Why We Need to Be Talking About Orthorexia

I was asked to take part in a voluntary research study investigating the effects of orthorexia. I had an almost hour long conversation with one of the research assistants last week about my journey with orthorexia, what I think were the causes, how we might be able to prevent it, and more. This got me thinking, “Do people really understand what orthorexia is? Have you ever even heard the term?” That inspired this deep dive into what orthorexia is, my own personal journey, and some ways that we can all work to prevent orthorexia in today’s diet-obsessed, health-focused culture.

Let’s start by defining orthorexia. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, orthorexia is defined as “an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating…people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being.” In other words, it is when a well-intentioned focus on healthier eating becomes a form of control over your eating habits that becomes unsustainable, causing negative mental, physical, social, and sometimes health consequences. The scary thing about orthorexia is that it doesn’t “fit” into other definitions or ideals about what eating disorders are, which means that people are often praised for their orthorexia; this perpetuates the unhealthy obsession with these behaviors and can make the condition seem “healthy” and “desirable” both by others and the individual.

I was asked by the research assistant to talk about my journey with orthorexia. The truth is, it certainly didn’t start with what I considered orthorexia, or anything close to it. I always think about the question that Christy Harrison asks each guest on her Food Psych podcast - “Tell me about your relationship with food growing up.” I was lucky to grow up in a household where we were served three meals a day, had ample opportunities for snacks, and ate together as a family. We were never told to eat less or watch what we ate; foods were never called “good” or “bad” based on health or effects on our bodies. We were, however, always told to “finish your plate” which did stay with me until my adult life. But I didn’t experience any diet-type thoughts until college, when I did gain weight and was also surrounded by other women with body image struggles. This was the first time I saw a dietitian, in hopes of getting an “eating plan” to help me lose weight. Yet I still continued to eat what I wanted, which was pretty much all meat and no vegetables at the time. I was young and in college, what did I have to worrry about?

My orthorexic tendencies didn’t start until I was out of college and living on my own as a newly-employed college graduate. I was cooking for myself now, which meant learning how to cook (no joke) and trying new foods (including vegetables). I was also part of the working world, where lunchtime discussion seemed to always revolve around what was “good” or “bad” to eat in terms of dieting. I started buying all kinds of low-fat, low-calorie foods to both cook with and eat for snacks, and I had a gym in my apartment building. I searched Pinterest for “healthier” recipes and started drinking protein shakes, because people who looked in shape on the internet did, and they must be the experts! People commented on my new body size and my healthy meals. I became interested in nutrition and applied to a master’s degree program in food and nutrition and was accepted. So what I was doing must have been healthy, right?

Unfortunately, what I was doing was not healthy for my mental, physical, and social health. I became fixated on “healthy” eating, bouncing from diet to diet as “research” for being a future dietitian. I tried paleo, gluten-free, you name it. I spent hours each Sunday meal-prepping my breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week. If a friend wanted to make dinner plans or an impromptu gathering came up, I would eat AND workout before going, which often meant showing up in gym clothes and being sweaty (and likely stinky, but they were nice enough to not tell me that). If we were going out to eat, I would have to research the menu and calorie counts beforehand so I knew it would fit into my daily calorie allowance. And if I had already “blown” my calorie allowance that day, then I would gorge on food of all types, telling people this was my “cheat” meal of the week. Or, worse, I would eat something “good” while out with friends or family and then go home and binge on anything I had in my apartment. No one was there to see me, so it was safe, but I felt immense guilt and shame.

I slowly started to see how much time I spent thinking about food. I wrote a food blog with healthy recipes, went to class to learn about nutrition, and spent my work days talking about diets and berating my body for being too X, Y, Z. I noticed the toll on my mental health that resulted from being so focused on my body and what went into it; my relationships, from friendships and family to relationships, suffered because of my obsession with my negative body image. How could anyone else love me if I was this hateful of myself? I often lashed out at people, abused alcohol to numb the thoughts away (which did not work), and spent my quiet moments alone in a spiral of shame and plans for “tomorrow will be better.” I worked out so much that I injured myself, and kept working out through it. I spent hours calculating calories and macros into MyFitnessPal, hours that I could have spent studying or relaxing or on ANYTHING else. I couldn’t keep living this way.

My journey out of dieting and eventually into intuitive eating and food freedom started with the Hot and Healthy Habits group, which was actually the result of a diet and fitness group that also had to get out of the dangerous dieting world. Once I learned there was a way out of dieting, I started dipping my toe further into getting myself out of this orthorexic lifestyle. You can read more about that in my first blog post, Giving Up the Pursuit of Weight Loss. It took me YEARS to get through this to the place I am now, a place where food is just food, and while it certainly can be nourishing and healthy, it can also be something that is comforting and enjoyable. Food should never cause stress, and I am grateful for the journey that brought me to this appreciation of what food can do for me, mentally, physically, socially, and in all aspects of my life. I may have gained some weight along the way, but I have also gained my life back. And for that I will forever be grateful.

I’d love for you to share your story below or let me know if any of this resonated with you. If you’d be interested in working with me to gain your own food freedom, click here to learn more - let’s work together to help you ditch diets and enjoy food again!

Lisa Lombardini