Between her junior and senior year of high school, my mom unexpectedly gained 20 pounds, sparking a lifelong struggle with her weight and body image.
After growing up surrounded by failed low carb diets and Curves memberships, I was terrified the same thing would happen to me. I was already exposed to perfectly photoshopped actresses, and when I was with my family I was often reminded of my mom and how everything seemed to change for her overnight. I was just waiting for this 20 pounds to show up unannounced.
When it didn’t, I found other problems with myself. I was unhappy with certain parts of my body, and living with a bunch of college girls walking around half naked and overanalyzing themselves didn’t help.
I realized I was in a constant wave of eating salads then pizza then saying I wouldn’t eat dessert the whole month. It was exhausting and I knew it wasn’t healthy. I quickly came to understand the difference between a profit-fueled fad diet world and real people advocating for a healthier lifestyle. So last year, I dedicated myself to being healthier. I went to the gym and found methods of exercise I enjoyed. I tried recipes from certified nutritionists with local ingredients and I read food labels. When I was exercising and eating real plant based food, I was less stressed and I had more energy.
When people started to notice I looked different, it was uncomfortable. I had noticed my pants were looser, but I definitely didn’t think anyone else would. And I think that’s when things got weird.
I’ve never restricted calories, I’ve never skipped a meal and I haven’t binged or purged. But I have sat and contemplated whether I really want to go get ice cream with friends. I’ve felt stressed when I spent all day on campus without preparing my own food, or knowing I’ll have access to something healthy. If I turn down some processed food item that I don’t even like the taste of, and someone noticed and said “you’re so healthy,” I felt immense satisfaction. And at that point, I could start to see my abs showing up, which was what social media and “fitspiration” was telling me I should be working to achieve.
Then I heard about orthorexia. Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy foods, but it’s not yet accepted by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, so many doctors don’t know about it. The term was coined in 1977 by Dr. Joseph Bratman, who is still doing extensive work to get the term recognized.
Dr. Karin Kratina, a nutrition therapist, provides questions for someone to consider if they might have orthorexia. For example, “have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?” Um, yes, every time I see a bag of Doritos. While I certainly relate to the symptoms Kratina writes about, there’s so little information available. I don’t really know how to draw the line between what’s healthy and what’s not. I drink good beer with friends and family and my grandpa makes out of this world pie that I’ll never turn down. So, how do I know if that’s enough balance?
When I read about orthorexia, I think about myself and a lot of my peers who relate to these symptoms, but don’t know there are resources. And especially girls my age and younger, resources are crucial, as the constant influence of social media shows no signs of slowing down.
In the world of Instagram, I lose sight of reality. I follow young and conventionally attractive women and all I know about them is in photos. Photos that are often perfectly staged or heavily photoshopped. Famous instagrammers receive payments to wear a certain bikini or try a free juice cleanse as long as they document it. Luckily there are accounts pointing out how ridiculous these staged photos are.
In my struggle to find a community of young people who were interested in my kind of lifestyle, I found the Balanced Blonde and learned of orthorexia. When the Balanced Blonde, or Jordan Younger, introduced the term to her followers, she told Broadly she received tens of thousands of messages from people expressing similar feelings.
And right now, Younger is all the rage, which is great, because there really isn’t much else out there when it comes to orthorexia. Younger was frantically googling one night and came across a Wikipedia article and Dr. Katarina even suggests patients could bring her handout to an appointment “to help the professional understand orthorexia.”
At this point, I have felt this overwhelming return of self control. Part of it is having a fantastic support system. I have a partner who understands it’s possible for me to eat a plant based diet and still be healthy and a mom who I can communicate with.
But I think exposure to people who have the same sometimes obsessive relationship is balancing and empowering.
If you answer yes like I did to Dr. Kratina’s questions, there are people sharing their experiences and healing process. In addition to Dr Kratina’s orthorexia questions, you can take a survey to see if you are at risk for any type of disordered eating. It’s not a substitute for a clinical evaluation, but could help someone determine if they should see professional help. National Eating Disorders has a hotline, education, recovery resources, and advice on body positivity.
If you have a child, relative or friend experiencing symptoms of orthorexia, they might not even know it exists. Learn more about it, and reach out to them.