Orthorexia: When Being Healthy Becomes Unhealthy

Is being too healthy, unhealthy?

It seems to be a common theme that people slip in to other forms of restriction when they first enter recovery, as their eating disorder desperately seeks another form of control. Veganism, gluten free, paleo and keto are all trends endorsed by social media, at a time when the entire population seems to have become consumed by the desire to eat their way to health.

At a time when I was trying to be healthy, I found myself at one of the unhealthiest points of my life.

I entered Anorexia recovery and fell head first in to the clean eating trap – fixated on avoiding as may food groups as possible and making everything from scratch. I became consumed by the need to be as healthy as possible –
all of which sent me on a quest to the local health food store to find exotic and often over priced ingredients that I’d never heard of before.

There is benefit to being healthy, but when taken to the extreme it becomes anything but. I listened to all of the clean eating trends and searched for anyway possible to restrict my intake – I made my own nut milks, would squeeze the water from cauliflower to make pizza bases, replaced rice with raw grated broccoli and made everything myself from scratch. And it was all done in the pursuit of health yet my mental state couldn’t have been any less healthy. The irony is that at a time when I was trying to be healthy, I found myself at one of the unhealthiest points of my life.

Looking back at some of my earlier blog posts highlights what a huge shift there has been in my mindset and attitude towards food. I wrongly wrote that you should switch your coffee for matcha and became fixated on each individual ingredient and recipe having an associated health benefit. I have been tempted to either private or delete those posts, but I also think that it’s important to highlight the journey and growth that I’ve been on throughout the time that I’ve been writing this blog.

Most recently I even received a message on Instagram from someone who said that for a period of time, they had to unfollow me because they found it concerning to see how increasingly orthorexic I was becoming. Having a negative affect on anyone’s mental health is the last thing that I would ever want to do – it’s the complete opposite of what Nourishing Yas is about. But at the same time, I’m so proud to say that I’m no longer in that place. It proves the journey that I’ve been on, the progress that’s been made and that recovery is possible.

I’m grateful that my mental health has improved to a point where I was able to recognise these behaviours and break free from them. Kickstarted by the reintroduction of gluten in to my diet, over the past year I’ve been able to find balance. I love eating a plant based diet and being Vegan – it’s definitely something which I believe is the right fit for me and my body however I’m nowhere near as restrictive with it as I once was. I love homemade sweet treats and creating my own recipes but now I do these things out of enjoyment and pleasure, rather than fear or restriction. I’ve found balance and it genuinely is so freeing.

I’ve also realised that the food that you eat doesn’t define who you are as a person. It’s something which became such a huge part of my identity but now thankfully is something that everyday I take more and more steps away from. Food doesn’t dictate your moral worth – you’re certainly no better for choosing the gluten free pizza base over the normal one and I’ll be the first to admit that a good pizza base tastes a million times better than a cauliflower pizza crust ever could. Whilst there are still a lot of aspects of my eating disorder that I struggle with and that I’m working hard to overcome, thankfully I can say that an obsession with clean eating is no longer one of them.

This post is in no away intended to replace the advice of a medical professional – I’m speaking simply from experience and what has been beneficial for me. If you are suffering from, in recovery, or think that you have a disordered relationship with food then please visit your GP. You can also find advice and resources on the following websites: Beat, Mind and the NHS.

Gluten and Digestion

For me, recognizing the orthorexic behaviour patterns that I’d adopted started with reintroducing gluten. It’s been a huge step for me in terms of recovery, so much so that I wrote an entire post on Why I’m No Longer Gluten Free and my decision to reintroduce it.

My decision to exclude gluten in the first place stemmed from clean eating trends and the wide variety of misinformation which is sprawled across social media. At the time, I was struggling with ibs and digestive issues and the only possible answer seemed to be to exclude gluten. Coupled with my fear of carbs, it was the ideal form of control and restriction for my eating disorder.

I followed a gluten free diet for almost 3 years and as a result spent so long putting emphasis on the foods that I couldn’t eat, spent extra money on gluten free products, avoided foods that I wanted to eat and specifically ordered gluten free options or searched the supermarket for free from products – all of which was completely unnecessary. I thought that avoiding gluten made me ‘healthier’ but just because something is labelled as gluten free, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy.

There is a lot of scare mongering surrounding gluten but unless you need to avoid it for medical reasons, then there really is no reason that you should avoid it or deny yourself of the foods that you love. Labelling myself as gluten free made it so much easier to avoid all of the foods that I feared the most – bread, pasta and pastries were all excluded from my diet in favour of alternatives.

I made loaf after loaf of gluten free bread – convinced that I was doing the right thing, not only for my digestion – but my overall health and wellbeing too. When in fact, removing gluten from my diet did more damage to my health than continuing to eat it ever would have.

After 3 years of restriction, I started to crave and want to eat things like wholewheat bread and sourdough again. I wanted to try the products on the shelves that contained wheat or gluten and so with the support of my mum, I slowly reintroduced gluten in to my diet and the effects both physically and mentally, have been nothing but positive.

Now I can happily opt for a normal pizza base in a restaurant or enjoy avocado on sourdough toast and my bank balance has definitely seen a positive impact too. Don’t get me wrong, I still love gluten free alternatives such as buckwheat pasta and quinoa, and I definitely won’t say no to a slice of my Pistachio and Oat Bread. The main difference being that now when I choose those options it’s because I genuinely prefer the taste, or that’s what I’m craving the most, rather than a fear of gluten. At the end of the day, ordering a regular pizza base over gluten free doesn’t lessen or dictate your self worth.

Shop Bought vs. Homemade

My transition to a plant based diet coincided with me falling in to the dreaded clean eating trap and as a result for a long time I didn’t buy or avoided anything that was shop bought. All of my hummus, dips, falafels and burgers were made from scratch and I wouldn’t touch store bought snacks or anything that contained additives. It also meant that I avoided any situations where I would have to eat out and at a time when I was already socially isolated, it caused me to become even more withdrawn.

So much of my time became dedicated to making and preparing food. If I wanted falafels, burgers, pesto or dips they all had to be made from scratch. I convinced myself that I had to know and be able to pronounce every single ingredient. As with gluten, my mindset was completely wharped and I began to believe that it somehow improved my self worth – all of which was untrue.

Whilst making everything yourself might make your food marginally healthier, spending that much time and effort on food definitely isn’t beneficial for your mental health, nor is it normal. It’s neither convenient or realistic to prepare absolutely everything yourself and in some cases, it definitely doesn’t make things taste better either!

Becoming more comfortable with shop bought products has enabled me to branch out with my food choices, add more variety to my diet and opened my eyes up to the wide range of amazing plant based brands and products that I was unnecessarily avoiding.

When I do make these things myself now, it steps from a place of enjoyment rather than being driven by disordered reasons. For example, I genuinely prefer the taste of my homemade hummus to store bought and I still love to make a batch of my black bean and sweetcorn falafels or crunchy peanut butter burgers from time to time, but I have to admit that I have become quite the fan of Aldi’s falafels and Tesco’s range of Vegan burgers too.

Sugar and Sweet Treats

The refined vs. unrefined sugar is a whole debate in itself that I’m nowhere near qualified to talk about – nor do I even have the energy for. But I definitely followed all of the wrong clean eating and Instagram trends – I became scared of bananas, dates and switched white sugar for alternatives such as agave and maple syrup. I wouldn’t eat anything that contained ‘refined’ sugar and all of my desserts and sweet treats had to be made from scratch.

Not only did I become fearful of traditional white sugar, but fruit sugars too – I completely avoided bananas, dates, pineapple and mango – all of which fall in to the category of my favourite fruits, because I was so concerned about their sugar content. I restricted myself, solely because I’d become so fearful of their sugar and carbohydrate content. Thankfully I have since come to my senses – fruit it packed with so many incredible nutrients from fiber to a whole host of vitamins and minerals but regardless, why should I be denying myself of something that I enjoy so much? Now I enjoy both bananas and dates daily – they make an appearance in all of my breakfasts and more often than not my sweet treats too.

Posts from the likes of Plant based Pixie really helped me and now I create my own dessert recipes because other than the fact that it’s become part of my job, I genuinely love and enjoy both the process of making and eating them. My snickers bars and no bake Oreo fudge brownies are among some of my favourites but it doesn’t mean that I shy away from from shop bought options either. I love Oreo’s and Biscoff spread (these are both things that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy had I not reintroduced gluten too) and I definitely don’t shy away from dessert or cocktails when I go out for a meal either.

What’s Wrong With A White Potato?

Carbs. The one food group that I feared the most and as if Anorexia hadn’t caused enough issues for me, this was only exaggerated by Orthorexia. There is so much fear mongering surrounding carbs – that you shouldn’t eat them, that they’ll make you gain weight, they’re only for days when you’re more active or that you shouldn’t eat them past a certain time. These are all rules and rituals which I encompassed – I switched rice for cauliflower rice, spiralised courgette, cut out bread, ate protein noodles and ditched the humble white potato for its sweeter counterpart.

Go back 10 years and the majority of the UK, myself included, were clueless as to what sweet potatoes even were – fast forward 5 years and they were everywhere – in the form of noodles, waffles and even lasagne sheets. There were recipes for sweet potato brownies littering blogs and they quickly became one of the foods most associated with clean eating.

The argument of sweet potatoes containing complex carbs, more nutrients and a promise to weight loss, led me to genuinely fear the humble potato that I’d adored growing up and further eradicate it from my diet completely. But the idea that you should deny yourself of a vegetable is absolutely absurd – at the end of the day they’re both nutritious, and eating either is going to have very little impact in the long run. I now genuinely prefer the taste of sweet potatoes – I love them roasted with coconut sugar until they’re deliciously sticky and gooey or baked until tender, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll deny myself a traditional potato either.

Carbs are a macronutrient, meaning that they are essential for life so there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t eat them. Plus being British makes it quite the challenge to eradicate the prestige potato from your diet completely and lets face it, a sweet potato is never going to be quite the right fit for a roast dinner.

Eating Out

As I’ve progressed throughout recovery I’ve not only become more comfortable eating out but I’ve expanded my choice of restaurants too – whilst I use to stick to health food cafe’s or vegan restaurants, my favourite places to eat out are now the Indian and local pub, where surprisingly they offer some of the best vegan options. Don’t get me wrong, I still love visiting new foodie spots but I’m not as obsessed or fixated as I was and it’s actually made eating out a whole lot more enjoyable.

I spent my 18th birthday running around London, trying out different foodie spots that I’d spent hours lusting over on Instagram, in search of charcoal lattes and acai bowls. I dragged my mum across London in search of Vegan cookies and raw food cafe’s and whilst I enjoyed all of those places and there are some of them which I would happily revisit, it’s no longer an obsession. I love trying out new spots but I no longer find myself having to be in ‘control’ over where we eat out and I will more than happily find myself a Vegan option off of any menu.

I used to spend hours searching menu’s and planing what I was going to eat beforehand so I could fit it around the rest of my intake for that day, or week for that matter. It’s now something which I now don’t do beforehand – there’s something so nice about going to a restaurant, seeing a menu for the first time and picking what you fancy, rather than what was planned or what your head tells you you’re allowed. And trust me, it makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable too.

Alcohol

At the height of clean eating, I vowed to myself that I wouldn’t ever drink. I didn’t even have an alcoholic drink on my 18th – it took me until nearly 6 months after and it was almost a whole year after until I went on my first night out.

But times have changed since then – now I love going out for cocktails and I will never turn down a Gin & Tonic. It’s something that’s allowed me to engage more socially and when I’m out for family meals too. I actually don’t drink that often but it’s no longer something that I restrict myself from. In moderation, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with it at all.

Coffee vs. Matcha

First it was green tea and then came along matcha powder. I have to hold my hands up and admit that I am one of the many people who started drinking green tea because of the associated weight loss benefits. And with the rise in clean eating leading to the promotion of matcha, I quickly became obsessed with that too.

This has been a big switch for me. A couple of years ago I (regretably) wrote a whole post dedicated to all of the reasons why you shouldn’t drink coffee and should in fact make the switch to matcha. Fast forward to 2019 and I drink coffee at least once a day. Don’t get me wrong, I still absolutely love waking up and making myself a matcha latte and I’ve recently become obsessed with a flavoured vanilla matcha powder, but I now equally have an obsession with the Beanie’s flavoured coffee’s too.

If anything, this is an example of how when you’re in a vunerable place mentally, you can read something, become completely fixated on it, let your thoughts run away with you and take it to the absolute extreme. I denied myself something which I genuinely love, as a result of what I read social media. I’ve since realised that one coffee a day is definitely not going to kill me, nor would a single matcha latte overly benefit my health and if anything, it’s a lot kinder on my bank balance. And lets face it, if I’m catching up with friends over a coffee then a matcha latte definitely isn’t the easiest thing to find in Cheshire.

Superfoods

Thankfully the attitude towards so called Superfoods on Instagram and across the general health and wellness industry has changed a lot in the past few years. I would hate to add up the amount of money that I spent stocking up my cupboards with spirulina, baobab, lucuma and a whole host of other superfoods, in the belief that they would provide me with a wealth of health benefits. I searched health food stores and scoured the internet, in search of exotic ingredients that I’d never heard of before and I can’t say that a single one of them actually made me feel much better physically. Whilst I think that they can be an amazing addition to your diet, I don’t believe that there’s one powder, or food that will make you healthy. Having a healthy, balanced diet at the core and getting the basics right is so much more important than adding algae to your smoothie.

I still do incorporate some superfoods in to my diet – cacao and maca powder are ones that I always have in my cupboards and if asked are probably the only 2 that I would really recommend. I’m lucky enough to be gifted them to try from brands and I work with some amazing companies who sell them on an affiliate basis and I definitely love their products. I enjoy experimenting, creating colourful bowls and playing around with them, but my attitude towards them has changed and I no longer think that they’re essential. Whilst they definitely have their place, and theirs no denying that they have their benefits – they’re definitely not a necessity. I think that having a healthy, balanced nutritious diet is something to focus on first and if you want to add them in as an addition and you have the budget to, then feel free.

Eating For ‘Health’

Everything that I ate had to have a benefit associated with it, and it’s definitely something that translated into my earlier recipe testing and blog posts. Looking back its something that’s so visible in the way that I use to write my posts, particularly when it comes to the introductions for my recipes. I wanted to be as pure and clean as possible and each ingredient had to have a health promoting benefit. My mindset switched and it was only OK for me to eat something if it was going to have a ‘positive’ impact on my health.

I became even more conscious of and fixated on everything that I was putting in to my body. If something didn’t have an obvious benefit then you can bet that I would try my hardest to find one. Everything had to be either boosting my immunity, metabolism or warding off early signs of ageing.

I’ve realised now that life is for living, there’s so much more to it than the food that you eat and the so called benefits that are associated with it. And you can’t just eat for health – you have to eat for enjoyment, pleasure and because you genuinely love the taste. It’s actually quite freeing to eat an Indian takeaway because I love the flavours, rather than always having to make one from scratch because the turmeric has promised to relieve inflammation or boost my immunity.

There’s definitely no point in eating something if you don’t enjoy it – I used to add spirulina to my smoothies and oats and let me tell you it ruined the taste. By all means if genuinely want to include a certain food in your diet solely for it’s nutritional profile then feel free, but do it in a way that’s enjoyable and works for you. The taste, flavour and enjoyment of food is so much more important than anything else.

Have you had a similar experience? Or are there any other particular topics that you want me to talk about in relation to eating disorder recovery? I would love to hear your thoughts so please leave them in the comments below or let me know over on Instagram @nourishingyas x

Other posts in my Anorexia recovery series:

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Hi, I'm Yasmin! Plant based recipe developer and certified health and wellness influencer. I share simple, nourishing plant based recipes along with tips on healthy living, mental health and well being, in the hope that I can inspire others to be the healthiest and happiest versions of themselves.

5 thoughts on “Orthorexia: When Being Healthy Becomes Unhealthy

  1. my eating disorder also began with orthorexia. i think it should be more widely recognised as a problem, because for people like you and me and so many others, it’s a warning sign that can quickly become anorexia

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it Rosie. I completely agree – healthy eating is far too commonly used as a way to disguised disordered eating problems. I hope that you’re in a better place now!

  2. This post really resonated with me! I’ve had Orthorexia for 15 years and Anorexia on and off for all that time, I’ve now been in recovery for 2 years and it’s the strongest I’ve felt around food, though i still definitely have my wobbles. I too didn’t eat white potatoes for years, now my family have to fight me for the last one! Unfortunately I can’t eat gluten because chronic illness but I get really mad at people who choose gluten free options because supposedly it’s healthier. Oh, what I wouldn’t do for a piece of my Mums homemade bread! Your blog is great, keep up the good work 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to read it Laura! There’s definitely a lot of scare mongering around certain foods which is so unnecessary! I’m so glad that you’re in a better place now, keep going X

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