Calories out *must* exceed calories in.
Every workout must be logged. Every morsel that enters your mouth must be recorded. You must not exceed X protein, Y fat and Z carbs.
No eating food you haven’t prepared yourself. No events. No eating out. No family meals. If you can’t log precisely how many calories are in that, you can’t eat it. If you can’t eat it, you go hungry.
For a long time, this was my life. Looking at it like this makes it sound insane, right?
But when people asked me how I avoided the office cupcakes on someone’s birthday, I’d laugh. It was so easy! I was losing weight – I knew exactly how I could lose even more! I knew my boundaries. I was in complete control.
Until… I wasn’t.
Unsurprisingly, that unhealthy, restrictive behaviour took its toll on my body (I stopped having periods completely, to name but one), my mind and my relationships. You can read more about that here.
Eventually, an accident meant those walls I’d painstakingly built came tumbling down. Long story short – it meant no more grueling gym sessions (hell, walking wasn’t even an option) and having to depend on my loved ones to prepare my food.
Slowly, I realised that, ironically, the iron-fisted control I had on my life had my spiralling out of control. Huh. That’s the funny thing about orthorexia – it’s full of ridiculous contradictions.
Since orthorexia is still not considered a ‘real’ eating disorder in many circles – it’s not even considered a clinical diagnosis – there’s little research into treatment or even strategies to cope with it.
Many eating disorder experts treat orthorexia as they would treat anorexia or other obsessive-compulsive disorder. But for me, coming back to myself didn’t involve rehab or any kind of 12-step programme – although I’m sure most sufferers would benefit from something like this.
In most cases, the first step in recovery is admitting you have a problem. And the return of my period, almost three months to the day after I was forced to stop working out – and the relief that there wasn’t something wrong with my reproductive system – was proof enough that I needed to make changes.
I was lucky enough to have some incredible people around me to walk the journey back to myself with me – especially my mom. The disastrous effects of orthorexia had given our relationship a massive knock, but she was still there, still kind and loving, ready to coax me back from the brink of relapse whenever I felt that familiar tightness in the pit of my stomach.
It wasn’t something that happened overnight, but eventually, my attitude towards food started to shift. In the same way my orthorexia had been fuelled by the changes I was seeing in my shrinking body, so too was my healing.
Sure, I put on a bit of weight – which was tough for me to accept – but whenever that anxiety came creeping back in, I’d mentally list just what that weight-loss had cost me.
Another little life raft was the social experience of eating “normally” again. Eventually I was eating food my mom had prepared again and going out with my friends – the enjoyment I got from being with them again was something I held onto, even though most of those first meals involved wrestling that little voice in my head trying to mentally tally exactly how much fat was in that spaghetti bolognaise.
Of course, over two years later, I certainly wouldn’t consider myself “cured”. I don’t think I’ll ever be free of that little voice in my head. It definitely gets louder every time I’ve had a more “indulgent” meal, and my knee-jerk reaction is to attempt to restrict, punish myself at the gym, or try tally every morsel I’ve eaten that day.
Sometimes, meals that I would previous have considered cheats – basically anything that tastes good – often trigger the opposite reaction: “Well, you’ve already eaten a whole pizza,” the little voice will whisper, “you may as well give up trying to be healthy entirely and plough through an entire tub of ice cream…”
Managing these reactions – the latter especially – can be really tough. Right now, I’m trying to use intuitive eating to deal with that. Fair warning though – it’s waaaaaay harder than it sounds. Watch this space for a blog post on that!
Before I go off on a tangent – my point is this: Orthorexia is not something you just “get over”. That little voice will always be there, giving me hell inside my head.
But I’m learning to give it hell right back.