** Trigger Warning **
I used to claim I was vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free, and I even convinced myself that I had food intolerances. When people would offer me food outside of the borders of that lifestyle, I politely declined. Some would ask why, and I would simply say, “ I’m a vegan!” Or truthfully, whatever I found most convincing to myself and others. It was easier to say than the truth… which was, “I am orthorexic, and I am scared to eat that food because it will make me fat and my life would be over.”
Do you want to know the scary part about orthorexia? It is NORMALIZED in the health and wellness industry and on social media platforms, like Instagram.
Orthorexia can include behaviors like tracking macros, or diets like veganism, vegetarianism, gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo, keto, et cetera, et cetera. The list goes on and on. Really, it can be any form of food manipulation or elimination to achieve the “perfect diet” leaving you completely food obsessed.
And while this is what I believe to be the most widespread and dangerous form of disordered eating, it’s not recognized by psychiatry diagnosis. As someone who has struggled with orthorexia which then led to Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder, I am saddened by the lack of awareness and legitimacy with this illness. I am a social media public figure, and I see orthorexic behavior around me every single day. Without proper recognition, we are not equipped with the tools to stop the normalization of disordered eating.
Did you know Keto was created to treat children with epilepsy? It was never created to sell in weight loss programs.Humans were never supposed to be on elimination diets unless for specific health concern reasoning. (Like kids with epilepsy needing ketones or a person with celiac disease needing a gluten-free diet.)
This Washington Post article points to research that says a LARGE number of women with eating disorders use veganism, vegetarianism, or other “largely named lifestyles or diets” as a socially acceptable way to disguise the real problem.
Another Washington Post article said that “Orthorexia… is a disorder distinct from anorexia or bulimia. It’s not the diet that’s the problem — it’s the obsession that accompanies it. And unlike most other eating disorders, the orthorexic’s objective isn’t weight loss. It’s purity.”
A recent study done by a group of psychiatrists in Poland showed that 68% of the women with eating disorders who were currently or had ever been vegetarian or vegan believed their avoidance of meat was related to their disorder. About half said they became vegetarian to lose weight.
There is an important distinction to be made here: none of these resources are saying that these diets cause eating disorders, nor do they say that a person who uses these diets has an eating disorder. The disorder lies in the motivation for using the diets – people with orthorexia are found to utilize these diets as tools for enabling their disorder/illness. This means veganism and vegetarianism are not eating disorders alone, but that eating disorders use veganism and vegetarianism to further their agenda because they eliminate food. People who utilize veganism and vegetarianism for cultural, religious, personal or health reasons are not at a greater risk for an eating disorder.
If it had to be summarized, my experience with orthorexia felt as though my life was so out of control that I felt I had to chain myself to something I could easily manipulate and control. I craved perfection. I craved it because my life had so many different uncontrollable factors at play – like my abusive relationship at the time. I never thought I’d be crying in restaurants because they cooked my omelet with whole eggs instead of egg whites, but there I was, bawling hysterically. I was yelling at family when they asked for a bite of my food because I had spent a week meticulously planning my meals proportions, and I felt that if they ate even a little bit of it, my entire plan would be out the window.
Now here I am, three years recovered from orthorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder, and I can confidently say that orthorexia was equally as painful as the more recognized eating disorders that followed it.
If you are experiencing any of what I have described, please know you are deserving of help just as much as anyone with a more widely recognized eating disorder. Dietitians who specialize in eating disorders are trained to treat you, nurture you, and guide you towards a life full of freedom.