One of our students accounts their experience with orthorexia
You could say I peaked in Year 12. I was in the best physical shape of my life – I went to the gym religiously five times a week and regularly received compliments from family and friends about how great my body looked. I strictly adhered to a squeaky clean plant-based diet that was not only nutritious but was also ethical and environmentally conscious. My calorie and nutrient intake were calculated and recorded to a T, every meal I ate was carefully planned and home-cooked, and I drank water in litres at a time, not cups. I was told I was “remarkable” and “inspiring”, how disciplined and committed I was for being healthy and looking after myself. I wasn’t like other teenagers that clogged their bodies with alcohol and processed junk food; I respected my body and I knew better.
The bitter irony is that I was actually malnourished from my extremely health-conscious lifestyle. I was deficient in a multitude of nutrients. I had no period. I had brittle hair that would fall out in chunks. I had severe hormonal imbalances that caused stubborn waves of inflamed and painful acne. I was chronically tired no matter how much sleep I got or how much spinach I ate. Food consumed my thoughts every waking hour. It was a brutal and sick numbers game that would provide me with a small but fleeting moment of reassurance when I played it right – but also trigger an intense panic attack coupled with suffocating self-hatred when I did not. All I wanted was to be perfect. All I wanted to be was enough. And if being the “fittest” and the “healthiest” was one measure I could take to destroy some of the inherently flawed and grotesque parts of me I passionately detested, you bet I was going to do it to the extremes.
But nothing I did or would ever do was enough. There are no winners in the never-ending game of orthorexia, only losers and survivors.
The National Eating Disorders Association defines orthorexia as “an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating” that results in individuals damaging their well-being as a result of their food fixation. Although not officially recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, orthorexia is an eating disorder that is both on the rise and extremely normalised in our diet culture-saturated society. Often going unnoticed or even glorified, individuals that suffer from orthorexia obsessively follow rigid food rules that heavily restrict what they can eat and cause severe damage to their physical and mental health. The intense food restriction is detrimental to a person’s wellbeing. It can negatively impact their physical wellbeing through malnutrition and other health issues as well as causing severe mental distress and strain on an individual’s social relationships. The above consequences are what differs orthorexia from the notion of wanting to eat better. It is the psychological obsession with food that is not normal and turns a diet into something all-consuming.
Does this mean anyone who starts a new diet or tries to eat “healthier” will develop orthorexia? No, not necessarily. Like other eating disorders, individuals who are genetically or environmentally predisposed to certain factors like trauma, abuse and mental illness (which can be hereditary) are at higher risk. Additionally, people who are people-pleasing, perfectionistic, high-achievers, depressed, anxious or struggle with self-esteem are more prone to developing orthorexia or other eating disorders. An individual can suffer from orthorexia as a stand-alone disorder, or it can be in conjunction with another eating or mental disorder like anorexia or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
The topic of eating disorders is still so stigmatised despite how prevalent they are amongst the general population, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity. It has been estimated that 1 in 10 people are affected by an eating disorder at some point in their life. Orthorexia, in particular, is a lesser-known eating disorder, despite behaviours symptomatic of this form of mental illness having high prevalence amongst many tertiary students today. These disorders are complex and diverse, and scarily normalised – they go beyond the typical behaviours associated with anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa, types most commonly known within the realm of disordered eating.
It is important to note that orthorexia, like other eating disorders, goes far deeper than food or vanity and is nothing to be ashamed about. They are usually expressions of distressing mental health issues like anxiety, a need for control or the desire to feel accepted.
If you notice a loved one engaging in extreme eating patterns that seem detrimental to their wellbeing, give them love and (if needed) professional help through a GP, counselling service (if you can afford it) or helplines like 0800 2 EDANZ.