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When does nutrition become orthorexia?

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    A bit of a background. Last year, I became the poster child for orthorexia. I opened my mind to all of the ills of modern food through many documentaries and late nights doing research, and went from eating clean to eating sterile. That include baking my own breads, making my own almond milk, and eating oats and vegetables like they were going out of style. I was 17. It also became the driving force behind my losing a boatload of weight (and my period) that I had been trying to losing since the Fall of 2011 up until last November. My exercise behaviors could also be properly classified as anorexia athletica, but I digress..

    I write all this to say that I experience cognitive dissonance on the daily. To get away from the ED (eating disordered) mentality I attributed over the last two years, I eat regular kids cereal, order pizza every now and then, and won’t turn down a piece of cake if I’m feeling it. However, each time I eat it, I’m aware of the fact that it’s not like the ‘most freaking amazing’ thing I’m eating (apart from taste) and I had to kind of ‘un-remind’ myself of the woes of GMOs.

    But the knowledge is still there, and I’ve got a notion that if I were to say, okay, let me fix this, then that means I would have given into the ED and fallen back into orthorexia. In my mind, when I hear someone flaunt eating organic (or even vegan) I immediately assume they’re orthorexic or have paranoia tendencies, as I had in the past. For this reason, I feel like I’ve subconsciously avoided fruit (I haven’t had any in months) and am generally dissatisfied with the foods I eat. I’d give anything for some bananas, apples, grapes or mangoes (ooh, let me not get started on mangoes). Or some salad or a chicken wrap or something the general population would deem “healthy”, not because I’m trying to put on a front, but because I’ve been genuinely craving for it.

    My fear, is that if I start eating these sorts of foods I’ll go right back into the pit of insanity. So it’s almost as if I eat highly processed food to ward off any mental inclination to “eat clean” (a phrase I hate to use) or eat things they had in the My First Visual Dictionary books I had growing up.

    I’ve taken the Wheaties Effect and moral facet out of food (none is ideally good or bad) and am generally wary of healthy vs unhealthy and their connotative definitions without regards to mental health, but let’s face it: If I were living in France or Italy, I don’t think I would be having these problems of cognitive dissonance. Food there is generally better in the sense that it wasn’t well tampered with before coming onto your plate.

    So where is the balance in this? Where is the line between one trying to eat less processed things and identifying themselves as orthorexic? Is the orthorexic one who chooses to eat unmodified things at home and also refuses to eat them in social situations? Does the “nonortho” eat them socially?

    It’s hard, I believe, to even do this in America because the means by which food is processed and shipped is very akin to lacing it with poison (or is it?) and poison has historically been known to cause paranoia. I feel it’s hard to have one without the other. In a sense saying I only eat things without poison sometime.

    Any thoughts?


    Wordstospeak, I do believe there’s a balance and I think it’s in thinking about things less. Trying not to think of anything as good or bad or poisonous or not. If you’re dreaming of fruit and wraps than I would definitely have some. I know it’s not that simple but I do believe there’s balance and that you can find it. Try and eat what you’re craving and if that’s a salad than add some salt and have a piece of bread on the side (if you want it) or maybe make your next snack something with starch, salt and sugar. You shouldn’t be dissatisfied with the food your eating and I know recovery can still happen when eating fruits and veggies and other “healthy” items. The key is to not stress about eating things that aren’t healthy. For example, going out for pizza when you crave it, sharing a bag of chips with a friend and not looking at the back to see the ingredients, having a candy bar, eating fast food if you crave it, etc. Try and not think about where the food is shipped from and the treatment done to it. I know easier said than done but it is possible. If you notice

    I really wanted a salad the other day at lunch and hadn’t ordered one in so long but it’s what I wanted and it was delicious. It was a salad with tuna, potatoes, olives, and egg so it was pretty substantial. For my afternoon snack I shared a big NYC pretzel with my daughter and then had some lowfat greek yogurt. I’ve been buying full fat dairy for the past few months but I’m out of town now and low fats what’s at my parent’s home so that’s what I’m eating and my temperature has been fine (still 99s) and I’m sure my recovery is fine as well as I’m getting a big variety of food. I’ve been happily surprised that my temps are staying high eating a little more fruit and some salads. I’m also eating bread, chocolate, cheese, etc… but I’m not planning it. Just eating what I’m craving and what tastes good to me.

    I was orthorexic as well and cooked almost all my meals at home too. I brought my lunch and snacks wherever I’d go. Sometimes I wouldn’t eat out or I’d bring my own food. I wouldn’t even eat bread or oats. I grew so afraid of eating out and eating at my parents for dinner. I too read a million books and listened to every podcast there was. I checked healthy living blogs daily. I still think of where my food comes from and buy organic raw dairy, organic fruit and veg, grass-fed meat, etc. I don’t think there’s anything orthorexic about that. The key is that it’s not negatively impacting my life. I will eat eggs if they’re not pasture raised and I’ll happily go out to pizza or eat a burger even if it’s not grass-fed. I also don’t feel bad or think about it when that happens. As I wrote earlier, I ate low fat non-organic yogurt the other day and felt fine about it. It was delicious and I ate 4 cartoons of it over two days. I think I’ve found a balance and for me that means eating mainly organic but I don’t even think about it. That’s just the food I’ll buy for my home and I think it tastes delicious. I don’t refuse anything that I want though. I know it’s easier said than done but a balance is definitely possible!


    I realized I forgot to finish my sentence regarding if you notice yourself thinking about where the food is shipped from: if you notice yourself stressing about that then you can start by noticing it but without any judgement. Just notice that that’s where your mind has gone. If you want you can think something else, or say something nice about all food being good for you. Sometimes all it takes is noticing those habits or thought patterns and just sitting with it- not trying to change it. You could do the same if you do start eating fruit and veggies and feel stressed about that.


    Hi wordstospeak, if you are not eating what you crave out of some type of fear, that to me is orthorexia. It sounds to me like you have let the pendulum swing too far the other way. Recovering from orthorexia is not easy. It took maybe a couple years and several phases to get back to the level of relaxation I have now around food and it’s still not the way I used to be. I just know too much. The thing is the mental patterns keep popping up in ways you don’t think of as orthorexia. Even when you do identify them you don’t want to let go, or you start jumping to other ideas. It becomes difficult to know what to think at all. Everything feels up in the air. I do still follow guidelines but they are far less rigid. The best thing for me has been to keep reading (especially Matt’s website) and realizing just how little we can actually assume about health and nutrition.


    Thanks for all of the feedback. Perhaps I didn’t state myself clearly, though. For the past nine months, I’ve been eating non-organic, non-“kosher”, fast-food, cold cuts, whatever… without much thought. When I first did my major refeeding last November, I plunged into eating everything imaginable to up my intake to 3000+ cals. I honestly haven’t read the label on anything in all that time. ‘Poison’ was harsh, perhaps. I didn’t mean to sound paranoid and definitive.

    I just think my mind went on the reverse end and wouldn’t let me indulge in the fruits and things that I crave (I admit, I felt a whole lot better at times when I was eating so-called “healthy” food. That said, I think I need to work on balancing my mind out to accept eating “healthy” foods as non-ED related.

    I think I may have classically conditioned myself to associate foods like fruits, lean meats, and organic things with ED.

    mighty m

    To undo the conditioning, maybe explore classical/fine cooking to put all foods in a context of pleasure? Like a French berry tart. Peach ice cream. A roasted pork tenderloin (that’s a lean meat, and delicious if well prepared). And organic — chefs get organic when they can not for correctness, but for flavor and freshness. Something to de-link those foods with “diet” and re-associate them to emotion, pleasure, culture.

    Just a thought.


    The forums on YE and such can encourage a bit of an ‘all or nothing’ mind set, and, just as in the depths of ED, you fear some food for what you think it might do to your body, when coming out of ED, you might start to fear some foods for the ‘dangers’ of leading you into orthorexia again. It is still restriction, but of an inverse sort.

    The truth is, no food has any agency of its own, and as long as you are aware of when YOU are attributing the agency to the food, you will be perfectly safe following your culinary desires. If you are really craving something, in a bodily way, not coming from the desire to restrict, you ABSOLUTELY should follow that craving- thats the whole point isn’t it? As long as your overall calorie intake is at a good level, you should be able to eat whatever the hell you feel like. I think the suggestion of following food back to roots and pleasure is a good one. focus on your enjoyment of foods, not on whether you ‘Should’ eat it.

    I say this from the position of not being quite there myself of course! There is a very shaky line, and especially when you are surrounded by people who give orthorexic-like chat, but don’t in *practice* fear food in the way someone with ED does. Everyone finds their own way really!



    Thank you so much for replying. I’ve really got a lot of your responses. Imago, you’re so right about the YE forums. I had to stop participating in them for my mind’s sake. In the end, it seems like I’d went into the complete opposite side of things. I have a tendency to have an “All or nothing” mentality when it comes to a variety of things, so I’m going to remedy that belief until I come to a balanced mindset.

    In the meantime, I’m going to write a grocery list and try to get a ride there sometime this week.


    wordstospeak, thank you so much for starting this thread. I think about this subject often. Here’s a thought that is helpful for me: there are so many conflicting ideas about what foods are healthy and what foods are unhealthy that no matter what you eat it is going to be healthy AND unhealthy depending on who you believe. There are plenty of people (i.e. low-carbers) who believe that fruit is unhealthy, for example. Lots of vegetarians claim that meat is unhealthy while paleos claim it is the natural (healthy) food for humans. Most people believe that white sugar is unhealthy while die-hard Peatarians have the opposite view. I am certain there are groups of people who have belief that even McDonald’s food is healthy!
    For me it has been extraordinarily helpful to consciously reprogram my thinking so that all food is just ever-so-slightly on the “healthy” side of neutral – i.e. it’s all just food, and all food is “healthy” in as much as it is part of this miracle of life. This works for me. It levels the playing field, so to speak, so that I don’t play those games with myself such as the “all or nothing” game (which I know well.)


    If all a person ate was beef, they’d get sick. But there is nothing wrong with beef. There is nothing wrong with the foods you got sick on.


    Thanks j-lo and Ashley!

    J-lo, I love your reasoning. You’re right!
    Ashley, your parallel really got through to me. Thanks.

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