[Comment] Orthorexia Nervosa – the side effect of “clean” eating

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I don’t like this picture. It suggests a black and white answer to something that was never a question or a problem. Sometimes you want an apple. Sometimes you want chocolate. Unless your intention is to binge on an entire block of chocolate (which I have done on far more occasions than I want to think about), there’s no problem.

Over on my Instagram account, I posted a picture with the following commentary.

I follow a lot of people who are trying to regain or maintain their health. One thing I’ve noticed is both the commitment and their sheer bloody mindedness that they have to eat on track 100% of the time. They hint at failure if they have something they shouldn’t and this in turn, shames the rest of us into thinking we’re less than perfect. This is a cruel mindset to find yourself in. Yes, we can deny ourselves chocolate but where’s the fun in that? Yes, we can never eat out at a restaurant again but where’s the fun in that? If we never indulge we miss out on the fun. We create another eating disorder and we become scared of food. All things should be done in moderation. We should listen to our bodies. We should stop thinking our decisions on nutrition and exercise only changes us. It’s okay if you have a bad day. Don’t worry about it. Don’t give yourself a guilt trip. This is all a part of being human and if your bad day is a week, well, that’s okay too. You’ve got to be in love with your life and if something is making you miserable, change it.

Some of the reactions were positive. People told me they couldn’t understand a mindset that denied you the things you enjoy. But others. Wow, did others argue their position as though I’d actually named them. Two women even blocked me on a couple of social media platforms. Whatever.

Looking back on this post, which is only from six weeks ago, the phrase that stands out is “we create another eating disorder.” At the time of creating the post I had never heard the word orthorexia but I realised that this disorder had planted seeds in my mind and they were beginning to put out roots.

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Dr Joanna Silver writes “Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, which leads sufferers to eat only ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ foods and avoid ‘bad’ or ‘unhealthy’ foods.” Orthorexia also leads to terms such as “cheat meal”, “off track”, “back on track” and also means people obsessively take photos of the meals they eat, regardless of the fact they meals are the same day after day, without variation.

However, it wasn’t until the Instagram post and its outcome, I noticed the cult like mindset. You weren’t “allowed” to have certain foods because they took you “off track” – if you did have certain foods, it had to be your “cheat meal” because heaven forbid you went “off track” more than once in a week or in a month or longer. The relationship this style of thinking teaches you is abusive. It makes you feel unworthy, it makes you want to give up when your “cheat meal” becomes a day (or longer), it makes you feel guilty. It changes your relationships. It drives the people around you crazy because they see someone who, for the sake of weight loss, is making themselves miserable and cranky.

“While on the surface, the motivations for someone with orthorexia and someone with an eating disorder may be different (people with orthorexia tend to want to be ‘healthy’ whereas people with eating disorders are worried about their weight), the behaviours and consequences ie weight loss, nutritional deficits, avoiding social occasions where there may be food and obsessive thinking, are similar” (Silver).

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Avoiding social occasions where there may be food… this is a common theme of the group I was in. Sometimes a post would appear about an event over a week away but instead of it being an exciting moment, it was stressful and anxious for the postee because their focus was on whether they should eat before they went or not go at all!!!! Grown ups. Adults. Freaking out because they might have to confront a natural situation.

Liji Thomas, MD writes, orthorexics “increasingly insist that they need to know exactly what they should eat, how much of it, and how to maintain their diet with the utmost strictness. Every time they fall off the wagon is considered a major issue and reason for self-condemnation.

They need to maintain their rigid diet with all their willpower. They justify their intensity on the basis of their need to correct every ‘imperfection’ in their life through a better diet.”

Thomas goes on to state, ” A lack of self-identity is compensated for by the carefully built-up image of a person who eats clean, ignoring the fact that ‘a person’ is far more than this. Holistic life is replaced by one which is intensely focused on healthy eating alone. Their adherence to their manner of eating gives them a feeling of achievement and of being superior to other people, addressing their lack of self-worth.”

I know I have orthorexic tendencies. I do obsess about making sure I have enough calories out to balance the calories in and I do check the menu of a restaurant before I get there, however, this is also to make sure they have a variety of options and aren’t too expensive.

We all need to find balance in all areas of life. Food needs to go back to just being food. You can take care of yourself in a positive way that motivates you, keeps you interested. Allowing your mind to fall prey to orthorexic thoughts will derail even the most dedicated.

Will being obsessed with eating good food and controlling 100% of what you eat help you drop the kilos? Yes. It worked for me.
Is it sustainable? No.
Can you stop and restart this focus? For me, yes. Recently I haven’t been as fastidious with my food and it shows on the scales. Hello plateau! (I know, the dreaded “S” word!)
Would I go back to being deprived and obsessive? Nope. Ask my mother, I don’t like being told what to do and once the restrictions and directives are as limiting as “clean” eating are, I’m not interested.

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