What’s your relationship with food like? Here, our contributor Esther Kane talks about her life as an orthorexic – someone who has an obsession with eating healthy food.
Let’s start out with an example of when your obsession was at its height. Was it a friend’s birthday party? Trying to find something you could eat at a cafeteria? I would love a strong description of what the food was being offered, how you felt about the idea of putting it into your body, and how the social interaction went.
I’m seventeen years old. It’s a muggy summer’s night in Toronto. Me and my boyfriend (who was two years older than me) were hanging out in the tiny kitchen of the basement apartment he’d just moved into. He had invited me over for a home-cooked meal in his new pad. Knowing I was a “food Fascist” (his words, not mine – now very funny to me but not then), he went to great lengths to buy the ingredients for, and prepare a vegetarian stir-fry with tofu and brown rice- one of the few meals I would eat in front of anyone else at that point.
As he was frying up the vegetables, happily humming to himself, he innocently poured a dollop of honey into the mix to sweeten it up. Aghast, I jumped up from my seat, threw a plate at him and screamed, “Honey?! That’s an animal product! I can’t eat that!” and began crying and ran outside the back yard like a madwoman while he tried to figure out what he’d done wrong. I cringe as I write this…I apologize to you wherever you are now…that was the Orthorexia talking, not me.
I have known for most of my life that I struggled with an eating disorder, but I just recently found a name for it: “Orthorexia Nervosa” – an obsession with eating healthy food. You may think, “What’s so bad about wanting to eat healthy food?” Nothing – unless you have a predisposition towards obsessive behaviour…
For me, it all began as a child. My parents divorced when I was four and I lived in two homes as a result. As an only child with no siblings to lean on, I had to soothe myself, and controlling what I ate gave me a sense of order and safety in an unpredictable and often unsafe environment.
After the divorce, my father stopped eating meat and became zealous about preventing cruelty to animals and professed that being vegan was the best way to save the earth. He soon became macrobiotic – a very strict system of food preparation based on a traditional 2,000-year-old Japanese diet. So while other kids were chowing down on lunches of Wonder bread and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I was eating tofu or tempeh sandwiches with sauerkraut on whole-grain bread – I have to admit this was a wee bit embarrassing when with my peers. Seaweed was also a mainstay and I can remember my friends recoiling when I would chew on a nori sheet for a snack (I must admit, I still love seaweed; strange as that may seem).
Did kids make fun of you? Did you like the food?
Meanwhile, my mother was a staunch gourmet and when I saw her on weekends, I was fed everything “evil” according to my dad’s diet – big juicy hamburgers, French fries, and even milkshakes. My mother in no way approved of the way my father ate and did her very best to ‘make up for it’ on the weekends when I was in her care, encouraging me to eat red meat and all else that my dad forbade. Again, how did this feel? Were your parents using food to control you? Did you feel guilty eating it, like you were “cheating” on your dad?
To an eight year old, this was very confusing. I felt like I was caught in the middle of a food war between my parents and that whenever I ate what they fed me, I was betraying the other one. I felt guilty when I ate what either of them offered me and was angry that they could control me in this way.
At the age of 15, I became a strict vegetarian. Why? Only to get back to at your mom, or were there health/political reasons for doing so?
To be perfectly honest, I’m still not entirely sure why I became vegetarian. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that my dad was one and I wanted to be closer to him and felt that by eating the way he did, this would happen. Or maybe I thought that meat was “fattening” and was scared of gaining weight, so I cut it out of my diet. Or perhaps it was a way to control something in my life when everything felt completely out of my control. I also suspect it had something to do with getting attention from my mother who was constantly focusing on her work or my stepfather and their unhappy relationship. Most likely, it was a combination of all of the above. I know it wasn’t for purely ethical reasons because I still wore leather footwear and wasn’t an animal rights activist by any means.
All I do know is that food became a big focus for me at this time and I spent a lot of time reading books about healthy eating, and started working part-time at health-food stores; something I continued to do right through until the end of university. This devastated my mother and caused many arguments between us. I realised then that I was able to control her through my food choices. As a quiet, insecure teen that felt she had very little control over her life in general, this was a victory. In a house where people were fighting all the time and I felt left out, my control over food gave me a sense of power and caused the adults in my life to focus on me for once. For the first time ever, I felt powerful and in control of something and I wasn’t about to give it up.
My ‘healthy eating’ regime just escalated from there: I read Fit For Life back to front, memorizing all of the concepts of proper food combining. I carried it proudly under my arm like a bible and professed the wisdom contained within to anyone who would listen: “Meat and dairy products are the foods of the devil”…How were you feeling at this time? Were you enjoying the foods you were eating? Let’s give examples of what you’d eat on a daily basis, and how you felt when you saw someone wolfing down a burger and fries.
It was all about being clean and pure on the inside and living a healthy life. Got knows, I felt anything but clean and pure inside and I thought that if I could clean up my body, the rest of my life would also wash up nicely and I’d have no more mess anywhere.
I looked towards healthy eating as a salvation from all of life’s unpredictability, pain, and confusion. As long as I was obsessed with what I was eating, I could ignore the emptiness, anger, and hurt I was feeling inside. Planning my entire day’s food before going to bed and reading health food books gave me a sense of peace and order that was missing from my life.
Here is an example of my typical day’s food intake at that time: Breakfast: nothing but fruit until noon. In other words, I was constantly hungry and thinking about food. Lunch: a plateful of raw vegetables with two slices of whole-grain bread with avocado on it. Snack: more fruit. Dinner: large glass of freshly made vegetable juice followed by whole-grain pasta with tofu and olives.
I feel bad for my mother now thinking back on those times. I had saved up my work money and bought myself an industrial-strength juicer called “The Champion”- just the name of it gave me a feeling of strength and imbued a sense of wonder and power. I set this huge, heavy machinery up on the kitchen counter and would make one hell of a racket just before dinner each night when I would rev up its horse-powered engine and whir copious amounts of vegetables through its jaws to make my magical healthy ‘elixir’, which I drank at least half an hour before dinner so that it could digest properly in my stomach.
My mother would wince and roll her eyes up to the ceiling as if to say to God, “What have I done to deserve this?” I would then quietly sip my juice, becoming a darker shade of orange each day. At one point, my mother was so concerned by my jaundice-looking skin that she dragged me to the doctor who diagnosed me with ‘dangerously high levels of beta-carotene’. I laughed this off because I believed that you could never have too many vitamins – that was preposterous!
I was so focused on righteous eating that it became very difficult to hold down a part-time job. Why? I can still remember trying to keep up with the busy lunch crowd, cleaning up tables and attending to water glasses, but being so hungry – I could hardly keep moving.
My shift was something like nine in the morning until three in the afternoon and on my regimen, I was only supposed to eat fruit until noon. Translate that into – I was ravenously hungry until lunch every day. And in a fast-paced restaurant when you’re supposed to be running around serving people, there’s not a lot of time to run to the back, peel a couple of bananas and eat them. I can’t remember exactly how that job ended, but I’m guessing I got fired for trying to sneak fruit all during my shifts. Or perhaps they got a little testy about me fainting on the customers…
However, I soon found that working in a health food store provided me with the perfect environment: here, I was able to follow my ultra-strict diet, while also educating the public about righteous eating like a prophet from a mountaintop. I felt I had the key to humanity’s ills and that if I could just teach them to be ‘healthy like me’, then they too, would be saved from all of life’s unpleasantness. Were you, in fact, healthy?
One would think that I would be fit to be a marathon runner from looking at my diet, but I would not say I was “healthy”. Health consists of balance and doesn’t just come from a healthy diet and regular exercise – it also means being emotionally balanced and I was anything but that at the time. I was socially isolated, depressed, and felt all alone in the world. No diet can fix those problems…
It was around this time that I suddenly developed “allergies” to many foods and would refuse to eat them. Conveniently, I convinced myself that I was “allergic” to all of the foods I deemed “evil” such as white sugar, dairy, meat, white flour, and a whole host of others that baffled and confused everyone around me. I used my “allergies” as an excuse to not eat what other people were eating and to avoid eating with others. So you weren’t allergic to this stuff ? Did it help to stop people’s questioning?
I soon learned that telling people I was “allergic” to specific foods, they would stop questioning me about what I ate and didn’t eat and why. It was a way to avoid being scrutinized in public – something that made me recoil even further into myself.
By now, I was carrying food with me wherever I went, even to restaurants! I must confess, I have done this up until very recently and only now see the true absurdity of it. God forbid, I should be at a local eatery without my brown rice or whole grain bread and have to eat refined grain product – I thought that this would surely kill me. I dreaded going out for meals in the first place, but I figured I could protect myself in part from the evils of “unclean” food by supplementing whatever I was served with something wholesome and “pure”.
My mother recalls one event in particular which made her want to curl up and disappear – the three ‘girls’ went by train to Montreal to visit my uncle and I was touting yogurt as my latest “savior” and had brought a tub with me on the train so I could have a constant supply of friendly bacteria in my colon. As we were sitting on the train (there were four seats per section so we were joined by another lady), it was a bit bumpy which caused my tub of yogurt to fall swiftly on the head of the stranger sitting with us. She couldn’t even see through the lumps of white goo encrusted on her face, but she was amazingly gracious about it. My mother got angry with me and I couldn’t understand why. I was just upset that my entire yogurt was wasted. Luckily, I can see the humour in it now but I didn’t when it happened.
At the time, I didn’t think there was anything strange about my behaviour. In fact, I felt a righteous indignation about my food beliefs and looked down on anyone who wasn’t as ‘wise’ and ‘self-disciplined’ as I was. I believed I was somewhat of an enlightened being due to my ‘clean eating’ lifestyle. Now I see that I was terribly isolated and lonely. I feel sad for my old self now and see that I used righteous eating as a means to create safety and security in a life that was terrifying and out of control. Why were you isolated and lonely? Need examples of that – did you decline get-togethers?
While I still eat a very healthy and mostly vegetarian diet, I have relaxed a lot about food and eating. Why? How did you get to this point? Was there a turning point from you when you realized that what you were doing was not only not healthy, but unhealthy?
I’ve learned healthier ways to cope with life’s uncertainties and problems and no longer need to use ‘healthy eating’ as a security blanket. I’ve also learned that it’s more important to focus on being connected with others and eat less healthy foods than it is to be isolated and lonely following a ‘perfect’ diet. Today, I’d gladly trade a solitary ‘wheatgrass high’ for the peace and loving connections I now have with those around me.
Esther Kane, MSW, author of “It’s Not About the Food: A Woman’s Guide to Making Peace with Food and Our Bodies” (www.endyoureatingdisorder.com).