Overcoming Orthorexia

Weighing in at 79 pounds, I found myself blindsided by a health-obsessed eating disorder and knocking on death’s doorstep.



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One step. Two steps. Three hundred and twenty steps.

I was that girl.

The Stairmaster girl you would pass at the gym. I would step my life away on that Stairmaster, reading my Shape and Oxygen magazines, striving to be as “healthy” as possible—something I ironically wasn’t.

It all began with a small aspiration: To be the healthiest and fittest I could be.

My plan of attack was simple: Eat only “approved” healthy foods (determined by advice I read in magazines and gathered from health and fitness outlets) and workout every chance I get.

Little did I know that my endeavors to become the healthiest version of myself would actually lead me into a realm of sickness.

I struggled with chronic anorexia for about 10 years and, as a means to overcome my anorexia, I sought out strength and healthy eating to move past and recover from the years I had instead chosen restriction and extreme dieting. On the outside, my goals seemed healthy. On the inside though, I was striving for perfection in my appearance, my diet and my fitness.

Enter Orthorexia. Also known as: the condition that put my health into overdrive.

Orthorexia can take many forms and fashions. No addiction or eating disorder is alike, and the same can be said for orthorexia.

Some classify the condition as pertaining to those persons who only eat raw foods; those who will only eat foods they prepare; and those who will only eat foods listed as organic. In my case, in my battle with Orthorexia, I only allowed myself to eat about three foods I believed were the “healthiest” foods for me: frozen turkey burger patties, steamed vegetables, and protein powder. (In addition to working out like it was my job.) 

This unhealthy eating and exercising cycle ensued for about five years—until I stepped on the scale, weighing in at 79 pounds. Orthorexia had blindsided me, and I found myself knocking on death’s doorstep.

How could being healthy be so unhealthy? I wondered when I found myself in the ICU, on heart monitors, IV fluids, and a feeding tube; scratching my head as to what went awry.

***

More than five years have passed since that life-altering experience. Today, I am a nutritionist, occupational therapist, and fitness professional helping guide others toward finding a healthy balance with their food, fitness, and relationship with their bodies.

Below are a few things I’ve learned when it comes to truly “eating healthy” and nourishing your body from the inside out:

1.     80/20 (Or even 70/30)

Perfection does NOT exist. So, get that in your head right now. I coach people to follow a general rule of thumb: eat 70 to 80 percent healthy, nourishing, and real foods, and 20 to 30 percent fun or unaccounted for foods.

This diet looks different for everyone. For some, it means being okay with eating off the hot bar at Whole Foods. For others, it means dinner out at a restaurant on a Saturday night. It means every now and then having no rules, or allowing yourself to have a small, little treat like a homemade, nut butter-based chocolate chip cookie or a piece of dark chocolate. For some, their 20 to 30 percent comes in the form of alcoholic beverages at the football game or that delicious slice of Home Slice Pizza.

To recap: You don’t have to live under a rock to be healthy.

 

2.     Mindfulness.

By checking in with yourself, or being mindful, you can be made more aware of your emotions, your mood, your physical hunger cues, and your physical feelings (i.e. low energy, constipation, bloating, etc.). Disordered eating—anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and orthorexia in particular—often occur more readily when we become disconnected with these things. So, how do you start listening to your body? Practice the art of intuitive eating by trying this simple exercise:

 Prior to the meal, rate your hunger level on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being famished; 10 being Thanksgiving-stuffed).

Acknowledge and note how you are feeling going into the meal (physically, mentally, and emotionally). Are you shaky? Sleepy? Irritable? Worried or anxious? Emotional? A little nauseated?

During your meal, try to enjoy it. Chew your food thoroughly. Allot 20 to 30 minutes to enjoy at least one meal a day. Put your fork down between bites. Check in with your hunger and fullness cues throughout. Notice how your hunger dissipates. 


Following the meal, rate your fullness level on that same 1 to 10 scale.

Acknowledge and note how you feel now. Energetic? Sluggish? Content? Bloated? Headache-free? Can you see or feel a distinct connection between when you eat a banana and how your workouts go in the gym? What about the meal of chicken and broccoli that you pair with half an avocado? Do you notice longer-lasting energy and clearer thinking as opposed to when you just eat the chicken and broccoli dry and alone?

The more you begin to practice this exercise, the more in-tune and aware of your body you become. With Orthorexia, it can be easy to “check out” or become disconnected with your body (its needs, its wants, etc.) in the name of “righteous eating.” Instead of focusing on the rules you must follow, ask your body what it truly needs—and act accordingly. The more you check in with yourself, the more second nature it becomes.

 

3. Stretch Yourself.

Do you find you are making more rules for yourself when it comes to your food or fitness? Who said you had to eat only x, y, or z, or do x, y, and z to be healthy? What would happen if you broke your rule? Even just once?

Creating new habits, beliefs, and routines all starts with taking a first step. For example:

Old habit: You can only eat at certain times of the day—such as at 8 a.m., noon, and 6 p.m.—because somewhere along the way, you developed a belief system that those times were the best times for digestion.

New habit: Try shifting those times, even by 15–30 minutes. Discover that you are okay. 

Old habit: You can only eat organic spinach greens, or one particular type of potato, or bananas that have no spots on them whatsoever (spots = more sugar).

New habit: For one meal, try being a rule breaker. Start to stretch yourself in the areas of perfection. Chances are good that you will survive, and even better, begin to thrive. 

 

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