Chances are you’ve heard of Anorexia nervosa. Bulimia nervosa. Binge Eating Disorder. Maybe even EDNOS (Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified). Long-distance runners have some tendencies to flirt with eating disordered behaviors; after all, we’re somewhat obsessed with health, nutrition and exercising. That’s all fine and dandy, unless it’s taken too far.
For some, our personalities and obsessive running habits enter into the dark side, leading toward full-fledged, diagnosable mental illnesses. I should know, having battled one throughout my twenties and still struggling to stay in recovery. Before I started the recovery process, I had never heard of orthorexia, which is a version of ED that takes healthy eating habits to an extreme. With so many runners following strict diets from gluten-free to vegan and paleo, we at Salty Running thought it would be wise to shed some light on the topic!
Is orthorexia an eating disorder?
It’s not an officially recognized disorder; which is why the definition is so vague. Orthorexia is an obsession with healthy eating, although not necessarily about calories and weight like anorexics and bulimics. In its literal meaning, “fixation on righteous eating,” orthorexia might start innocently with the intent of healthful eating (i.e., avoidance of sugar or chemicals), but it can ultimately turn into a problem when this fixation becomes all-consuming, and self-esteem becoming wrapped up in purity of diet, according to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) website. An orthorexic might begin viewing each day as a chance to “be good,” “avoid food slip ups” and rise above peers in dietary prowess, strict eating, fasting and exercising. This is extremely similar to an anorexic type of thinking.
The irony lies in that orthorexics intend to be extremely healthful in intent and dedicate themselves to healthy eating, but food choices become so restrictive in variety and/or calorie intake that the result is anything but healthy. Food can start to become a source of identity (oh, she’s so thin and healthy; oh, she’s the one who “only eats healthy food”) and a source of control (I might not be able to control this work meeting, but I can control what goes into my body), which are common underlying causes for other eating disorders.
The Ugly Outcomes
Nutritional deficits may result because diet becomes too strict, lacking in moderation and balance, but the social problems might be even more obvious. According to NEDA, orthorexics may be socially awkward or isolated in that their life begins to revolve around food (this happened and still does sometimes to me as I tried to avoid all situations with food at the center, which tend to be quite a few!). Orthorexics no longer eat intuitively or listen to their body’s hunger cues…typically, they feel failure if they stray from their ‘safe’ diet of only certain foods.
Steven Bratman, the doctor who first named orthorexia, explains his own personal journey by saying, “I pursued wellness through healthy eating for years, but gradually I began to sense that something was going wrong. The poetry of my life was disappearing. My ability to carry on normal conversations was hindered by intrusive thoughts of food. The need to obtain meals free of meat, fat, and artificial chemicals had put nearly all social forms of eating beyond my reach. I was lonely and obsessed…I found it terribly difficult to free myself. I had been seduced by righteous eating. The problem of my life’s meaning had been transferred inexorably by food, and I could not reclaim it.” (As seen on www.orthorexia.com).
How Does Healthy Become So Unhealthy?!?
Society pushes an ideal of thinness and health, so it’s easy to become wrapped up in these behaviors that result in that ideal. When someone is ‘eating healthy,’ they may deny any problem at all since this is a good thing. And it is! Nothing is wrong with eating healthy or running or taking care of oneself, not at all!! What’s unhealthy is when eating “right” becomes the only topic on the forefront of your mind, or when deviating from a strict diet causes extreme guilt and anxiety, or when only eating certain foods is done to avoid major life issues and results in isolation.
According to the NEDA site, if you answer yes to most of the following questions, you might be battling a form of orthorexia:
- Do you wish you could just eat and not worry about food quality?
- Do you wish you could spend less time thinking about food and more time thinking about life?
- Does it seem beyond your control to eat a meal prepared by someone else – just one meal – and try not to control what is being served? (i.e., would you pack your own meal when visiting friends for a dinner party.)
- Do love, joy, play and creativity take a back seat to following the perfect diet?
- Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?
- Do you feel in control when you stick to the right diet?
- Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat?
I recently began reading Almost Anorexic, which talks about the millions of people who aren’t clinically diagnosable for an eating disorder, according to the DSM-V, but who suffer all the same with very real disordered behaviors and thoughts revolving around food, body image, and exercise. One in 200 adults have endured full-blown anorexia, but 1 in 20 have had at least some of the symptoms characterizing the disorder. Just because you don’t meet the full diagnostic criteria does not mean that you aren’t battling all the same.
At this point in my recovery, I still fall into this ‘almost’ category most days. I’m not extremely underweight and I definitely do eat; I don’t fear fat like I used to and I’m not as crazy about exercising; I don’t write down everything I eat, I don’t own a scale and I don’t count calories. But I still bash my body and food is at the forefront of my mind most days in terms of what is ‘good’, what is ‘bad,’ and how I can avoid it even when it interferes with social happenings. I still struggle. If I went to a doctor or dietician, they couldn’t diagnose me with a legitimate eating disorder at this point, but the struggle is still very real.
Orthorexia is another disordered way of eating that isn’t necessarily ‘clinically diagnosable.’ Sometimes eating disorders seem so black and white but there is SO. MUCH. GRAY.
Allergies, Gluten and Vegetarianism, Oh my!
We all know people who are paleo, gluten-free, vegan, and vegetarianism and most are for all the right reasons, including many of our Salty bloggers. Research has shown that often these diets are mere excuses for weight-loss dieting. According to Almost Anorexic, a national study found that 96 percent of American adults who reported following a gluten-free diet actually tested negative for Celiac disease via blood analysis. Bloat and stomach issues may arise from eating too much gluten, but it doesn’t necessarily mean avoidance is the only option. Some seem to ‘self-diagnose’ in order to avoid carbohydrates.
Again, healthy eating is a good thing (just like Cinnamon showed us that running is really a GOOD thing!), but sometimes it can lead you on a path to self-destructive behavior. “I can’t eat that because I’m vegetarian” and “I’d love to have a piece of your birthday cake but I can’t because I’m vegan” are phrases I hear in every day situations. While there’s nothing wrong with that if it’s the whole truth, it’s important to be honest with yourself when you begin to limit your food intake.
As a female athlete, do you struggle with eating intuitively and letting go of negative thoughts surrounding body image? Are you vegan/paleo/gluten-free and do you follow this regimen for the right reasons or do these orthorexic/restrictive tendencies seem all too familiar?