It was at this time three years ago that I was definitely my sickest. I was about to turn 21, it was summer and I was obsessed with healthy eating…but not in a good way.
At the time I was unwell I was still eating, that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that I was only eating foods that I perceived as ‘healthy.’ This wasn’t based on nutritional fact, it was based on my own views and perceptions based on the things I had heard. For example, cutting out foods such as chocolate and chips was a given because it is well acknowledged that they are not the most nutritionally dense foods. The issue came more when I started cutting out bananas because of their sugar content and avocado because of their fat content. It was when I started wanting to cook and prepare everything that I consumed because I didn’t want someone else to put too much of anything on my plate. It was the time when I got anxiety about eating out because I didn’t know what food would be available. It was when I freaked out if something had come up and I was unable to train. It was a very stressful and miserable time.
What I failed to recognise when all of this was going on was that I was literally wasting away. I was ‘lucky’ in the respect that I still exercised. I still had some muscle on me, I don’t want to know what I would have looked like otherwise.
Over the weekend I felt overwhelmed with just how serious my condition could have been when I witnessed someone with something similar to what I had. Orthorexia.
Orthorexia is an obsessive way of eating that involves only eating foods that one considers healthy. It’s a medical condition in which the sufferer avoids specific foods with the belief they are harmful. – Jessica Sepel.
The National Eating Disorders Associations has put together a list of the common characteristics of Orthorexia. It includes:
Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels.
An increase in concern about the health of ingredients.
Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products).
An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’.
Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating.
Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events.
Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available.
Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on Twitter and Instagram.
Body image concerns may or may not be present.
There are currently no clinical treatments for this disorder. To be honest, at the time I had it a name for it didn’t even exist. As I watched the young woman on the weekend meticulously scour the menu for options, observe the food actions of others and try and savour the food on her plate I realised just how hard it would have been for my family and friends to watch me. I just wanted to pull her aside and tell her that things could be better and that she doesn’t have to live that way, but I knew not to do that.
Reaching out to someone in need is something that was always taught to me growing up. However, sometimes I think it doesn’t matter how kind and genuine your intentions are - reaching out doesn’t always help.
One of her close friends approached me about her concerns for the young woman a few months ago. I didn’t know what to say. Part of me wanted her to say something to her so that she was aware that there are people out there that love and care for her. My concern with that piece of advice however, was that it may not be taken well. I don’t think anyone wants to believe that there may be something wrong with them. For this case in particular the woman is still eating and the food she is eating is healthy. What is not healthy is the way she is thinking, restricting and obsessing over food and all that surrounds it.
I have to say that recovery was not something easy, it has taken over two years and every now and again I still get tendencies to restrict. It is the ability to be able to override the negative script in my head that ensures I don’t go back down that road. As much as I thought I would be able to work with women going through what I went through, my observations on the weekend showed me just how hard that would be. There is no magic mantra, pill, herbal tea or yoga pose that can ‘cure’ someone. I think the last thing someone in that situation wants to hear is just how long their recovery may take and that it is going to be so much more than just eating more.
Any form of obsessive behaviour, whether eating related or not, stems from something far deeper than the obsession itself. For me it wasn’t about the food. It was about dealing with my lack of self-love and acceptance. Getting over sudden rejection and my inability to reach my unrealistic expectations. Overcoming those things could not have happened by simply upping my portion sizes and exercises less. It helped but it didn’t ‘fix’ me. It helped in the sense in that it provided my body with the nourishment it needed so that my brain could think clearly and rationally again.
Like I said before, there is no miracle cure. We all have our demons and that isn’t always a bad thing. Instead of always trying to fight them, maybe sometimes we need to listen to them and what they are saying. It is amazing what you can learn by simply listening and asking questions about why they have come to you. It is our responsibility as human beings to work with our demons so that they can become manageable and sent packing when you are ready to let them go completely.
I understand that this might not be useful take-away information for those wanting to help a friend in need. I just think that each individual and situation is so unique that I cannot make a sweeping generalisation of what to do and what not to do.
What I can say is this, just provide ongoing love and support. Keep them in your prayers. Ask them questions if they look down. Encourage them when they have achieved something. Compliment them on their humanistic qualities rather than their physical attributes. Really listen to them when they’re talking to you (don’t look at your phone even if it vibrates). Spend time with them. Make them feel really loved and valued.
“Never underestimate the infinite love within you. It has the power to transform lives” ― Mimi Novic.
My AMAZING family still smiled and stood by my side even as I started to fade away. Their undying love for me was something i could never thank her enough for.
2015 - Probably one of the scariest photos to look at... it was just after this was taken that I started to really open my heart to all the love that surrounded me and continues to surround me today.
2019 - Smiling even though i am in a fritter coma....note to self taste testing batter and then eating fritters can lead to a full and satisfied tummy.