There are so many diets to choose from these days, and they all promise to be the healthiest. Vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, raw, Paleo –these diets promise to fix your body and your life. Not only will you lose weight and look great, but you will also never get diseases and prevent aging. Don’t we all want that?!
Yet, it is so easy for a diet to go terribly wrong. When a person becomes so obsessed over becoming as healthy as possible, to the point they want to attain a perfect diet and body, that person will develop orthorexia nervosa. Although this is a not a well-known eating disorder, it is increasingly becoming a bigger problem in our society.
Today, I want to take a look at orthorexia to shed light on this issue, share my own story, and then take a look at the biblical perspective on this.
What is orthorexia?
We probably have all heard of anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder of undereating. Yet, orthorexia nervosa is not the same as anorexia. Orthorexia is “fixation on righteous eating”, as classified by the National Eating Disorders Association. Instead of purposely undereating to lose weight, orthorexics restrict what they eat in order to have the healthiest diet possible. It’s like an eating disorder in disguise as being healthy.
According to New York Magazine, “Orthorexics often eschew whole categories of food in the name of the sublime pursuit of clean living: Bananas are way too high on the glycemic index, wheat literally rots in your gut, and even natural fructose is suspect. Eventually, there’s very little left to eat.” When you have so many rules to follow, then you have no option but to constantly over-analyze what you’re eating, and panic over a slip-up.
Carol Cottrill, a certified nutritional consultant, said that there is a rise of orthorexia in her “impressionable younger clients who see celebrities following raw diets and cleansing diets.” She estimates orthorexia affects one in 10 women and one in 20 men. With its promising premise, orthorexia also affects all ages.
Steve Bratman actually termed the disorder in 1997, after he realized his obsession with organic eating was driving him crazy. He argues that orthorexics strongly find a connection between what they eat with their morality. He says, “The act of eating pure food begins to carry pseudo-spiritual connotations. …When an orthorexic slips up, (… consuming a gallon of Haagen Daz ice cream), he experiences a fall from grace, and must take on numerous acts of penitence. These usually involve ever stricter diets and fasts.” Bratman defines this phenomenon as “kitchen spirituality“.
Marie Claire magazine called orthorexics “wellness worshippers”, as in those “devoting their lives to the pursuit of health and fitness, swapping cigarettes for smoothies, benders for CrossFit.” Is it any wonder that orthorexics are so obsessed with what they eat?
It seems hard to believe, though, that someone who changes their dietary lifestyle to improve their health, could quickly spiral into an eating disorder. Women’s Health Magazine sported on the October 2014 cover the headlines “Slim & Happy”, “Genius Diet”, “Control Your Cravings”, and “Fit is the new sexy!” These ostentatious words from the media subconsciously make us believe that being healthier and more in shape makes us more attractive and happier.
They present three basic myths:
- Health and fitness are related to feelings of happiness and confidence.
- Being healthy and fit means that you actually respect your body.
- It is possible to achieve the “Perfect You”, like there is an ideal you just waiting to come out.
For example, famous country singer Carrie Underwood told Self Magazine, “In my perfect world, I’d have webcams wherever food is processed so I’d know how clean it is. I’m a very regimented eater.” Such common statements from celebrities reveal the increasing orthorexic attitude of our culture.
After receiving this seemingly inspirational information to choose a healthier regime, people will begin with a moderate diet. It could be going vegetarian, low-fat, or gluten free. Now, of course, these diets are healthy in their own right, and there are people who choose to adopt them out of real health concerns. Yet, over time those people might turn to more extreme diets, like Paleo or veganism. According to Prevention magazine, the raw diet, where you eat only raw fruits and vegetables, is the most extreme diet a person can choose. This is the pinnacle of trying to reach perfect health.
Raw foodist and social media influencer Kristina Carrillo-Bucaram claims on her website that she “wants to inspire people to find their rawness within so that they can find their own health freedom and zest”. Celebrity Alicia Silverstone claimed that her vegan diet is all about kindness, as in “being truly kind to yourself first, letting yourself have the best health and look your best and feel your most vital.” Yet, Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietician, argued that health-wise, “Perfection isn’t realistic or attainable.” Every diet has its shortcomings and deficiencies.
What’s the big deal?
But why is orthorexia such a problem? In many cases, an orthorexic will begin to socially isolate himself, due to planning his life around food. Johnny Righini, a recovering orthorexic, told Mercury News that if people “were eating something my orthorexic mind didn’t approve of, I would get physical shakes and panic attacks.”
Orthorexia can also cause death. For example, Kate Finn died of heart failure induced by the starvation of her orthorexic diet. The nutrient deficiencies of these diets have also been found to cause death. The Telegraph reported that a five-month old baby died from the vegan diet his parents had enforced. A similar case occurred in 2008 in France, when an eleven-month old died from a vegan diet. This raises a question: At what point is being healthy too healthy?
Let’s compare the differences between a suggested intake and one of these extreme diets, the Paleo diet.
According to a report by the Institute of Medicine, a normal carbohydrate intake is about 51%, fats 13%, proteins 20%, and sugars 16%. However, a Paleo diet is way off this normal diet. Such a low amount of carbohydrates causes the “low carb flu”, the body’s illness-like response to the deficiency. This daily amount of protein long-term can cause “protein poisoning”, as in when the body is unable to digest such high amounts of protein; eventually, the body will shut down. This amount of fat has been found to cause people to have severe abdominal distress and slower intestinal motility. As we can see, the Paleo diet can be dangerous for your body and strays too far from the recommended diet by experts.
There are deeper implications about orthorexia. Megan Dean argues that health fads are not far off from patriarchal expectations for idealized women’s bodies, thus keeping women still enslaved by such ideals.
Evelyn Tribole, owner of a nutrition counseling practice, gave an example of orthorexic treatment, “A few years ago, I had a 10 year old who was terrified of trans fats. Part of her treatment was me sitting down and eating a Ding Dong with her. … She had to realize that you don’t eat one Ding Dong and end up with a clogged artery.”
According to Thomas M. Dunn, a research psychologist at the University of Northern Colorado, “We may see this condition increase as more and more people become aware and have better access to places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.” This means that this eating disorder is not going away – it’s actually going to become more prominent. Of course, being healthy is an excellent pursuit, and changing your diet does not mean you will automatically fall into orthorexia. The main issue with orthorexics is that they are finding their identity in what they do and do not eat, and this is a dangerous idea.
I remember back in High School, I was standing at the seashore with my best friend one day, with our toes buried in the sand. She suddenly looked over at me and said, “Lauren thinks you have an eating disorder.” As context, I had recently lost 50 pounds that year. However, I had done this just by counting calories and working out more. I wasn’t starving myself or anything. I was so angry that our friend Lauren had accused me of having an eating disorder behind my back – thus minimizing all my hard, healthy work – that I decided I didn’t want to be her friend anymore.
Fast forward to 2012. Girls around the world were completely taken by Kate Middleton. Her story of commoner to royalty made those girls – and myself – want to do anything she did. In preparation for her royal wedding, Kate and her family had done the Dukan Diet. This diet’s premise is to eat only meat for extended periods of time. Well, after seeing Kate’s transformation, I decided I would try the diet too. After all, if a girl wants to feel like a princess, she has to eat like one, right? Plus, there were 10 extra pounds I wanted to lose that just didn’t seem to budge.
Yet, after three days of indigestion and feeling disgusting, I dropped the diet, hated the sight of meat, and went vegetarian. It so traumatized me that I became a vegetarian for three years!
A year later, I started “hanging out” (aka. dating without the label of “dating”) a guy from my church. However, he suddenly decides to do a D.T.R. (Define the Relationship) with me, and cuts me out of his life. Ouch. I went into the deepest, darkest depression, that I now call my “Dark Year”. I also started going through a “Job season” (i.e. Job in the Bible), where anything that could go wrong went wrong.
In an effort to regain a sense of control in my life, I looked to dieting again. I started working out every day without breaks. I went vegan, then raw. (Somewhere in there I also attempted gluten-free and Paleo, albeit I can’t remember when.) I remember one night eating a raw Caprese salad (basically tomatoes with basil and a nasty sauce) while my family ate something hearty and meaty. They looked at me with such pity in their eyes as they saw the yuck I was eating.
Eventually, I had to stop being raw. I had acne for the first time in my life, and I was constantly getting dizzy. All the raw lifestyle promises (bright eyes, cleared skin, more energy) were not happening for me at all, even though I never strayed from the rules. I also stopped being vegan because I was farting (yes, farting) a lot with the worst smell ever, completely bloated all the time, and feeling lethargic. For example, one night, my sister and I went shopping at our local mall. As we walked into Forever21, my sister exclaimed, “Woah! It smells like a sewer in here! Eww!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the smell was from my last fart.
Looking back, I was completely unhappy and unhealthy. In pictures taken at that time, I look emaciated and lifeless. See?
I was looking at those promises from the media and health gurus that somehow a healthier body would mean a happier me. Instead, none of the diets changed my depression or relieved it in any way. I was still devastated that the guy had walked out on me. I was still going through difficult trials that never seemed to end. I still felt lonely and hopeless. I still wanted life to end so I didn’t have to feel so terrible all the damn time anymore.
Ironically, what ended my dieting was getting back together with the guy. (Whhhhyyyyy, Felicity?! Why?!!!) When we (inevitably) broke up, I once again practically starved myself to regain a sense of control. One day while I was at my university, two of my friends looked at me and said, “Wow, Felicity! Have you lost weight?” I shrugged, “Oh, probably.” One of the girls asked me how, and I responded, “By having my heart broken.”
Eventually, I came to a healthy place. I did gain weight again and am now at a happy equilibrium point that I’m content with. I stopped dieting and working out every day. I stopped buying clothes too small in the hopes I would eventually fit them. I joined a therapy group for girls who struggle with body image.
I made peace with my body.
In 2014, I realized after some research that I had struggled from orthorexia. Everything I mentioned above totally aligned with my feelings and obsessions from 2010 – 2013.
So….maybe that friend had been right all along?
Making Peace with Your Body
After I recovered from my dieting craze, I started noticing that other women struggle with orthorexia, too. Some of my students would come to class with small Tupperwares of just lettuce and a few toppings. One High School girl told me that she was ugly when she was little because she was fat. Another Junior High leader at my church said she had better self-esteem when she worked out every day. A relative of mine used to eat only 1,000 calories a day and did an hour of Crossfit at 5am every day.
After realizing I had struggled with orthorexia, I decided to do a speech on it for forensics tournaments. I ended up getting the 2015 National Informative Speaking Champion title because of that speech. It was a tremendous honor. Yet, the best part was directly after my performances. Audience members – usually young women – would approach me and confide in me that my speech sounded like what they were dealing with. One girl said to me, “Sometimes, I just really want a Big Mac, but I feel so guilty that I want it!” I smiled and said, “Gurl, just go eat it! You’ll feel so much better mentally and emotionally.” One guy I knew told me that my speech sounded just like his sister. He texted her with the research I had about orthorexia, and apparently, it struck a chord with her, too. She slowly made steps towards recovery.
Some people have asked me how I finally made peace with my body, but it feels like I can’t just give one simple answer. I definitely believe getting in therapy helped me tackle my self-loathing and food obsessions head-on. I also believe, in its own strange way, having a boyfriend helped me to see that guys actually don’t care about women having perfect bodies as we have been led to believe.
At the end of the day, though, I can only lead you back to God’s promises in His Word. Sometimes that can feel superficial, i.e. the Bible feels like a cheezy reply to a complex problem. Yet, orthorexics, anorexics, and bulimics alike all fall into eating disorders because they have been brainwashed with lies. Here are the truths:
- We are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27)
- We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14).
- The Lord doesn’t look at our appearance, but our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7).
- Jesus sets us free from all burdens that bind us (Galatians 5:1).
- The Holy Spirit enables us to stop dwelling on our burdens, but think on “what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable”, “things that are excellent and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8).
I would encourage you to dwell on these truths today if you feel you are being suppressed by dieting, health crazes, or poor body image. Remember that naming your struggles and untruthful thoughts is the first step of recovery.
What do you think? Do you know anyone who struggles with orthorexia? Talk to me in the comments.
For those of you who want to concentrate on your heart and not your body, check out our Proverbs 31 Woman Bible Study: