My Personal Food Journey: From Dieting to Orthorexia to Food Freedom

By March 2, 2018 Advice, Food for Thought

If you follow my blog or social media accounts then you know how I feel about dieting — I despise it. Not only does it cause a vicious cycle of weight loss and gain which can damage to your health, but it also ruins your relationship with food. Living life within the confines of the diet mentality causes feelings of deprivation, guilt, and anxiety. Dieting can also lead to the development of long-term behaviors that fall on all points of the disordered eating spectrum like anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating, orthorexia, and muscle dysmorphia. The dieter sees food as the enemy, not as a means to nourish the body and bring pleasure or happiness.

I haven’t always had a healthy relationship with food and I want to share my story with you. I was a dieter in my past life and developed a minor case of Orthorexia. I know what it’s like to see food as the enemy and it’s not a fun place to be. I have since come out on the other side and understand what it takes to shift perspective from “food is my enemy” to “food is my friend.” My hope for sharing this story is to help you know you’re not alone and to encourage you to loosen the reigns on all those food rules you set for yourself.

In college, I didn’t really know how to eat well. Not like I do now, of course.

Like most freshmen, I didn’t prioritize eating balanced meals and resorted to the fastest, cheapest thing I could find.  I tried to eat most meals at the dining hall but that didn’t always happen. You know college students and their crazy schedules: they wake up late and don’t have time for breakfast, so they skip breakfast and just head to class. Then they grab something quick after class – like a bagel breakfast at Einsteins or a granola bar they stashed away in their backpack. And since they ate such a late “breakfast,” lunch gets pushed back to later in the day, as does dinner. And dinner is often times ramen noodles, Kraft mac n’ cheese, or something fried from the dining hall (While dining hall food has improved significantly over the years, college students still largely gravitate towards hamburgers and french fries or pizza).

I gained about 10-15 pounds in college and found it extremely frustrating. I wasn’t so worried about the number on the scale so much as how I saw myself in the mirror. Call it vanity but it’s nearly impossible for young women in our society to escape this. Like many people, I was hyper-focused on certain areas of my body (stomach, arms, butt) that I wished looked differently. I would constantly complain to my boyfriend-at-the-time about the fact that I was getting fat and that exercising and eating well (or what I thought considered eating well) wasn’t doing anything. He tried to convince me I was crazy for thinking I was fat, but nothing he said could change how I felt. At 5’6 and 135# with a small frame, most people would probably think I was crazy too. But it didn’t matter because I wasn’t happy.

So I did what most people do to try to lose weight; restrict calories and exercise a lot.  I never developed anorexic or bulimic tendencies, probably because I love food too much and I’m too much of a type-B person to exert that kind of control over myself. But I did find myself creating food rules for myself and making decisions about food that I thought were healthy like choosing the lowest calorie meals out at restaurants, skipping breakfast to reduce my daily calories, snacking on low-fat/fat-free foods, cutting out all sweets, and avoiding carbohydrates at all costs. But to my surprise, this plan back-fired. Whenever I restricted myself from eating the number of calories my body legitimately needed to function, I experienced super intense sugar cravings that I couldn’t deny. It was my body’s way of saying “um, hello?! I need energy! Feed me now!” This behavior of constant restriction quickly lead to periods of binge-eating where I would raid my pantry for any and everything I could get my hands on, eating until I felt uncomfortably full. Then, the feelings of guilt and inadequacy crept in; why couldn’t I just be strong enough to stick to the plan? I gave up on trying to eat healthy for the rest of that day and told myself I would just try again tomorrow.

This cycle of restriction followed by bingeing lasted for about 2-3 years. I also started to experience some low blood sugars (feeling shaky/moody/irritable) and IBS symptoms (diarrhea/constipation/indigestion), likely due to the restricting-binging cycle and the poor food choices I was making when binging. {I’m sure the alcohol didn’t help either– sorry mom and dad!}  Once I started getting deeper into my Dietetics degree coursework, I learned more about nutrition and the effects that restriction/binging has on the body:

-permanent damage to your metabolism leading to increased fat storage which makes it even more difficult to lose weight

-increases the risk for diabetes and heart disease

-increases the risk of developing anorexia (which has an alarmingly low recovery rate)

-increases the risk of adopting purging behaviors which can cause dental erosion and esophageal cancer

Ummm what? Yeah, I didn’t sign up for this. I slowly started to give up on the restricting. Not only did I want to avoid the above issues, I also realized that I had been restricting for a while now and nothing was changing. I wasn’t losing weight or feeling any better about myself, so why not try a different approach. Once I stopped skipping meals and restricting my calories, the binging stopped. And so did my low blood sugar shakes. I still wasn’t happy with my body but at least I was feeling better and I was on the right path to preventing more problems later on down the road.

Fast forward to graduate school…

Orthorexia in Grad School

In grad school, I developed a minor case of orthorexia which is essentially the unhealthy obsession with eating healthy.  People with orthorexia are obsessed with eating healthy no matter what it takes and it often times interferes with activities of daily life. Interestingly enough, roughly 50% of Registered Dietitians have experienced orthorexic tendencies. Why? Becuase food and nutrition is our life. In grad school, food and nutrition consumed my every thought. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every single second of it and wouldn’t change a thing. But I was so consumed with it that it was hard not to separate myself from it at times. I remember taking my first metabolism course and learning how to prevent specific diseases using diet. Fascinating stuff. But I obsessed over this information and did my very best to follow that advice to a T. I’m going to eat SO healthy it’s not even funny, I told myself. I became a strict vegetarian (they have the lowest rates of disease), kept an eye on my carbohydrates (because, diabetes), focused on “eating clean,” (no way I’m getting cancer) and quickly started to label foods as “good” and “bad.” Eating out at restaurants and eating family meals at home became difficult because the options rarely satisfied my “healthy eating” criteria. To most people, this wasn’t a cause for concern because it just looked like I was making healthy choices. But looking back with what I know now, I can pick out the situations that were of concern, I just didn’t know it then:

  • Like the time I nearly passed out running with my boyfriend, David (now husband), because I was “watching my carbohydrate intake”. I clearly didn’t eat enough. It was a hot summer’s day in FL and I had to sit on the curb to get a hold of myself. A cop even stopped to see if I was alright. That was a problem.

  • Or the many times I believed I was better than others because my lunch looked healthier than their lunch.  I am extremely embarrassed to admit that I felt such a thing but this is what orthorexia looks like and I want to be crystal clear about it.

  • Or the times I really wanted to eat those “bad” foods and I would tell myself that I’m better than that,  convincing myself that eating them will only lead to poor health. Such mind games I played with myself. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was letting food control me. I was food’s prisoner.

This negative self-talk and mental food prison lasted throughout grad school and into my first professional job out of college. During my first job I had the opportunity to work with Kristina Larue (who is now an Eating Disorders Dietitian), and this memory of one of our conversations sticks with me to this day: Seeking for a food-choice validation, I remember asking her if dipping my carrots in peanut butter was weird or bad. She just kind of looked at me for a minute and said “it’s not bad if you like it.”

Enjoying food sounds like such a simple thing to do, but it’s not when you’re constantly wrapped up in all these food rules you set for yourself. It’s no way to live your life. I carried on with these orthorexic tendencies for a few years until I was forced to leave my food-rule comfort zone on a three-month backpacking trip to Spain and South America.

Spain, South America and the Undoing of My Food Rules

After that first job, David and I took a backpacking trip to Spain and South America. We were on the move about every 3-4 days, took many 12-hour long bus rides, and were constantly thinking about how to get around and communicate in this new country. Not only was sticking to a vegetarian diet out the window (meat and cheese for days over there!) but following all my food rules was nearly impossible. They don’t serve sandwiches on whole wheat bread in Spain, they give it to you on white bread (freshly baked and damn good, might I add). Vegetables were rarely included in the meals we could afford so there went the veggie rule. And food stops during the 12-hr long bus rides in South America mostly consisted of convenience foods like chips, crackers, and cookies. I had no choice but to let go of all those food rules and just go with the flow. Fried croquettes? Sure. French fries with aioli? Bring it on. Jamon bocadillo (ham sandwich)? Let’s do this.

And you know what? Once I let go, I started to fall in love with food again and gained a kind of respect for it that I hadn’t had before. Love because I finally found true pleasure in eating again, and respect because I now honored the power that food has in both our bodies and our minds. Food was no longer the enemy, it was my friend.

How I Now See Food

Food helps to nourish my body so that I have the energy to live my life. Food gives me pleasure and happiness, especially when I get to share it with the people I love. And finally, I respect what it takes for food to get to my plate and am grateful for the bounty of food I have access to. Not everyone is so lucky.

I’m not saying that you have to go backpacking for three months in another country to undo your restrictive eating habits (though if you have the chance for such an epic trip you should totally take it). But I am saying that challenging yourself to step outside of your comfort zone and let go of just one food rule is how to start breaking free from the diet mentality. It won’t be easy and it won’t happen overnight. It took me a good 6-8 months to fully let go of all the rules I had made for myself and to feel comfortable breaking them. Meaningful lifestyle changes take time and require commitment. Much like the commitment required for adhering to food rules in the first place. But I guarantee you that this commitment is a much more worthwhile endeavor – one you won’t regret and one you’ll wonder why you waited so long for.

So did I ever Lose Weight?

I did – when I stopped thinking about losing weight. Thinking of only the number on the scale was toxic and interfered with my decision-making process. Rather than seeing food for its taste and nutrition, I saw it as “will this help lose weight or will this make me gain weight?” Viewing food through the lens of weight loss caused me to make poor food choices and extended the amount of time I spent restricting and binge eating. It didn’t work.

I now come from a place of balance and listen to my body when I eat. Eating one doughnut is a total taste party in my mouth, but eating 4 doughnuts makes me feel like crap. Also, each subsequent doughnut doesn’t really taste that great (remember the law of diminishing returns?). I eat dessert when I want to eat it and I savor every single bite. I don’t need to go back for seconds because I know I can have it again some other time in the near future.

If you struggle with seeing food in this way, I encourage you to first try to become aware of the thought popping up in your head. You have to first know the thought is there before you can begin to change it. Once you’ve got that down, then you can try to change the course of that thought. Rather than looking for the bad in food, look for the good. How will this food nourish your body? Does it taste good? How does it make you feel after you eat it?

So That’s My Story

Along with many other Dietitians, I am on a mission to help others get away from the diet mentality and learn to how to eat from a place of balance and joy. If you’re currently on this journey, what are some of the struggles you are dealing with currently?

Ready to Ditch Your Food Fears and Start Living Again?

I work with women one-on-one to help them find food freedom and rediscover the joy of nutritious eating so they can stop worrying about food and get back to enjoying life. Check out my Consultation page for more information.

 

You Might Also Like

5 Comments

  • Reply Sarah March 2, 2018 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks for sharing girl! I guess I knew somewhat but it’s crazy to realize I didn’t know how much this was an issue even when we lived together! Love you!

    • Reply Ashley Thomas March 3, 2018 at 8:24 am

      I didn’t realize it either! Didn’t you just love all my peanut butter bowls in the sink?! lol Love you back 🙂

  • Reply Kara March 16, 2018 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you for that breath of fresh air.

    • Reply Ashley Thomas April 3, 2018 at 11:22 am

      You’re welcome!

  • Reply Elizabeth W Cook June 25, 2018 at 12:26 pm

    Thank you so much for sharing. I knew I was out of whack several years when I questioned whether I should chaperone my daughter’s weeklong trip to Washington, DC because it would be difficult to follow my plant-based nutrition lifestyle. I had to remind myself that I am eating to live, not living to eat. A little flexibility goes a long way and helps attract others to this lifestyle.

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge

%d bloggers like this: