Today I’m sharing my experience with Orthorexia, how disordered eating developed for me, and how I overcame it.
It has taken me a very long time to find the right time to share this story. I’ve wanted to talk about it for a while, but it’s a little nerve-wracking to open up about something so personal and that was so difficult for me to navigate, both personally and professionally. This is gonna be a long post, so get comfy!
While I’ve never been diagnosed with any kind of eating disorder, what I have personally experienced is orthorexia, a form of disordered eating. In light of Canadian Eating Disorder Awareness Week (February 1-7), today I’m sharing the experiences I’ve had in the past with this form of disordered eating.
Not yet classified as an eating disorder by the DSM-5, orthorexia is characterized by an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. You can learn more in my blog post here.
For me to tell my story in its entirety, I will start by sharing some snippets of my experiences around food growing up.
Orthorexia: My Experience with Disordered Eating
Growing up I never felt bad or guilty about the kinds of foods I ate. There were never off-limits foods or a discussion about food in a negative way. Food was just food.
That being said, I always had an interest in health ever since I was young. I loved reading books my mom had on nutrition and yoga, and this interest continued on through my teen years. But I was also a hypochondriac as a child, and throughout most of my life. I can recall many panic attacks when I was younger due to fears of developing a certain illness or worse-case-scenarios I’d create in my head about a small ache or pain I had. I certainly believe this played a role in shaping my relationship with food as I got older.
I went through a short period of time as a teen where I counted calories (despite my already petite size) but quickly realized it was becoming an unhealthy mindset, and I stopped. Wise young Meghan!
While away at college at age 18, I found so much joy in grocery shopping. I’d fill my shopping cart with strawberry probiotic-yogurt, muesli, fruit, and whole wheat bread. Those months were my very first introduction to the world of making my own decisions around food and not having parents make those decisions for me.
I decided to leave my college program to pursue the passion I had for nutrition, of which developed into a passion for holistic nutrition as I learned more about the concept a few months later. I began studying holistic nutrition at age 20. That was ten years ago.
In my early twenties as I continued to dive deeper into the world of wellness, I explored veganism and was fully immersed in the many raw food blogs and YouTubers back in the early 2010s. I became somewhat obsessed with clean eating, living naturally, connecting with the earth, and other things like detoxification. In nutrition school I learned all about organic farming, GMOs, macro- and micro-nutrients, healthy whole foods and all kinds of alternative healing modalities.
How My Digestive Issues & Food Restriction Led to Disordered Eating
After the infection was treated, I was unfortunately left with post-infectious IBS which meant I still had trouble tolerating many foods like I used to. As a result of this, I began dipping my toes in the removal of many foods from my diet, like grains, sugar, legumes, and dairy as I felt that these caused me the most symptoms. This was my first experience with the paleo diet.
Years went by and my gut symptoms improved. Eventually, by my mid-twenties, I found a nice balance with enjoying all foods again. I no longer had restrictive eating patterns as I seemed to tolerate most foods pretty well. But in 2016 I experienced an abrupt and very severe flare-up of IBS symptoms (diarrhea, bloating, pain, and an intolerance to many foods) that would not cease, no matter what I did.
This experience set me over the edge and was the very beginning of what led to pretty significant disordered eating.
I spent 3 years trialing elimination diet after elimination diet; putting myself on and being prescribed food elimination protocols, supplements, and dietary plans. Along the way my brain was being programmed to believe that gluten, all grains, all legumes, dairy, and sugar were bad foods that caused scary disorders like intestinal permeability, autoimmune diseases, and inflammation. These foods quickly became off-limit foods that I not only diligently avoided in an attempt to help me find relief from my chronic diarrhea and pain, but as a way to maintain a pure, clean diet that would supposedly prevent me from developing future health complications.
I trialled the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, the low FODMAP Diet (more on this in a moment) and the Autoimmune Protocol (called AIP) where I eliminated not only grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar, but also all nuts, seeds, nightshades, and eggs. My diet consisted primarily of boiled chicken and acorn squash. I had been on so many different diets at this point that all made convictions about what foods were best to avoid. I was exhausted. Food was no longer anything to me anymore and I wished it wasn’t a human necessity. It would be so much easier if I just didn’t have to eat anything at all, and for a period of time, not eating was how I coped. Get it over with and then avoid it until I absolutely need to eat again, and even then, make sure it’s as plain and unobtrusive to my gut as possible. If it isn’t already blatantly obvious, this took a psychological toll on my health and my relationship with food.
I developed food phobia early on after this flare up because of the discomfort food caused me, but my food fears were taken to a whole new level through elimination diets. Basically, I had two kinds of food phobia: I had fear of being in physical pain, and fear of unhealthy foods and what they might do to my body.
Now, please understand me here: I do not think that elimination diets are inherently bad. I DO believe that they have a use, a time, and a place. In fact, the low FODMAP diet was the most helpful “elimination” diet I did back at the end of 2018. It helped me uncover what foods were my main triggers out of all the diets and plans I tried. I just think that elimination diets need to be approached carefully, and with appropriate emphasis on the re-introduction of foods so as not to instil long-standing fear or apprehension around temporarily restricted foods. I think many people, including myself, fell into a trap of avoiding many foods indefinitely.
Fortunately, over time I started to be able to tolerate more foods again until I reached a point where I was symptom-free altogether by my late twenties. Food no longer caused me issues, especially diarrhea. Throughout 2019 I even started to dabble with eating some gluten here and there (gluten was one of my biggest fears). Since I was still pretty fearful of it, I didn’t eat it very often, but I always felt fine when I did.
The improvements in my symptoms were really the catalyst to the expansion of foods in my diet. I no longer had a major incentive to restrict a lot of foods because I felt really good. Slowly more foods made their way back into my diet, but I still had a lot of underlying beliefs, food fears, and intrusive thoughts that dictated my every move around food and eating in general.
About about a year ago I had my first-ever realization that I might have–or have had–orthorexia. I felt immense shame as I grappled with this issue internally, trying to pull apart the years of food phobia and beliefs I had about nutrition. It didn’t help that gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free and everything-else-free diets were being picked up by what seemed like everyone in the wellness space. It was (and still is) the norm right now, and in many ways celebrated, to avoid a long list of foods and eat purely.
I began to realize just how disordered my behaviours were around food, yet I never even noticed it before. The feeling of anxiety around certain foods was so prominent, so overt, yet had become such “normal” behaviour for me that I didn’t even see it as a problem. Things like paralyzing indecisiveness when out at restaurants or at the grocery store, reading every ingredient label and obsessing over types of oils being used, what additives are present, or if there’s too much sugar. The anxiety and fear I felt any time I needed to make a food choice, even in my own kitchen, started to sound like very abnormal behaviour when I actually took a moment to think about it.
I sent so many mixed messages when out with family or friends about what I could and could not eat because I was so unsure about everything. There certainly was a time when I’d be running to the toilet with explosive diarrhea (sorry for the visual), but once my digestion improved I knew I felt fine eating many things. It was the voice in my head that would tell me not to.
Exposure Therapy: Facing Food Fears
Last year I read the book Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Bad by Renee McGregor and learned that in order for me to recover, I needed to face my fears head on. I needed to deliberately eat a forbidden food so that I could re-learn that it’s okay for me to eat it and that I wasn’t going to keel over and die.
But first and foremost, I took to research. Along with listening to my body, I began immersing myself in books, research articles, and studies to help me more thoroughly understand whether or not the beliefs I was holding around certain foods were best for me. The research I did was humbling and reinforced what I already fundamentally knew. You see, nothing is black or white and what’s healthy for one person may not be healthy for another. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and listening to our bodies is truly the best thing we can do for our health. This wasn’t news to me, but it seemed revolutionary for some reason.
I decided I wanted to allow myself to eat gluten again and that I’d face that food fear first. The re-introduction of it wasn’t a quick or easy process. I mean, the act of doing it is. You just put it in your mouth. But the psychological aspect of it was very difficult for me.
I remember making the decision to buy a loaf of gluten-containing bread. It felt like such a big deal. Like, whoa, who is this girl BUYING A LOAF OF BREAD?! It was really nerve-wracking. I was so out of my element, so scared to willingly CHOOSE to purchase and consume something that I deeply believed to be bad for me. At the very beginning I had days where I slipped back into my orthorexic thoughts, not feeling ready to eat certain foods. It took me a few months to feel relatively comfortable with eating gluten again.
I’m using gluten as an example here because that was my biggest food fear, but I went through a similar process with many other kinds of foods.
Finding Balance Again
I went through a short period of time where I swung from one extreme to the other: eating tons of previously-restricted foods and not knowing what balance was or how to have it. Wanting to choose a healthier option immediately put me into high alert. I didn’t know how to have an actual proper relationship with food in a normal way. I had to learn how to eat again. I also found myself having an identity crisis. Basically, as my long-held beliefs around food started to crumble and I suddenly found myself at the beginning of a long and arduous journey of healing my relationship with food, the way I started to show up as a nutritionist (and approach my online content) shifted, too, understandably.
What started to blossom out of it all was a very strong desire to find balance, let all foods have a place in my diet again, toss the rigid and anxiety-inducing nature of “clean eating” and diet labels and more specifically, eat intuitively. This is why you’ve probably seen me post more about that subject in recent months.
Eventually I found a new groove again with a fresh new perspective, but it took a while!
Intuitive Eating was invaluable for me on my journey, and still is. It’s been so liberating to learn how to have balance, trust my body again, and enjoy treats AND healthy foods without being obsessive about it. I’m at a place in my life now where I feel like I can truly honour my health. My mental health around food is so. much. better. And you wanna know what else is better? My blood sugar, my appetite, my skin, and my hair. Jeez, especially my hair. It was really thin when I had such a limited diet and wasn’t eating enough, and it wasn’t until sometime last year that I started to notice my hair being much thicker as I was eating so many more foods and also just eating more in general.
Some Final Thoughts
Healing your relationship with food is not a walk in the park, that’s for sure. The psychological toll that disordered eating has on you is major and it takes a lot of time, patience, facing (food) fears, and asking a shitload of questions. It’s a long, uncomfortable process full of steps forward and backwards, and success certainly doesn’t happen overnight.
I want to also take a moment to shed some light on the fact that disordered eating behaviours can and do exist among healthcare professionals and others in the wellness field. Nutrition schools and other related programs are breeding grounds for becoming obsessed with your health. But this is a topic for another time.
I’m grateful that I am now in a drastically better place mentally with food (like, way better), but I still experience residual beliefs that trickle into my conscience now and then. I think the best thing is that I now have an awareness of it. No matter your food, health, or even professional background, diet culture still surrounds each of us and we need to actively work at protecting ourselves.
So that’s about it for my story. I know this was a long one! But I hope it can help one of you out there who is reading this that has been–or is in–this boat. If you can relate, leave me a comment below. I would love to hear from others who have experienced this, too.
- Read my full blog post on What is Orthorexia?
- Health Practitioner Near You Search Engine
- Mental Health Practitioner Near You Search Engine
- National Eating Disorder Information Center – Helpline: 1-866-633-4220
- Sheena’s Place – Toronto
- Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Bad by Renee McGregor
- Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch