Orthorexia: A Disorder I Never Knew About

The blog post includes mentions of eating disorders, weight insecurities, and thoughts about harmful behaviors. Please read with caution if any of these items triggers or upsets you.

I have had insecurities about my weight for years, probably before I should have. But such is the nature of both an image-obsessed society and OCD (since my obsessive thoughts would always revolve around my weight).

For the first couple of years that I saw a therapist, we mainly talked about my depression, anxiety, and OCD. These were my main concerns; but over time I began to recognize a trend. I was always beating myself up mentally for not sticking to self-imposed diets; felt extreme guilt when I didn’t go to the gym; couldn’t look at myself in the mirror without critiquing my body and wishing I could weigh less.

Finally, I figured out that I had an eating disorder. That’s when my therapist told me about orthorexia. I had never heard of it before. In health class, we had it drilled into our heads that “eating disorder” = “starving yourself”, or “throwing up everything you eat.” I had no idea that other eating disorders existed, let alone that they could be as sneaky as orthorexia.

So what IS orthorexia?

First of all, it’s not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The name was coined in 1998 and it means an obsession with proper or “healthful” eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called “healthy eating” that they can actually hurt themselves instead.

Without formal diagnoses, it’s difficult estimate precisely how many people have orthorexia, but awareness about orthorexia seems to be rising. Studies have shown that many individuals with orthorexia also have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which happened to be true for me, and which my therapist mentioned when he told me about this disorder.

Some of the symptoms that someone with orthorexia could have are:

  • Over-checking nutritional labels
  • Undue concern about ingredients in food
  • Trying harsh diets that may involve cutting out a whole food group
  • Not eating anything but the foods they label “good” or “healthy”.
I Weigh, an account run by Jameela Jamil to show that people are more than their outer appearance

I’m currently treating mine by talking to my therapist, and I do have to monitor who I follow on social media (especially Instagram) since I see so many diet promotions and celebrities showing off their workouts (which there’s nothing wrong with, except that it makes a person with orthorexia feel lesser or not as motivated). Right now I follow only celebrities that have a very body-positive presence— for example, Jameela Jamil and Lizzo.

I think that it’s important to raise awareness of orthorexia, because there are certainly people struggling with it that don’t know how to get treatment. Or people like me who don’t know they have an eating disorder. If no one talks about it, no one will know it’s there.

What do you think of the current trends on social media and in our culture when it comes to a healthy lifestyle? Where do you think the line is for having a healthy lifestyle and showing signs of something like orthorexia, especially with how normalized extreme healthy eating is online?

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