Walking into a restaurant to meet friends for dinner, my heart pounds. I sit down and the mental hyperventilation begins. I’ve been planning for this dinner for two weeks: my calories have been reduced, exercise doubled, sleep timed, all to make up for the “sacrifices” I might have to make tonight if I’m not strong enough to refuse a drink.
I think, What I would give to be stress-free at a restaurant, to truly enjoy the company. But I can’t, and I feel like I never will. Because I have orthorexia, an obsession with eating foods I deem healthy enough.
For a long time — about seven years — my brain was a war zone no one knew about. I struggled with disordered eating, venturing into the worlds of diet, exercise, food fears and, eventually, body building competitions. I wanted to do everything I could to feed my need to control my weight and body.
Today, I’m on the path to real, lasting change and I’m happy to say I’ve used my past with orthorexia to help coach others through these tough battles and show them recovery is possible. For many people, it’s a “one step forward, two steps back” routine, and the thing that often pulls them back is the impact others can have without even realizing it.
There are six things I wish everyone knew about orthorexia so they can help those struggling not be thrown back into old habits because of their ignorance and obliviousness to the disorder.
1. It's about a desire to feel safe.
A salad may be healthy enough for you, but somebody with orthorexia breaks it down into macronutrients, ingredients, organic or not, calories, etc. This can go for any food, diet or workout.
Simply not being in control of making a meal can invalidate all qualifications the meal could have for being healthy. Orthorexics have their own definitions of "healthy" depending on what food or diet makes them feel safe. If you take them out of those boundaries, they're plunged into a world of unhealthy food out to destroy their health.
2. It’s not a choice.
Orthorexics don’t choose to have orthorexia; they can’t just turn it off when they want.
Speak to people with respect and honor their choices without making them feel shame. Ask questions and help them dig deeper into why they eat the way they do. You can't use logic to convince someone not to feel what he or she is feeling, so try to understand where they're coming from instead. Do you know what's not helpful? Saying things like, "Just eat this! It won't kill you!"
3. It’s not always visible.
It’s never a guarantee that you know if someone has orthorexia or not. It may even take some time for an individual to fully understand what he or she is experiencing.
"Orthorexia" is a fairly new term, one that's just beginning to gain awareness. So while I say it’s not always visible, I do want to point out that it certainly can be. Be respectful, but take note when people overly stress about their food and have to control every morsel. This disease can come in any shape or size, so pay attention to the mind, not the body.
4. Commentary often does more harm than good.
One of the biggest battles people with orthorexia face is a desire to be known for their healthy lifestyle. When an orthorexic cares so much about having a label like “healthy,” “fit” or “clean eater,” they're already terrified of being seen not fitting that label perfectly.
Even if you mean it innocently, something like, “You’re eating that? But you're so healthy!” is one of the worst things you can say when someone is trying to break out of a label. They're already challenging their belief system, and commentary can throw them right back into old ways.
Don’t act surprised by a change in eating patterns or their appearance. Instead, congratulate them on their passion and drive, not solely what they put in their mouth or the way they look.
5. It doesn’t just “go away.”
Orthorexia isn’t something you wake up from. It’s not a bad dream. It’s real and it thrives with every meal, workout and Instagram post. Be patient with your loved ones as they work through this disorder by supporting them however you can. Sometimes people just need to be heard to heal.
6. It often breeds other obsessions.
Someone who obsesses over food and weight will often look for other methods of control, such as exercise. If there's somebody in your life you believe has orthorexia, don’t motivate them to hit the gym as an alternative to food. There's a strong likelihood they already are, and obsessively so.
Instead, talk to them about how the gym makes them feel and see if there's any happiness that comes from that daily activity. No? Then talk to them about why they go to the gym day after day. What does it ultimately bring? Where's there motivation?
The goal is to help orthorexics let go of their need to control, obsess and restrict so they can live intuitively. Intuition is one of the biggest factors missing from the life of an orthorexic and it can be found again, if only they give it a chance.