Are You Obsessed With Eating Healthy?
By Vanessa Palencia
I’ve always been a big proponent for loving your body and taking care of yourself. I hated body shamers and called them out when I could. But little did I know that I was a body shamer, too. I was shaming myself.
A few days ago, I reached my breaking point. The irony of it all though was that I started the day off strong. I had just finished working out at the gym for about 2 hours, had a healthy breakfast, and started to head to work. It wasn’t until I got home that I felt miserable. It took me a few minutes to pinpoint the reason, but I realized that it was because I had eaten a Muscle Milk Blueberry Waffle Cone protein bar. I was beating myself over eating a stupid bar. I started saying utterly ridiculous things in my head to convince myself why I probably shouldn’t eat for the rest of the day.
You won’t lose body fat.
You went over your carb intake.
You’ll end up overeating.
You don’t deserve to eat.
You’ll just be bloated.
I know, all horrible things to say to yourself. All perfect things to say if you’re trying to berate yourself and create a self-conscious, insecure woman. These thoughts were by no means what I wanted to project onto millions of other women (and men) who were suffering through the same thing. How could I contribute to the anti-body shaming cause when I was body shaming myself?
But the saddest part of it all wasn’t that I had fallen into a pit of self-loathe and pity. No, the saddest part of it all was that this wasn’t the first time that I’ve body shamed myself. I’ve burned through various diet fads in the hopes of trying to achieve my ideal body. The Atkins Diet, the paleo diet, juicing to eating only fruits, you name it. I’ve done it all. What I didn’t realize was that in each of those new fad diets, I was obsessively dieting.
I didn’t realize that obsessive dieting was even a thing until I researched it and found that it can be as sneaky as it is harmful. Most of us are probably aware of serious health problems, such as anorexia and bulimia, but did you know that over exercising can also be an obsessive nature? Or maybe you didn’t realize that mentally checking yourself out every time you stood in line at Starbucks to calculate whether soy milk or almond milk will give you less calories is also considered an obsessive trait? Because it is. And believe me, I’ve been through all that.
But one term that seems to escape the majority is orthorexia. Orthorexia nervosa is a condition where people become fixated with eating healthy. While it isn’t currently recognized as a clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5, many people struggle with symptoms related to it. Steven Bratman, MD, MPH originally coined the term orthorexia nervosa in 1996 for his overly healthy-obsessed patients as a way to let them know that their lifestyle may not exactly be all that healthy. He claims that orthorexia nervosa is “an emotionally disturbed, self-punishing relationship with food that involves a progressively shrinking universe of foods deemed acceptable.” Unfortunately, it can be difficult to detect orthorexia nervosa because it is often concealed in the guise of eating healthy. Without a complete understanding of the symptoms, friends and family can easily praise and encourage someone’s eating habits and not realize that they are encouraging a negative behavior. Fortunately, the National Eating Disorders Association has put together a list of questions that can help you identify whether you suffer from orthorexia nervosa.
A few years ago when I decided to go paleo, I didn’t realize that I would develop orthorexia nervosa. It started off as an innocent self-investment to better myself and create a healthier and stronger version of myself. I started practicing a paleo lifestyle and prided myself in sticking with it. I followed it day after day, never allowing myself a break from it. If there was a birthday party, I made sure that I brought my own paleo-friendly treat. If a family member offered me some food, I would politely decline because I didn’t know what the ingredients were and I couldn’t compromise my diet just to be polite. I was proud of the diet I followed and felt that it was the correct way of eating. I thought I was doing good. I thought I just had a strong will to stick by my diet, but looking back I realized that I wasn’t allowing myself to enjoy myself. I was taking the fun out of everything. Literally. It wasn’t until my current boyfriend came in the picture and started showing me how to balance my foods out. He told me that what really matters are the macronutrients (carbs, protein, fats). Slowly but surely I started incorporating foods I had restricted myself from previously. But this wasn’t the end of my obsessive dieting.
When I started counting my macronutrient intake, I would freak if I went over and prided myself if I was relatively low. If I ate "bad,” which meant foods like cheese, coffee, or a slice of chocolate cake, I would punish myself by spending two hours at the gym. I would toss and turn at night because I swore that I gained 50 pounds and had nightmares of waking up obese. If we went out to eat, I would fret about every ingredient that was on my plate. On good days, which meant spending half of my day on my phone calculating my macronutrients, I would take pride in how little carbs I ate or how much more protein I could take in. This is a horrible way to live because, as Sara Ash, Phd. says, “most restaurant proprietors would love to see their customers enjoying their food as it is meant to be, rather than fussing over ingredients, worrying about calories, or (worse) stuffing it down in vast, unappreciated heaps.” Food is meant to be enjoyed. And I clearly wasn’t enjoying my food. I was eating it because it fit into my macros. Because my priorities weren’t set straight, I was well on my way to losing my sense of fulfillment and purpose. My life wasn’t about the dreams and goals I wanted to achieve, but rather the amount of carbs I had in a day. It seemed like it was just a vicious neverending cycle.
So, can a person with orthorexia nervosa recover? The answer is yes. However, it all starts with the person identifying that they do have a problem. I recently came to terms with the idea that I struggle with my relationship with food and resolved to find a solution. I realized that the obsession started with the paleo diet and I have aimed to try to become more relaxed with my intake of food. Once the person with orthorexia nervosa can better grasp the idea of what healthy eating is, then the road to recovery can be much smoother. It’s critical that people with this condition understand that while food is important, it isn’t what defines your self-worth and self-esteem. I’m still a work in progress, but I love the freedom I feel in treating myself to a bowl of cereal without berating myself afterward. For those who are struggling, just know that it’s okay. Live your life in the moment, not in the next meal you will consume.