the anti-diet movement if you don’t want to. You will have to redefine your beliefs about health and fitness when you choose recovery. That said you can eat healthy in a balanced way supported by positive emotions and still have treats in moderation when it feels right to you. You know, maybe just one donut rather than a dozen?
If you’re feeling confused about orthorexia recovery when you observe the body positive and anti-diet movements online, I completely understand. Reach out if you’re looking for support from someone who’s been in your shoes and knows exactly what you’re going through.
Here’s to your health!