Orthorexia Nervosa: The good girl's eating disorder
Images of people with ‘perfect bodies’ living on ‘perfect diets’ is perpetuating an obsession with eating only 100pc pure, wholesome foods, says Joyce Fegan
Dieting has now become a dirty little word. Instead, eating ‘clean’ and training ‘hard’ is the new socially acceptable way to diet. While we commonly associate behaviours like bingeing, purging and restricting with eating disorders, what if your attempts to eat healthily are really just a disguise for the latest eating disorder, orthorexia?
The term, first coined in 1996 by American doctor Steven Bratman refers to an obsession with only eating food that is deemed to be 100pc pure, wholesome and nutritious.
Wanting to eat healthy food is a perfectly normal goal, but the problem occurs when the fixation takes over a person’s life like any other eating disorder. Nutritional choices become more and more restrictive to the point where entire food groups are cut out and a person’s health begins to suffer.
Dublin mum-of-three Andrea Weldon (32) developed an eating disorder in her early teens and went through the full spectrum of behaviours, including an obsession with ‘clean’ eating.
Now fully recovered, she works with people recovering from eating disorders through the Marino Therapy Centre and says that orthorexia has become just as dominant a condition as bulimia or anorexia in the clients she sees.
“When I started with behaviours, it wouldn’t have been very much around healthy food just more low-calorie, but then certainly when I got into the gym and stuff like that it was all about ‘clean’ eating.
“From a work point of view, it [‘clean’ eating] is a huge, huge thing now — what people are going to eat like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods. I personally hate that term ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods,” explains Andrea.
She says that her condition first developed when she was 14 years old, but at the time, she pretended it was just a diet. It wasn’t until much later that she realised it was something else entirely.
“I was probably about 14, when I realised something was wrong and when I look back, there was no trigger. It was not being good enough and trying to change myself and make myself feel better by losing weight.
“That kind of went on for a few years and I thought it was dieting in a weird way. I was 22 when I got help and realised I had a really big problem, because I couldn’t control it anymore.
“I was about seven years in recovery, so I would have been through pretty much everything: restricting, overeating, purging, over-exercising. You name it, I probably tried it,” says the Dublin mum.
One of the most challenging aspects of her recovery was around the orthorexic tendency to label certain foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
“When you’re after working out, you weren’t going to go and destroy your workout by eating a packet of crisps or something, it had to be very ‘clean’.
“You wanted to keep that cleanness and pureness. Overcoming that was by learning balance and learning not to use the term ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food.
“Overcoming that was tricky and it kind of started off just allowing myself things and trusting my body; that my body wasn’t doing anything weird or strange; that in eating crisps or chocolate, nothing was happening to my body,” Andrea explains.
American doctor Karin Kratina says that with orthorexia, “every day is a chance to eat right, be ‘good’, rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise)”.
“Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diets and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake,” she says.
A sense of superiority is also something Andrea admits to feeling through her old behaviours.
“Most people start eating ‘clean’ to lose weight. It is to have the feeling of superiority as well, ‘there she is eating her pizza and I’m eating my carrots.’ I would have thought I was great,” she says.
The drive against obesity is also a driving force behind orthorexia, believes Andrea, because so much fear has been stoked up around food nowadays.
“You’re hearing so much about obesity as well, that’s where a lot of the ‘clean’ eating is coming from because you’re associating chocolate, crisps and sweets with obesity.
“The problem with then trying to tackle obesity is that we are getting a generation of people who are actually obsessed with ‘clean’ food instead. Obviously, obesity is a problem, I’m not saying it’s not,” Andrea explains.
So if crisps, chocolate and cakes aren’t necessarily ‘bad’ food when consumed in moderation, where then is the balance between extreme healthy eating and extreme unhealthy eating?
Read more: 'You can get your life back after anorexia'
“Trust your senses and just enjoy your food and that’s not promoting obesity because, again, nobody craves bags of chips all day, or if you’re putting more into your body than you actually need, there is something wrong there. That’s a sign of something else,” Andrea answers.
For her, it came down to regaining a connection between her mind and her body. She listens to her body now.
“If you truly listen to your body, you do want nutritionally-dense food. I listen to my body and I want a nice, satisfying meal to start off the day. I think some people aren’t listening to their bodies and denying what their bodies want, so I think that’s how you get the balance.
“I don’t think about food all the time, food is actually a very small part of my day. Seeing food as fuel, that would have really helped me — put good fuel in, you’re going to get good mileage.
“You’re up in your head all day long thinking about food, but when you’re free, food is just a small part of the day — you look in the freezer and see what’s there,” explains Andrea, who likens a person’s metabolism and digestive system to a burning fire — another analogy that allowed her to recover.
“It’s all going down the same way, food is simply fuel.
“If you imagine a fire, and you throw a slice of pizza on to a fire it’s going to burn exactly the same way as a piece of fish.”
Andrea also came to understand that there are more things than simply food that contribute to your health, like the quality of sleep you get, your relationships and the amount of stress in your life.
And, at the end of the day, no eating disorder is actually about food: at the core of it, a person believes they are not good enough and they are simply finding a way to make themselves better and more acceptable.
For Andrea, truly realising that her worth was not her weight was a turning point for her.
“I just accept I’ve been given this life so I’m worthy of living it. I don’t want my life to be dictated by numbers. I want it to be dictated by things that I do. I want to go on holidays and I want to have fun and the more fun I have in my life, it means the quality of my life is better,” she notes.
As well as working one-on-one with clients, she also gives school talks and explains that social media means our young people are now being saturated, 24 hours a day, in images of people with the so-called perfect body living on the so-called perfect diet.
“School talks are targeted at young people who are bombarded with these images on Instagram. A lot of people would follow these kind of accounts (‘clean’ eating) on Instagram and that’s where a lot of the guilt comes in when they eat a slice of pizza and the person on Instagram was eating a spinach smoothie for their breakfast,” she explains.
While orthorexia has not yet been included on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the growth of regimes, such as the Paleo and caveman diets means eating disorder practitioners are now being confronted with its symptoms.
“When I started, orthorexia wasn’t really a thing. It’s definitely huge now, and it would be quite dominant and I think it’s dangerous because most people don’t actually realise they might have an eating disorder because they think of bulimia and anorexia and restricting, and they don’t realise they have a problem because they’re being ‘good’,” warns Andrea.
But there is a life outside of any food obsession and the vibrant and busy mum-of-three is living proof of that.
“Your life purpose changes. My life purpose before was purely to be a certain weight — that was it, that was my goal. Now, my purpose is to really enjoy and have as much fun as I possibly can, it’s chasing fun.
“There’s so much more going on in the world other than what you put in your digestive system.”
Marino Therapy Centre,
94 Drumcondra Rd Upper,
Drumcondra, Dublin 9;
telephone: 01 857 6901; visit: