In honour of national eating disorder awareness week, which extends from February 26th to March 4th, I feel as though this is an appropriate time to share with you how my childhood obsession turned into my passion today. It’s a story that I’ve surprisingly never shared on my blog, not because I’m ashamed but rather because it’s a somewhat complex and deep-rooted issue that isn’t much of a conversation starter, unless given the opportunity to do so.
Although not formally recognized in the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual (DSM) orthorexia, an eating disorder that has yet to be identified as a unique disorder or a branch of anorexia, was first recognized in 1998. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, orthorexia is defined as an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. Keep in mind the word ‘healthful’ is considered lightly in this definition, because those suffering from orthorexia, and I can confirm this for myself, are not necessarily obsessed with the actual nutritional value of foods, but rather what they themselves have deemed to be healthy. Their personal meaning of ‘healthful’ foods can in fact have the complete opposite effect, rather than nourishing your body, people suffering from orthorexia can put themselves in a varying degree of detrimental mental and physical health.
Since orthorexia is a newly defined term, the number of people suffering from this condition and its diagnostic characteristics are still to be determined. Nonetheless, it is believed to be associated with anorexia as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder; a condition I also suffer from, so this correlation is very evident and plausible to me.
Now, unfortunately, I am not a medical professional and cannot provide any type of medical advice, so please note that anything I say can only be taken as my own personal thoughts and experiences. I’m sharing with you my story, to raise awareness about mental health, eating disorders and in particular orthorexia and also for you to understand why I am as passionate as I am today about leading my healthiest possible life, and inspiring others to do the same. So, should you be interested, read on; I’m warning you now, it’s a long one.
When I was 8 years old, simultaneously, two variables changed in my life. First of all, I had just started grade 4 with the most stressful teacher I have ever encountered. She ran her classroom like a drill sergeant and expected nothing but perfection from all of her students. There’s certainly a lot more I could say about this teacher, and how many kids’ lives were negatively affected by her behaviour, but this story is much too great to attribute her with any more importance.
The only thing to take away from my experience in that classroom, is that she controlled everything within that room; the students had little freedom to do and say as they pleased, and unfortunately, I manifested this loss of control in other areas of my life -or so this is what I have concluded.
To be perfectly honest, that period of my life is somewhat of a blur, perhaps because I was so young, or maybe because it was slightly traumatizing, but occasionally, I recollect certain behaviours of mine and it shocks me every time.
The second important variable to consider is my dad. He is someone who I have and always will admire, and at that time I stayed true to myself and did just so. He was at a point in his life, where as a grown adult, he could afford to change his diet and workout as much as he pleased. His goal was to experiment with his eating and exercise regimes to attain his most optimal physique and naturally, I wanted to do the same.
Little did I know, or what I failed to understand was that this was not healthy for an 8-year old girl. Despite being told otherwise, I took this ‘dieting’ to an absolute extreme, often in secret too, so it was difficult for my family and friends to realize the severity and extent of my issue.
Anyway, back to my actual issues themselves… Firstly, I started meal prepping, every week, on Sunday, I would spend hours, maybe 5-6 hours on a Sunday preparing my food for the school week. I don’t remember every meal I would make myself, but my snacks generally consisted of cut up celery sticks or steamed broccoli and sometimes an apple. My lunch was usually boiled and mashed sweet potato with extra lean ground beef or turkey that I had thoroughly cooked, drained and rinsed under cold running water to remove the fat I thought existed on the meat. For breakfast I had the same smoothie every day for probably close to two years. It consisted of skim milk (because I liked the idea that it was 0% fat), blueberries and 1/4 cup of oats. For dinner, I would carefully watch over my mum or dad as they cooked to ensure they weren’t using any butter, oil or any other fat in the meal. If I saw that they had used one of the mentioned, I wouldn’t eat it, or, I would wipe off and sometimes rinse my meat or vegetables to rid them of any added fat. I would never be shy to ask my family to cook something in a separate pan or dish for me to avoid any possible cross-contamination of fat, even at family functions like Christmas dinners.
If I didn’t think my dietary requests could be accommodated, I would pack my own food as I could be confident in my preparation of the meal and at ease with what was in it. As you can imagine, this would also be the case for sleepovers at friends’ houses, which I would often avoid in fear of what I would eat. The few times that I would go to a friend’s house, I would pack my food for the night and the next day, and with my very close friends, they would have certain foods just for me that they knew I would eat (pretty much anything non-fat). It was all about pre-planning and preparation for me, obsessively repeating the same routine, eating patterns and habits, because doing so was the only way I truly felt relaxed.
So, what did I do when I couldn’t plan, or my meal didn’t go accordingly? At birthday parties for example, a fan favorite is pizza and cake of course, but I would just sit and not eat, or, if I ate something like a celery stick that I realized had a little veggie dip on it, I would excessively exercise to make up for the extra calories later on. If I was given a dollar for every time I was asked “Why aren’t you eating?”, I would truly be rich. Naturally, this question I was often asked posed as a stress, something I would worry about being asked going into social situations. Thankfully, I thought it to be very clever of me to simply say “I’m not hungry” even though it felt like my stomach was eating itself.
As you’ve probably noticed, the biggest trend in my diet was avoiding fat, in all shapes and sizes, even fats that I cherish today like avocado, nuts and seeds. Additionally, I would also avoid all juices, most fruits, all types of bread and sugars. For a couple years my diet consisted of the meals mentioned above, and primarily fruits, vegetables, eggs (but only the whites) and meat protein, on the condition that all of those foods were in their rawest form, boiled or steamed, without added fat, salt or sugar.
Of course, eating this way did not allow me to develop properly, although I was growing in height, I wasn’t gaining any weight, I was much too thin but always happy to hear the doctor, or the scale tell me I weighed the same as a few months prior. Again, little did I know that growing like this became a precursor to my later amenorrhea (simply said, a lack of a period due to excessively low body-fat); a condition also potentially linked to the polycystic ovarian syndrome I have today.
As I mentioned earlier, my issue was rather complex, primarily because my disordered eating wasn’t only problematic because of what I ate, but also because of how I behaved and how it affected my mental health. My relationship with food was toxic.
I have always loved food and eating; my favourite cartoon episodes were always the ones that involved food and the Food Network was my favourite channel. I loved to cook and experiment in the kitchen and when I was much younger, I would continuously eat dessert late at night because I loved it so much, even though I would wake up in the middle of the night throwing up because it was too much sugar too late at night. So, having this new diet of mine, on top of all of that, food became a true obsession.
Food and eating began to dictate my life, it was all I would think about, every hour of every day, always thinking of what I would eat next or thinking of what I had just eaten to make sure I was content with my food choices of the day. I would religiously write out what I had eaten, sit for minutes with my eyes closed imagining my meals to my satisfaction.
You can also imagine that considering my love for food, I was also missing out on so many things I used to love. So, to compensate, I would often smell food to try and imagine the taste I once knew. However, I would never take a bite to taste anything to only spit it out, because I was afraid I might swallow some of the food, so for me, the smell and touch was enough. I was reminded of this habit of mine after watching the Netflix film To The Bone. If you haven’t seen it, it is an extremely realistic depiction of those suffering from eating disorders and worth the watch. I was surprised while also scared to see how much I could relate to my past self.
Now, you’re probably wondering what happened next? Well, I continued to live like this for well over a year, almost two. However, as soon as I left my grade four class, my symptoms slowly improved, which is what led me to believe that extreme stress exacerbated my tendencies. There is also SO much more I could discuss because my orthorexia was endlessly intertwined with my obsessive-compulsive behaviours, which today, I can’t believe I used to practice. OCD although very closely related to orthorexia is another topic in itself so I won’t touch upon that in this post.
Anyway, I knew my eating behaviours were wrong, but at the time I didn’t care enough to change. Thankfully, as I grew older, I was self-aware enough, to make a conscious change. I started researching health and nutrition, and especially with my OCD, I would purposefully not do something to avoid developing an unhealthy habit. I would force myself to eat certain foods and fats slowly but surely, even if it meant thinking about it and making myself okay with the idea a few days prior. I continued with this mentality for a while and I slowly started to see myself heal.
After leaving my classroom, I was beginning to grow into a much more flexible individual. I remember ‘flexibility’ being a key word I had to remind myself of on a daily basis. My diet began to consist of all the food groups and healthy fats became my new best friend but anything sugary was still avoided because to me, that was the epitome of a disastrous state of optimal health, until one momentous day in grade 7 that I will never forget.
My friend at the time had invited me to her cottage, and I wasn’t going to go because it would be too complicated for me to eat of course. Although this time, instead of declining the invite, I chose to use this vacation as an opportunity to continue to push these food boundaries I had created for myself. I told my friend I would bring her and I cupcakes to have at the cottage, and so my parents took me to a fancy bakery where I chose the cupcake that appealed to me the most. Keep in mind that I had not eaten anything sugary since grade 4, so it had to be the absolute perfect one (I chose chocolate!). Anyway, as the days led up to this cottage weekend, I prepared myself to be mentally ready to eat this cupcake, as I would always do with the foods I was trying to re-introduce into my life, but I didn’t know that this time, the aftermath would be different.
When the time finally came to eat our cupcakes, I remember feeling anxious and nervous. Saying this now makes me feel very silly because I’m talking about a cupcake…Something so easily eaten with little to no thought for most people. Nonetheless, we ate our cupcakes and they were oh so delicious, but even more endearing was how I felt afterwards.
This was the first time in years that I had not felt guilty after eating something I deemed unhealthy. I remember after having eaten our cupcakes, we walked on the beach to meet up with her friends and rather than regretting the cupcake I had just eaten, I couldn’t have been happier about it.
I distinctly remember smiling so much and being so happy because I was enjoying what we were doing in that moment. I felt like the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I don’t know if it was the cupcake itself, or just the right time when all my efforts to better myself over the years since grade 4 had finally paid off, but I was relieved and most importantly, I was happy.
From that moment forward, my life had changed. This is not to say that I never worry about what I eat. Even today, I sometimes see my tendencies emerge when I’m stressed, but I am now aware enough to catch myself before I fall, and I never feel so consumed by my thoughts like I once did.
I remember thinking to myself when I was in middle school, “I have so much time now and room in my head to think about things other than food”. My mind felt so clear and I felt amazed that this is how normal people must think and I couldn’t be happier to be thinking like that too.
As I entered high school, my behaviours and thoughts that had once consumed me completely disappeared. I was able to focus on the positive and enriching aspects of health, wellness and nutrition and this is when I started my blog.
I won’t ever regret the way I was, firstly because it can’t change, but mostly because the clarity I achieved from helping to heal myself allowed me to discover what I am truly passionate about today. I am thankful to have been lucky enough to have found this passion of mine and be a happier and healthier individual because of it.
Although today, as I look back upon my past behaviours in shock and with a slight sense of embarrassment, for many the reality of their eating disorder is sadly much worse than mine ever was. I shared with you my story, not to be pitied, not for attention nor to be felt sorry for, but rather to provide the slightest glimmer of hope for those or for even just one person who hasn’t found it yet, and to remind you that light does in fact exist at the end of the tunnel, it’s just a matter of time before you find it.
Whether you do it yourself or by seeking the help you need, never stop striving to be the healthiest and happiest you can be.
You only have one body and you only have one life.
Love always, xx
Ps: If you would like to get involved in raising awareness for eating disorders as part of mental illness please check out The National Eating Disorder website
Also published on Medium.