When “Healthy” Turns Into “Unhealthy”
By: Laura Sienkiewicz
Sounds like some sort of paradox, right? We usually don’t see healthy eating as something problematic. We often praise those who make the choice of choosing a salad over a hamburger because of their perceived commitment to good nutrition and their apparent self-control, but is there a point in which this self-control hits the extreme side of the spectrum? For those with orthorexia, it does.
We’ve heard of eating disorders like anorexia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and bulimia nervosa, but what about orthorexia? Although not included in the most up-to-date version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), orthorexia is a term used to describe the collections of behaviors that a person may have relating to an obsession with eating as “purely” as possible (Kratina). This does not mean eating a small amount, but instead relates to the quality of the food being eaten (“Orthorexia: An Obsession with Eating Pure”). People with orthorexia tend to eliminate a lot of foods if they are processed or if they consider them unhealthy, which can lead them down a slippery slope and could even affect their relationships with others and their mental health (Timberline Knolls, “What is Orthorexia”). It is important to remember that just because someone does choose healthy options when cooking or going out to eat, they do not necessarily have orthorexia. The concern is when they start focusing more on their extreme diet than on other aspects of their life that were once important to them, when they become withdrawn from family and friends, and when they experience self-loathing after not sticking to their new rules regarding the foods that they can and cannot eat (Kratina).
Researching some of the facts regarding orthorexia for this blog post was especially intriguing to me because this is something that I experienced first-hand, not realizing that it was a problem at the time. The orthorexia description correlates with what I experienced the summer before my sophomore year of high school and with what continued into my sophomore year. Because I was a pole-vaulter, I figured that losing a little bit of weight and watching what I was putting into my body would enhance my performance. As I started to eat “cleaner”, run more, and do more workouts, my weight started to drop, my muscles were becoming more defined, and I was able to get on lighter poles for pole-vault since I weighed less. Once school started, so did track practice, and I had to figure out a way to maintain this new physique and to try to be as healthy as possible to succeed in the sport that I loved. I decided that it would be a good idea to take the healthy eating and exercising to the next level. This included eliminating certain foods and looking up nutrition facts and ingredients for virtually everything that I considered putting into my body along with going on thirty-minute runs every day after track practice when I got home. Saying no to foods like cheeses, bread, butter, desserts, salad dressings, and processed items, I was feeling more in control than ever before.
Comments from friends and family like “Wow, you look so good!” and “How do you stay so fit?” fueled this new lifestyle. This lifestyle quickly turned into an obsession that, quite frankly, started messing with my mindset and my outlook on what being healthy actually meant. I started to decline invitations to hang out with friends if there was food involved because I knew that the food would probably not meet my new standards, I brought a salad to lunch every day that consisted of spinach, kale, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a few nuts because any type of dressing was “forbidden”, and I felt the most extreme type of guilt possible if I didn’t adhere to my rules. I vividly remember crying hysterically after a day where I might have eaten something that I “shouldn’t have” and punishing myself by exercising even more to try to make up for it. At this point, the rules had completely gone out of control and my body was starting to show physical effects of this, such as not getting my period for six months because of my low percentage of body-fat. Instead of going into more detail, I’ll fast forward to how this all (finally) ended (and by no means was it a quick recovery process). I could not maintain these behaviors forever because they were physically and emotionally wearing me out and I ended up going down the path of binge-eating for quite some time before actually gaining control over my relationship with food. Looking back at it now, I realize how detrimental all of this was for my mindset along with my body; the goal of being as healthy as possible turned into something unbelievably unhealthy. Even though I still might struggle with a little bit of guilt relating to what I eat sometimes, my habits and health have changed for the better and so has my attitude.
If you know someone fighting an eating disorder or you are fighting one yourself, do not be afraid to reach out for help from a doctor, nutritionist, or counselor.
National Eating Disorders Association helpline: 1–800–931–2237
Kratina, PhD, RD, LD/N, Karin. “Orthorexia Nervosa.” National Eating Disorders Association, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017.
“Orthorexia: An Obsession with Eating Pure.” Www.eatright.org, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 1 June 2015, www.eatright.org/resource/health/diseases-and-conditions/eating-disorders/orthorexia-an-obsession-with-eating-pure. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017.
“Orthorexia Symptoms and Effects.” Timberline Knolls Residential Treatment Center, www.timberlineknolls.com/eating-disorder/orthorexia/signs-effects/. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017.
“What Is Orthorexia?” WebMD, WebMD, www.webmd.com/mental-health/eating-disorders/what-is-orthorexia. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017.
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