My Battle With Orthorexia: The Eating Disorder That Made Me Obsessed With Weight and My Body
This morning started like every other: I got up and got dressed. I washed my hands and brewed a cup of coffee, and then I headed to the bathroom to empty my bladder. While there is nothing particularly remarkable about my morning routine, I celebrate it all the same because today I did not weigh myself.
Yes, I own a scale, but I resisted the urge to weigh myself.
Of course, that may seem like a strange thing to commemorate. After all, I'm not celebrating an achievement; I'm celebrating something I did not do. But that’s what life after an eating disorder looks like: little achievements. Small steps. I am thankful every day I eat a bagel or big bowl of ice cream because 15 years ago, I couldn’t. The guilt and shame that came from consuming those extra calories was too much to bear.
I don’t know exactly when I became obsessed with my body and my weight. My childhood was normal. I played basketball and with Barbies. I climbed trees and scuffed my knees, tearing my tights on the papery bark of our white birch. And I loved being seen. I performed in talent shows, our school Christmas show, and my backyard.
I also loved food. From chocolate and cheese to meatballs marinara, family meals played a big part in my life.
But shortly after high school, things changed. I changed, and my cute outfits were replaced with baggy pants and oversized shirts. I wore my unbrushed hair down—to hide myself and my face. And I stopped eating, at least for pleasure, because—in my warped mind—I was fat. I wore size-small clothes but felt I was “thick,” ugly, and big.
I began dieting. I bought fat-free milk and “lean” meals. Salads became something of a staple. I enrolled in yoga and boot camp and ran dozens of miles each week. But my diet wasn’t healthy. Not really. I became consumed by formulas, numbers, and “equations,” things like calories in and calories out. I read labels regularly and worked out obsessively. I refused to eat anything with 500 calories or more, and I removed entire food groups from my diet. For nearly a year, I avoided meat, carbs, sugar, and fat. I also tried juicing and other "clean" diets.
But I still hated my body. I poked, pulled, and tugged at my skin.
Ironically, friends praised me for my lifestyle. I was thin, active, and “healthy”—I did the right things and ate the “right” foods—but they didn’t see my inner turmoil. I was depressed and anxious all the time. Fear controlled me. Guilt, shame, and sadness consumed me, and any deviation from my plan—an evening out with friends or a bite of pizza or cake—would send me spiraling into a panic.
Around this time, I began to experience regular anxiety attacks. So I withdrew. I avoided parties, weddings, and social gatherings. I said no to brunches, lunches, drinks, and dinner, and when I was out, I counted down the minutes until I could go home. I needed to work out and be in control. My rigid adherence to diet and exercise became all-consuming.
Turns out, I wasn’t in control. At all. Instead, food controlled me. I also wasn’t alone. My obsessive behaviors, like that of 30 million other Americans, had a name. I suffered from EDNOS, or “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” And while the name and diagnostic criteria for EDNOS has changed—it is now OSFED, or “other specified feeding and eating disorder," the condition still affects 6% of the population.
Symptoms of orthorexia include being overly concerned about healthy ingredients; compulsively checking nutritional labels and ingredients; avoiding certain foods (like meat, dairy, or carbs) while eating others, particularly those deemed “healthy” or “safe”; and spending hours each day preparing for meals—both literally and mentally. I cannot tell you how much time I spent working out just so I could eat yogurt or drink black iced coffee.
That said, in many ways, I was lucky. My struggles with EDNOS and orthorexia damaged my mental health but not my body. My blood pressure, pulse, cholesterol, and sugar levels were fine, and my liver functioned well. I also maintained my periods. However, the damage to my psyche was severe and long-lasting. While I was sick, I was unable to stop, pull back, or step away.
The good news is that, as with other eating disorders, EDNOS and orthorexia are treatable. Experts recommend that patients take a multi-faceted approach to being treated, involving a physician, nutritionist, psychologist, psychiatrist, and/or therapist—and this was the case with me.
My therapist helped me reframe my thoughts. She told me I was not disgusting; I have an illness that makes me see my body as disgusting. She helped me shift my attention from what I could no longer do to what I now can do. All the time I wasted reading labels and counting calories can now be spent with my husband, my children, and my friends. And she reminded me that feelings are not facts.
Behavioral modifications were also an important step in my recovery. I removed calorie counters from my phone. I discarded my pedometer, and I threw out my juicer. For years, I lived without a scale. That damn digital device didn’t work its way back into my house until my husband began dieting and I had kids.
That said, I do not consider myself “cured.” Recovery is a lifelong process, and while I am able to go out, drink, and eat most foods, I still struggle. I know what foods are “healthy” and which ones are not—and I often find myself conflicted. Conscious or not, I still count calories in my head, and over exercising remains a problem. I run... too much.
But for the sake of myself and my daughter—my sweet 6-year-old who looks to mama for wisdom, guidance, and advice—I am working toward a healthful life. I avoid labels and diets and restrictive food trends. You won't find me weighing myself multiple times each day. And instead of mentally calculating calories in versus calories burned, I do word problems with my little one because I am doing what I can to be both physically and mentally well. I am (and always will be) a work in progress.
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