Editor's note: This article contains explicit references to disordered eating, restrictive eating, and weight and may be triggering to some readers.
A list of what I don’t eat and my personal justifications:
2013 Greasy junk foods (bad for heart and fattening), white bread, brown bread (contains sugar, more nutritious varieties available)
2014 Jams, desserts, sugar in any form (sugar is literally lethal)
2015 Starchy vegetables, grains, dairy (high in carbohydrates)
2018 Meat (causes cancer), soy (disrupts hormones)
2019 Food not cooked by me (contains evil ingredient)
No, I don’t have anorexia nervosa (AN). I don’t have body dysmorphia. I also don’t have periods.
I was 13 when I started my journey to lose weight. I was the captain of the school basketball team at 5-foot-3 and 130 pounds, but apparently, it was still fitting for one of my coaches to compare me to an elephant. A kind soul, he immediately covered up by informing me that, like an elephant, I was unaware of my full strength. I was strong indeed, but I always knew I was not thin enough.
In the beginning of 2013, my process was healthy. I began to cut out mainly greasy, fatty junk food. However, it didn’t take long for me to give up jams, ghee, sauce, sugar, bread, potatoes, white rice, brown rice, grains, pulses, beans, chicken, fish, soy, and chickpeas. At parties, I drank water while my friends ate cake. Eventually, I just stopped going out with them.
“Orthorexia is a pathological obsession with healthy eating,” Judy Simon, a dietician nutritionist and health educator at the UW Medical Center, said.
When such safe foods are unavailable, people with orthorexia experience high levels of distress.
By the time I turned 17, I was fervently Googling nutritional profiles of every product, even vegetables, to avoid accidental consumption of items that had healthier alternatives. Every elimination made me feel superior to others who ate less nutritious food. Every time I saw someone eat whole wheat bread I would scoff, since I only ate rye bread, a “healthier alternative.”
Before I started cooking all my meals, I would tour Center Table, Local Point, and the District Market to find low-carbohydrate meals. Ultimately, I would just have some milk and go to bed, sleeping with knees tucked to my chest to suppress hunger. When hunger woke me up at 3 a.m., I would drink two to three full glasses of water. Food had become a parasite that hegemonized my mind. I’d wake up hungry and continue to think about food until I went back to sleep, hungry.
“Perfectionists and those with a history of obsessive behaviors tend to be at a higher risk of developing orthorexia,” Simon said.
Despite controlling every calorie, I still gained weight. What I did not realize was that the stress associated with this rigidity and the constant restriction of fuel convinced my body that it was starving. This is how I became amenorrhoeic, or stopped having periods. The resultant decrease in the sex hormone estrogen and rise in the stress hormone cortisol made my body store fat, despite being underfed. My body simply didn’t want to waste any energy in producing eggs. It was too busy screaming for survival.
The American Psychiatric Association defines eating disorders as “illnesses in which people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors and related thoughts.” Interestingly, though my behavior was in no way ordinary, it still didn’t qualify as an eating disorder.
“Orthorexia is not yet classified under eating disorder by the DSM-5,” Simon said. “However, most of the patients I see who do in fact suffer from an eating disorder also show orthorexic tendencies.”
You’re not alone if you pictured an emaciated, gaunt woman at the mention of the term “eating disorder,” but you’re also not seeing the full picture. While AN is the most conspicuous eating disorder, it is not the only recognized disorder. About 5.2% of girls between 8- and 20-years-old suffer from anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder.
“I lived with one of my closest friends for years and still did not know that she had been bulimic for years,” student Alannah Clark said.
“My childhood best friend led a healthy lifestyle and never, never ate anything that wasn’t home-cooked. Little did I know [that] she has had binge-eating disorder for the past five years,” UW alum Natasha said.
“My housemaid suffered from pica ever since she delivered her first son, three years ago,” Minakshi Ahuja, a UW sophomore, said.
“I would wake up in the middle of the night, eat everything in the refrigerator, cry myself to sleep and purge the following day,” my best friend said a year ago.
Eating disorders are not just passing fads or attention-seeking mechanisms. They are real and fatal. In fact, AN has the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses, at around 10%. This is why the painful, often undermined and underrepresented journeys of those going through EDs need their share of light. Who knows, maybe the light can even burn out some of the parasites.
Reach writer Akanksha Mishra at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Akanksha_2200
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