Orthorexia – The Worship Of Purity

I think one of the biggest things holding me back from achieving full recovery from my eating disorder was my worship of purity – orthorexia. It may not be like that for everyone, but for me, it was the final thing I had to let go of in order to start healing from bulimia.

I found out that I did not binge because food was “addicting” (as I’d thought previously!) but because I had an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy or “clean” and not allowing myself to have other foods I craved.

The more I restricted something, the more I craved it.

Worshipping purity made me binge on junk foods and overeat in general because my cravings weren’t satisfied. The more I restricted something, the more I craved it. The more control I wanted to have over food and eating, the more out of control I felt.

I thought that being 100% raw was the only way to be healthy. I studied whole foods nutrition. Particularly raw foods. I even got certified as a Natural Health Practitioner. I still think our bodies need plenty of whole foods for health and nutrition, but developing an eating disorder as a result of following an obsessively “healthy” diet is much more damaging to your body and mind than any “unhealthy” food!

I used to think orthorexia was a manipulative way of forcing healthy people to eat crappy food and a way for society make excuses for their bad eating habits. I was sure that the people who didn’t eat healthy were lazy and didn’t have the willpower or the right “knowledge.” I thought orthorexia wasn’t real and was just something people made up.

What is Orthorexia?

In my own words, I would define orthorexia as trying to eat only healthy, clean, and pure foods for the benefit of your health but feeling miserable and unhealthy as a result. It makes you obsess about food, restrict your foods, and it creates anxiety around food. It impacts your personal life and your social life. You develop disordered eating habits and have constant food cravings, binge episodes and you generally feel obsessed with foods, what you can and cannot eat. Orthorexia isn’t necessarily about restricting calories but more about restricting foods. It can also be mixed with bulimic or anorexic tendencies.

Orthorexia is a term coined by Steven Bratman, MD, to describe his own experience with food and eating. It’s similar to other eating disorders in that those with anorexia or bulimia obsess about calories and weight while orthorexics obsess about healthy eating. Weight loss can represent one of the goals, but it’s not only about being “thin” and losing weight.

I want to stress that not every person who eats healthy has orthorexia or an unhealthy obsession with foods. Also, it can be tricky to identify whether or not someone has orthorexia because many people don’t see anything wrong with eating healthy. And those doing the healthy eating also think they’re just trying to do what’s best for their body and health, and therefore, they see nothing wrong with it. However, there are symptoms to look out for.

Symptoms of Orthorexia

These are some of the symptoms of orthorexics:

  • Feelings of guilt when failing to follow diet guidelines.
  • Increased amount of time spent thinking about food.
  • Regular advance planning of meals for the next meal or day.
  • Thinking critical thoughts about others who don’t follow the same diet or have the same eating beliefs as you.
  • Fear that eating away from home will make it impossible to follow the diet or “clean” eating.
  • Distancing from friends or family members who don’t share similar views about food.
  • Avoidance of food bought or prepared by others. You cannot enjoy meals prepared by loved ones because they may contain some foods you cannot eat.
  • Obsession about foods. Is it healthy? Is it clean?
  • Sometimes wishing you could just eat normally and not worry about food.
  • Your other life and hobbies take a back seat because your newfound healthy diet or lifestyle is all you care about. Everything seems to be affected by it.
  • Consistently looking and researching about foods and whether they are healthy or unhealthy. It sometimes seems you can’t eat anything anymore.
  • You react very badly to foods you used to eat – even foods you once thought were healthy. Your digestion and body have become ultra sensitive.
  • You feel guilty when you eat something “not pure enough” and try to compensate for it by following the diet more religiously from then on. You are constantly starting “tomorrow.”
  • You constantly wonder how others can eat SO unhealthy and not have a care in the world. You are preoccupied with what you eat and also by what other people eat around you.
  • You seem to have lost the ability to eat intuitively. You don’t know when you should eat or when you should stop eating. You don’t have normal hunger and fullness cues, or you ignore them.
  • You do not intuitively eat what you truly want but instead eat only what you think you should and what is considered “healthy” by the diet you follow.
  • You worry that you aren’t getting results like other “gurus” because you are not doing the diet “correctly.”
  • You keep “falling off the wagon.”

And the list goes on. There is a huge difference between eating healthy for a good outcome and eating healthy in a way that makes you crazy and miserable. Notice how similar all these symptoms are with other diets? You can’t follow a diet that has a list of rules, tells you what you can and cannot eat and when and how much and just call it a “lifestyle.” A lifestyle, in my humble opinion, is a very personal thing. It’s not about following what other people eat and what works for them. It’s about making your own choices and doing what works for you.

Mental freedom from rules and restrictions

I know we don’t need processed food or junk food to get nutrition and that they can actually be harmful to our bodies when consumed in large amounts over a long period of time. And I’m sure there are numerous studies you can show me that prove it. But from my experience, eating junk food occasionally was necessary for me to completely recover from my eating disorder. It helped me let go of my food obsessions and my fear of eating.

It helped me to achieve complete freedom. Not so much physically, but definitely mentally. My own knowledge of health and what we should eat to be healthy was a major reason why I had an eating disorder and couldn’t get better. I thought that eating only healthy foods would somehow be the way to get rid of my bulimia. I was wrong. It was much more complex than that.

“maybe I just need to let go of the control and eat whatever I want.”

Just recently, I read my diary entries from the time when I had the most severe bulimia episodes. I was so desperate to find a solution and wrote: “maybe I just need to let go of the control and eat whatever I want.” Those were my exact words. But I didn’t believe back then that this was what would help me recover because I had the mindset of purity. I instinctively knew what I should do,  but I was so scared to eat unhealthy foods because of all the things I had learned about them. I thought the reason I still craved them was because I was simply addicted.

The first time I read Recover from Eating Disorders by Nina V, the message in the book didn’t convince me. She recommended letting go of the fear of eating junk foods in order to recover. I was too focused on being pure and still believed only healthy foods would cure me – somehow, someday.

When I read her book the second time, about one year later, I was willing to actually try it. By then, I was just so desperate to find an answer and would do anything to get over my eating disorder. I was at rock bottom and felt I had nothing else to lose. I had seen numerous times that being pure was not helping me and slowly started to realize that maybe it was part of the problem.

Now I’m so happy I listened to Nina and let go of purity and trying to be raw and eating only healthy foods. Letting go of purity and eating what I craved was a big part of why I started to recover and get better.

I won’t lie – it was very hard at first to eat the foods I thought were unhealthy and even “dangerous.” It was difficult to do something completely opposite to my former beliefs. But slowly, the fear faded away, and now I can honestly say I don’t have any fear foods. I take all food as being equal. All that matters is what I crave and don’t crave, what I feel like eating and don’t feel like eating. I listen to my body and not my fears.

It’s all about the mindset

I’m not saying that everybody who eats raw or healthy foods has an eating disorder. The fact is that eating disorders can occur with any kind of diet or big lifestyle change where you restrict something you’re not ready to let go of. And it’s no coincidence that the majority of people who follow these diets have already had eating disorders. It is just another way to restrict and control food. To lose weight and control weight.

It can happen when you’re on the Paleo diet or the Mediterranean diet or any other diet. The problem is the restriction of foods, not the exact diet or “lifestyle” one follows. If you don’t crave some foods, then fine – you don’t have to eat them (I don’t like some foods, and I don’t eat them!). But if you do crave it and restrict until you eventually binge out, then you have a problem.

Restriction is one of the biggest reasons we develop eating disorders.

Restriction is one of the biggest reasons we develop eating disorders. So in order to recover, we have to let go of those restrictions and the fear of eating certain foods. The problem wasn’t that I was eating raw fruits and vegetables. The problem was that I forbid myself from eating foods I still craved. Those foods were the main source of fear for me during my eating disorder. The more I tried to restrict them, the more they fuelled my obsession and pulled me deeper into misery.

Eating fruits and veggies or healthy foods does not directly cause the eating disorder, but the mindset of “follow 100% or die trying” and being obsessed if some ingredient is not “optimal” paves a direct path to an eating disorder.

How I recovered from Orthorexia

Letting go of all the restrictions and eating exactly what I wanted is what allowed me to recover completely. I needed to eat junk foods – not because my body needed some nutrients found in them or because junk foods are natural and we should eat them, but to let go of the mental obsession about being pure and eating “clean.” I needed to undo the brainwash of “if I eat anything unhealthy, it will make me more addicted.” Actually, my experience shows it can heal the addictive symptoms!

Also, the feeling of deprivation my body and mind always felt when I said “No!” when I actually craved some unhealthy foods, was very damaging. I needed to show my body it can have everything it wants! And this healed all addictions and cravings. Eating junk foods healed my mind and body because I ended the war of unhealthy vs. healthy foods. I ended the battle between “good” and “bad” foods – and stopped putting myself in the middle of it. I ended the obsession and guilt that always surrounded it. I surrendered to my body’s cravings and signals, and suddenly there was no battle anymore. I won.

The more intuitively I ate, the more balanced and healthy my eating was.

I ate what I craved without guilt, and for the first time, I didn’t try to fight against those cravings. My body learned slowly that I will not deprive myself of anything anymore, and the weird thing is that the more I let myself eat anything I wanted, the less I had cravings. The more intuitively I ate, the more balanced and healthy my eating was.

Right now, I can say I don’t have any cravings. If I crave something, it feels totally different than in my eating-disordered days. It’s not a terrible, scary, all-consuming fear or a feeling that I need to binge on the foods I crave. It doesn’t develop into this big, lurking monster that keeps me up all night and thinking about food all day. I eat what I want, when I want, and in the quantities I want – and then I’m done with it. The rest of the time, I do whatever other stuff interests me and don’t think about food until my next meal or snack.

If you want to learn more about my recovery and how I did it you can read my book: “BrainwashED – Diet-Induced Eating Disorders. How You Got Sucked In And How To Recover”

So please let go of all restrictions and eat whatever you want. If you have a craving for candy, chocolate, pizza, a burrito or whatever, then eat it. Trust your body…it knows what it’s doing.

Letting go of the obsession and allowing myself to eat whatever I craved no matter whether it was “healthy” or “unhealthy” was what allowed me to recover and – surprise, surprise! – led me to more healthful and balanced eating.

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