Orthorexia – when eating healthy turns into sick

There is a dark side to all that talk about healthy food and lifestyle called orthorexia or the compulsory need to eat and live “healthy”. Anorexia and orthorexia are very similar in nature. While anorexic people are concerned with the QUANTITY of food, orthorexic people are concerned with the QUALITY of food. 

As a society, we strive for perfection and impeccability. We tend to live in our heads and are often disconnected from our bodies. We want to reach for the sky and spiritual enlightenment, but forget about getting grounded and rooted in the soil first. We love control and are afraid of the primal instincts (represented especially by animal foods). We want to be “clean” and free of sin. The current trend towards 100% plant-based and “clean” diets is quite symbolic for these tendencies. I am not saying that everybody who tries to eat “clean” has an Eating Disorder – far from it. But the “clean eating” movement definitely fuels already existing predispositions towards disordered eating by conveying a notion of guilt and ethical pressure. If self-esteem is weak, feeling “less than” is equivalent to not belonging and thus not being loved. It also allows to hide already existing disordered eating habits, and also other traits typical of a controlling person, such as exaggerated thrift, behind the socially well-accepted motivations of health, sustainability or ethics.

In this post, I want to call on my own experience to draw the line between an orthorexic person and someone just living by strong principles.

I believe I qualify very well to talk about this topic, since I have been there myself… As a teenager I became anorexic (eating less and less without caring about health), which then turned more and more into an obsession with eating according to my self-imposed and constantly changing food rules that I considered to be healthy (whether they really were is a different story). While I did not avoid most social activities, I did suffer enormous stress when I participated and was hardly ever present because my mind was constantly turning around the food! I basically lived to eat, to exercise and to study/work. My weight remained rather low (although you can be orthorexic without being anorexic and vice versa).

In my opinion, there are two major psychological components at the basis of BOTH disorders:

1. Lack of self esteem and self love: Even if I claimed that I only wanted to eat healthy to take good care of myself: My diet did not provide my body with enough calories and essential nutrients (especially good fats and proteins) to sustain a healthy metabolism (such as menstruation or a normal body temperature…). I over-exercised. I suffered from enormous self-imposed “eating-healthy” stress. I couldn’t easily relax at dinners or parties and partially isolated myself socially. All of those negative thoughts, emotions and behaviors were hurting me and thus NOT self-loving and healthy. They actually were like junk food to my organism!
Unfortunately, while being “sick”, I was not able to enter an honest reality-check with myself. I insisted on how good I felt, while anybody (except myself) could see that it wasn’t true…

2. Lack of trust (in self and in Life) and thus lots of fear and a strong need for control as a consequence: Life is unpredictable and can’t be controlled. Rather than enjoying this fact, the unknown used to provoke fear in me. My obsession with food was an attempt to control at least one part of my life: WHAT I ate (orthorexic) at what moment and HOW MUCH (anorexic). Unexpected events forcing a change in plans made me freak out. By choosing only “healthy” foods, I got a (false) sense of security from disease and death (the basic fears all other fears come down to in the end). What I didn’t realize is that I was being controlled by the disease, not the other way around and that all that stress was more toxic than any “bad” food could ever have been. It’s the typical case where one extreme ends up turning into the other and my fear of death and disease was slowly killing me or at least preventing me from living.

To heal, it was thus necessary to learn two virtues more than anything else (and to continue practicing and reinforcing them every single day):

1. How to trust: Life can’t be controlled. To live, to REALLY live means to accept the insecurity of not knowing what will happen in the next moment. To do so, I needed to develop confidence and trust in myself and my capacity to master whatever situation I might be confronted with in a given moment (I was surprised how much creativity I actually discovered in myself). It also meant learning to trust in my own inner voice, intuition and experience. Just because many health experts say food x is not good, doesn’t mean that this is true for ME. It also meant learning to trust that my body could handle a certain amount of “non-ideal” food. Eventually, it meant learning to trust in LIFE. It has become my foundational belief that Everything happens for a reason and is always in our best interest, even though it might not seem like that at first sight. This unshakable faith in the Universe helped me to overcome the fear of the unknown to the extent that I could even start enjoying it. Today it’s the possibility that absolutely crazy things or even miracles could happen just the next moment that makes it so much fun to live. 

2. How to love myself: In her song “Greatest Love of All” Whitney Houston describes self-love as “easy to achieve”. I absolutely disagree with that statement. Learning how to love myself was the hardest, yet the most crucial thing to do. Loving myself doesn’t mean to look into the mirror and say “I love you” to my reflection. It means to accept myself with all my flaws. It means stopping to hurt myself, to judge and criticize myself, to cause myself (unnecessary) physical or mental pain and suffering. It means to minimize total stress (physical from “bad” foods, and emotional from “eating healthy stress”), while maximizing pleasure. Self-love is the basis for being able to a) accept the love of someone else (despite all MY flaws) and b) to truly love someone else (despite all THEIR flaws).

There were a few key concepts that helped me learn (self-) trust and (self-) love on a very profound level:

  1. Metabolic Typing and the idea of biochemical individuality: The understanding that on a biochemical level we are all individual and that the same food can actually have completely different impacts in two different people finally allowed me to listen to my body and give it the fuels and tools that it needed to rebalance itself (from the gut to the brain).
  2. Mind Body Nutrition and the understanding that the way we eat is the way we do life and that in order to resolve our issues with food and body we need to dig deeper. Also the notion that thoughts and feelings are as powerful on our metabolism as food and that negative thoughts, fear, guilt and constant worry are actually junk food to the organism.   

That being said, I still care about the quality of what I eat. However, I do so from a place of love as opposed to from a place of fear. It is important to NOT label all people paying attention to the quality of food as “orthorexic” and thus sick. Because that would only allow people not wanting to change certain “bad” habits or not wanting to take their responsibility for their choices, to hide behind the “I am just being normal” excuse: “Look, I am still eating junk food, I am definitely not a sick orthorexic!” For more on that, check out my article “The Everything in Moderation Excuse”.

As expert in the field of nutrition I can tell you that there is really a lot of bad food on the market – even in organic shops (bad = produced in a way that’s harming our bodies, the farmer, the animals and/or the planet). Many people also suffer from undiagnosed food intolerances, which means that each time they eat a certain food, they hurt themselves internally. Not wanting to hurt oneself by eating certain foods that one can’t tolerate is not sick but a sign of a self-loving character. Wanting to take responsibility for how what one eats has been produced or raised is not sick but a sign of a responsible and self-confident character.

It’s the motivation that makes the difference: fears and self-destructive behavior versus consciousness and self-esteem.

In the “healthy” case, it’s not about calories, but about how nourishing and sustainable a food is. It’s about the individual right balance between exercise and rest. It’s not about isolating oneself socially or stressing out if once circumstances are less than optimal (for example, when walking on the Camino de Santiago in 2013, I took care of my own breakfast and lunch, but joined the group dinners in the evening to be with the people and
share stories and laughters). It’s simply about making the best choice in a given moment – and trusting the body’s ability to cope if things are not ideal. It’s about being confident and assertive enough to stand by one’s principles. Instead of being controlled by a disease, it is one’s conscious CHOICE to eat a certain way and to defend that choice. There’s nothing wrong with adapting menus in the restaurant to one’s particular needs. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting « quality » places to friends or inviting them to cook together instead of eating out. There’s nothing wrong with just joining in for a drink, either. 

There’s nothing wrong with any (self-imposed) “rule”, as long as it is not based on fears (which you can easily detect by tension in the body), but on true self-love in combination with a sense of responsibility and the consciousness that what is best for myself, will ultimately also be best for the farmers, the animals and the planet. Still, the ultimate goal should always be to minimize total stress (physical + emotional). Only you can judge what is appropriate in a given situation.

If you need help breaking free from Food Prison, please do not hesitate to contact me. 


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