It Happened To Me: I'm Orthorexic

There's a fine line between being healthy and going too far.
Publish date:
May 14, 2012

Potatoes are strange things to become enemies with.

But, a couple of years ago, that’s exactly how I felt about them. I hated the carbohydrates, simple sugars and fat. Potatoes weren’t the only things on my black list, either. I feared white bread, dairy products with fat, milk chocolate… Basically, anything that a nutritionist ever referred to as “dangerous” was banned from my shopping cart.

At the time, these really were not conscious decisions for me. All that I cared about was being healthy and, if this was the way to do it, gosh darn it, I was going to do it.

It was also a little bit of a fun competition for me. Each day was a challenge to eat fewer calories or have a shorter list on my food diary. I also strived to run a greater number of miles or hold a plank for another minute.

That’s supposed to be healthy, too, you know.

Eventually, these things became my life. From the time I woke up until the time I went to sleep, all I thought about was food (how I could eat less of it) and working out (how I could do more of it).

But, never, ever did I think I was anorexic.

No, anorexics didn’t eat food. I did eat food -- just as long as it met my “healthy” standards.

One day, as I was snacking on an apple and scrolling through my daily food blogs, I came upon a quiz asking “Are You Orthorexic?” Orthorexia nervosa is a disorder in which people develop an obsession with avoiding "unhealthy" foods. Instead of being obsessed with the quantity of food we're consuming, we become obsessed with the quality, restricting our diets to our own personal specifications of what is "good food."

For fun, I decided to partake…

Do you plan tomorrow's food today? Yeah, well, I decide what I’m going to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner the day before. But, that’s just necessary.

Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating healthy food and look down on others who don't? Yes, knowledge is power! Besides, why wouldn’t you want to know how many calories are in a bagel?

When you are eating the way you believe you are supposed to, do you feel a peaceful sense of control? Yeah, what’s wrong with that?

I was beginning to get defensive. With every question, I scored the maximum number of points possible. At the end of the quiz, the trusty online doctor said, “You don't have a life -- you have a menu!"

In spite of that brutal honesty, I tried my best to brush it all off. The doctor behind the computer screen was clearly making generalizations. He didn’t know anything about me!

A few weeks later, however, one of my real-life friends sent me an email expressing her concerns. Among other things she said, “I know that you are simply doing everything that is associated with ‘being healthy,’ but done to extreme it is dangerous.”

After reading the email, I called my campus nutritionist in tears. I was finally ready to get help -- and, with just more than 100 pounds on my 5-foot and 9-inch frame, it was a good thing I did. My next run could have killed me.

That day marked the beginning of a long, difficult and emotionally painful road to recovery. In fact, it was still a while before I wholeheartedly accepted treatment. All I could remember was a life that revolved around running and eating plates of vegetables for dinner. Giving those things up was like giving up control.

Which, now that I’ve mentioned it, was the problem from the very beginning. During the same time that I got so wrapped up in my health, I also felt very depressed and isolated. I was having trouble with my roommates and felt cut off from my friends back home. The guy I swooned over for months had rejected me for a prettier girl. Most painfully, one of my cousins suddenly died of a brain aneurism.

There was nothing I could do about any of those things. But, I sure could control my calories.

The real turning point in my recovery was when my nutritionist referred me to a psychologist. This woman allowed me to talk. She listened to me. She respected me. She helped me see that I had more to offer than numbers on a scale.

So, even though it was scary, I relinquished a little bit of control and began letting the things I feared back into my life -- including half of a baked potato that was topped with salsa. (It was a real milestone, trust me.)

Not so coincidentally, I returned to having a life around that time. I talked with friends about topics other than health. I went to restaurants that I hadn’t pre-approved based on food options. I even started dating a guy and accepted my own vulnerability.

The funny thing about it all is that, two years later, I am way healthier than when I was health-obsessed. I’ve run four half-marathons. I cook wholesome meals that often include potatoes. I even have an awesome husband (that aforementioned guy) who happens to think I’m pretty sexy.

Life is good. And it’s all because I realized there’s a fine line between being healthy and going too far.