At age 14, I developed orthorexia. For those who are unaware, this is defined as obsessive thoughts and behaviors regarding the health of one’s diet (and, in my case, exercise habits). The initiation of my disordered tendencies came at the same time as the “wellness boom” we have seen in recent years.
Just when green smoothies and fitness trackers and HIIT and Raw-til-4 started gaining momentum, so did my unhealthy relationship with eating and moving and adhering to the principles I thought would make me “healthy.”
I have come a long way since then. Now, almost a decade later, I have finally learned to let go. I can eat sugar (yes, even white sugar!) without going into a near panic attack. I don’t cry on vacation when I can’t fulfill my compulsion to intensely exercise every day, sometimes multiple times a day. (In fact, I don’t even do that when I’m not traveling.) I allow myself treats and indulgences; I have learned to enjoy the company and environments and experiences associated with mealtimes; I have integrated functional, natural, low-intensity movement into my day-to-day life.
It took lots of hard work to get to this point, which is where my dilemma lies. I have become so adept at ignoring those obsessive orthorexic thoughts that I now have trouble listening to the voice of reason that genuinely just want to keep me healthy. The pendulum has swung so far from the side of 24/7 eating disorder mindset that I sometimes find it hard to embrace simple healthy behaviors because I’ve distanced myself so much from those ideologies.
Many people have trouble consistently embracing the healthy habits that they know are right. But if you have any history of an eating disorder or diet mentality or rigidity regarding nutrition or exercise, the psychology of the situation becomes even more complicated.
You may wonder:
Am I telling myself to have veggies for dinner because I need to meet my nutritional needs, or because I fear something ‘bad’ will happen to my health or weight of I don’t?
It’s hard to accept the legitimacy of the former when you have spent so long living in accordance with the latter.
For anyone, but especially those with histories of eating disorders, it is necessary to be wary of “health talk” in all its forms. We are conditioned to be (and should be) skeptical, as it’s often a leftover result of old obsessions. But, we can’t stop there. The next step is learning to reframe your thoughts so you can re-embrace them in a gentler way, once you’re sure you are ready.
I have been pretty “healthy” (actually healthy, having a regular period, eating well, etc.) for long enough now that I feel it’s acceptable to come back to certain aspects of health consciousness. But I have learned to do so in a different way than I used to.
Whereas I once tried to get the maximum amount of veggies I could into a day (sans oil, spice or anything fun), I now work them into my meals in interesting ways without stressing over meeting my quota. This is the balanced middle ground between my former, “recovering” self who would eschew veg in any form when cooking at home because other foods were easier and more energy-dense.
There was also a time in my life when I didn’t allow myself to drink alcohol or sweet beverages or eat dessert or snacks. “Empty calories,” I told myself. I’ve since loosened the rules enough to enjoy these things, but I also had to teach myself that I should only eat these foods when I want them– not because I’m relishing in the fact that I never used to allow myself the items nor because I’m obsessively focused on refeeding the body that was once to undernourished.
To integrate new health behaviors into your life after an eating disorder, start slowly. Turn to others for guidance– seek inspiration from those influences who have respectful relationships with food and their bodies. Practice intuition, allowing yourself to tune into your body’s physical, mental and emotional needs (not just what you logically tell yourself is “healthiest”.) Find exciting and easy ways to adopt healthy habits. Make recipes that you haven’t tried before. Sample some new fitness classes.
These will be the tools that help you find balance when it’s so easy to stick to extremes. If you, too, used to be highly rigid regarding health/wellness, you know what a struggle this can be. But finding a new path towards health consciousness is crucial for both recovery and leading a generally wholesome life.
Have you experienced this dilemma and, if so, how have you managed?
Photo: Quincy Malesovas