To the People Who Say Orthorexia Isn’t Really a Disorder

It was three years ago, but I still remember the moment my mum came in with my surprise birthday cake. My heart stopped. It was as if I had been pushed off a ledge, and automatically needed to grab onto something for safety. My pulse started to race and my eyes became tearful and red. This was an “I am going to die” stress response; caused by cake.

Thanks to working on my recovery, I no longer let food bring out that kind of physical reaction from me… but I still find certain foods to be daunting. I have found my stress for such foods is not caused by their nutritional value or amount, but for the perceived impact they’ll have on my health. Of course, watching out for your health is a natural part of being human…but when do these concerns around healthy food become obsessive and disordered?

Orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating, is still not registered as an official eating disorder. I’ve heard some argue that it isn’t even a real problem, and that obsessing over nutrients and ingredients should be the norm. After reading such opinions, I reflected on my own experience of this “orthorexic” mindset and decided I do not agree with such views. It absolutely is a problem — and one that needs to be taken seriously.

I think it’s great to learn about nutrition. However, the effect food can have on our lives seems to be becoming more and more extreme. “Super foods,” “cancer causing” foods or “this food lets you live longer” are phrases I see all over mainstream media. They are certainly eye catching, but this is because they play on our fears. Mainly, a natural human fear of doing something that will hurt or kill you.

We live in an age of knowledge. Type any question you have into a search bar and you will get an answer. The price of this is that when something is unanswerable; it’s very hard to process. Illness and death are two very unanswerable dilemmas that no website can answer with one solution. This causes us to create our own answers; and for many, that answer is food. I have seen people following diets that demonize ingredients and food groups as
the cause of death and illness. When you look at foods this way, it feels like eating such things is comparable to ingesting poison. For anyone who is prone to anxious thoughts around food, this is not a good mix. The constant messages of people avoiding “this food” and only eating “this food” for their health, especially with the rise of social media, lead to very rigid and anxiety driven-ways of eating. These anxieties can take over and become priority over many other areas of enjoyment in a person’s life. This, in my opinion, is an orthorexic way of living.

I have seen people argue against this view before, saying that orthorexia can’t be real and that we should care about what we put in our bodies. To this I say, yes, eating what makes you feel good is great, but should be practiced in moderation and not seen as the sole factor in a happy life. It seems then, we are all left with a choice:

Do we let ourselves become obsessively rigid and controlling; limiting ourselves from any foods that may be unhealthy? Or do we accept that to be able to socialize and experience many aspects of life, we may have to eat foods with unknown, possibly damaging ingredients?

The harsh truth is, protecting yourself from everything “not good for you” can be lonely, with not much room left to experience life at all. So, is living in a (debatably) “healthy” body longer worth if the purpose of your life is to just eat perfectly?

I can say from experience that it is extremely upsetting and stressful to deny yourself of Christmas cocktails, birthday cake or roast dinners due to the fear of what ingredients may or may not do to your health. Life is short, and the years my mind has obsessed over food have also been the years I have left every birthday and Christmas party early to cry over how scared of life I am.

The concepts of death and getting sick are super scary. Heart disease, cancer, dementia… these are nightmare scenarios for many people — including myself. However, another nightmare scenario is reaching the end of my life wishing I had gone to more events, enjoyed more ice cream and felt less distant from my friends and family.

In the words of JK Rowling: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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