If you struggle with binge eating, you may also have obsessive thoughts about eating healthy. Extreme or excessive preoccupation with healthy eating that results in unhealthy consequences is called orthorexia.
Like other forms of restrictive dieting, orthorexia can lead to binge eating, and orthorexic tendencies can fuel the binge and purge cycle. Trying to eat well to nourish the body is a good thing, and I’ve addressed how you can approach this in my post, What is Healthy Eating? However, when healthy eating becomes a stressful obsession, it is no longer healthy for the mind and body.
I have a guest blog post to share with you today, from Elisa Oras, on the topic of orthorexia and binge eating. Elisa is the author of the new book, BrainwashED: Diet-Induced Eating Disorders. How You Got Sucked In and How to Recover. I asked her to talk about this because I do not have personal experience with orthorexia, and I think you will benefit from hearing her story. If your healthy eating has gotten out of hand and is harming your life, I hope you will find inspiration in this post from Elisa.
When Eating Healthy Becomes Unhealthy – by Elisa Oras
When I was 21 years old, I went through a very hard time in my life and developed depression that lasted for three years. With that, my health got worse. Suddenly, I had to deal with severe acne, hair falling out in chunks and a lot of terrible digestion issues.
I started to search the internet for solutions and found out that leaving out some foods from my diet could improve my health. The advice I received was to skip eating processed and junk foods and move towards a plant-based diet with an abundance of raw foods, and to start doing occasional water fasts and raw food cleanses.
Of course, now I see that all these health issues were mostly just the side-effects of the stress and depression I had, but then I did not see it that way and opted for a complete diet change instead.
I didn’t want to simply take drugs for my physical or mental health but wanted to heal naturally. I believed I was capable of healing my body and mind inside out if I just made an effort.
As you can see, I had good intentions. I wanted my body to be able to support its healing and not simply mask the symptoms by taking some drugs with serious side-effects. Eating more fruits and veggies and leaving out junk foods can definitely improve health, but at the same time, I didn’t know that healthy diet could be taken too far.
In 2011, I went to Australia with a work and holiday visa. I started to eat even more raw foods, and a few times, I went 30 days completely raw. I saw improvements in my skin, my energy levels, and my weight. I started a raw food blog and gained some following. There were people looking up to me who were inspired by my journey. I felt empowered and motivated to continue.
During that time, I also noticed it had become more difficult to digest some foods I had previously eaten, and I became very sensitive to a lot of stuff. I thought this was the proof that cooked food was indeed toxic to my body and I had to limit or avoid it even more. My ultimate goal was to be 100% raw for optimal health.
But my body did not seem to have the same goal as me. The more raw, clean and pure was my diet, the stronger food cravings I got. The healthy eating became more and more extreme as I was following the low-fat raw vegan diet. The “healthy” eating had to be free from salt, oils, very low fat, no grains or legumes, nothing artificial or man-made and of course, no processed or junk foods. Basically eating only raw fruits and veggies. I became more rigid and obsessed about foods than ever!
This “lifestyle” did not recommend restricting calories (which was good) so I was still eating above 2000 calories a day, often about 2500-3000 calories (and way more if you include the bingeing sessions). So I wasn’t simply dieting for weight loss at that point, but I just wanted to be healthy.
The more you let yourself be pulled into one specific way of eating, only interact with the people in the same boat, read the same books, websites, and recommendations, the more “right” it seems to you. You start to think that this is the only way to be healthy and happy and it is the sole answer to everything that is wrong in your life at the moment. Your mindset becomes brainwashed. You can’t even separate the fact from fiction or where to draw the line.
A rigid diet led to cravings and binges
I had to deal with constant cravings. I craved more fatty and salty foods, cooked food and even junk foods. The last one was particularly worrying for me because previously I had never been a big junk food eater. I wasn’t raised like that and never had such strong cravings for it. But the interesting thing is that the more I tried to eat super clean and pure, to eat only raw fruits and veggies, the more unhealthy junk food cravings I had.
As I was the raw food “inspiration” for many people or at least I thought I was, I felt very anxious and guilty to have those cravings. Like I was about to commit a serious crime. Like I was about to abandon my religion. I felt so conflicted. What I believed in my head and what my body craved did not match. I felt like I was living two separate lives where one was the good way to live and the other was bad.
Of course, the willpower only takes you so far and I could not resist my cravings for too long. I started to buy all the foods I craved and secretly binged on them. After I came out of my food coma I started eating healthy again and promised to never repeat this kind of bad and destructive behavior. I believed I just needed more willpower and more resistance. I still believed that if I only stayed raw long enough, my cravings would disappear and my taste buds would change.
A miserable cycle of orthorexia and binge eating
But every time I went back to my clean healthy eating I somehow ended up bingeing on the “unhealthy” foods I truly craved. Every time I binged, I promised myself that I would be back to 100% raw the next day. “This is the last time!” I would tell myself. But it never was because the harder I tried to restrict the foods I craved, the more I ended up bingeing.
Then one day I decided to do another 30-day raw food challenge. I had done them before but this time, I really believed I needed it to end all my junk food cravings and to be healthy once and for all!
I still had cravings on a daily basis this time, but I was able to stick with the challenge somehow. I did, however, have a never-ending craving for a burrito that sometimes kept me up all night.
After the 30-day challenge was over, I still had the burrito craving and decided to have one: “Just to get it out of my mind and get over it,” as I told myself. I thought this way my body will get what it wants, get over it, and I can just continue with my perfect raw food diet.
But that first bite turned into a two-month junk food binge and purge episode. I felt so sick, guilty and disgusting and I knew the purging to be the only way to “undo it” or to relieve some of the guilt and the uncomfortable sensation I felt with a stomach full of junk foods.
I felt miserable, stuck, and bloated. I felt like my own worst enemy. Someone who I had no control over. I had turned into this food smashing monster who was greedy and did not care about her own health. I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to eat the most nutritious foods on the planet, foods we are supposedly biologically designed for as taught in the raw food books.
To fight this binge-purge situation I was in, I decided to do a three-day water fast. I thought that maybe I just needed to clean my system and my taste buds, and then my body would naturally start to crave healthy foods again. I could start fresh. At this point, I was just so desperate to end this unhealthy bingeing and purging.
Before the first day of my water fast, I planned one “final” binge, promising myself that from tomorrow I will never eat junk again. I bought all of my usual binge foods, ate them all, felt disgusting and bloated, and then vomited. Now I was truly “motivated” to start over with my three-day water fast.
I fasted those three days and felt great afterward. I felt clean and pure, and I lost weight. When I decided to eat again, I first started with some raw juicy fruits. I knew that for the first days after a fast it is not good to eat overly much, but gradually increase the food volume. It was all good in theory, but in practice, it was somewhat different.
I felt my digestion working again and true hunger signals kick in. By the next day, I felt so ravenous that I went to the shop, bought all of my usual binge foods and binged again!
The cycle had just continued. My eating disorder was worse than ever. I purged till the blood vessels in both of my eyes broke, and I walked around with completely red, bloody eyes for about a month.
I was in shock. I was crying and felt the worst I ever felt. I realized I was totally out of control and lost.
After that, I gained weight. I usually NEVER gained too much weight because previously I did not do any calorie restriction. But after the three-day period of no food whatsoever, with reduced metabolism, with the binge and purge session that followed it, I gained about thirteen pounds. I was at my heaviest at that point, and I felt so uncomfortable.
After that, I started to eat cooked foods again without any will to be 100% raw anymore. I just realized it wouldn’t work.
However, my eating disorder was not cured, it was just the beginning. I continued with the high carb low fat vegan diet – the cooked food version. I was still eating a lot of raw foods but included cooked foods too. This was a little bit more sustainable, but I still could not stop the bingeing on junk foods or eating until I felt sick.
I was still trying to eat clean, and I still felt guilty about certain foods, but since I wasn’t doing any calorie restriction or fasting, I slowly lost the extra weight. It took me a whole year to lose that weight by not restricting calories. I also stopped purging for a good while that year, so that helped with normalizing my weight.
But my mentality was still eating disordered, I still wanted to eat as clean as possible – I was not recovered. I was still overeating for most meals. The bulimia came back later on because I did not understand that by restricting the foods I craved, I couldn’t recover. This continued until the start of my recovery in 2013.
Letting go of strict food rules to gain control of bulimia
In September 2013, I was still planning to eventually return to raw foods one day. This was simply what I believed to be the only answer for me. I did not see any other way. I was too focused on eating only healthy foods and limiting all unhealthy foods.
I remember planning to start another 30-day raw food challenge from October 1st. But as usual, this meant going on a “last and final binge” so I could start “fresh” from tomorrow. So I did it, and felt incredibly sick afterward and purged.
I remember crying and suddenly I started seeing how sick it was what I was doing. How stuck I really was. And based on my numerous attempts to be fully raw previously I KNEW this 30-day raw food challenge would just lead to another binge and purge. I had simply seen it happen so many times.
I started to wake up and see the vicious battle that I was in. For the first time, I started to realize that maybe the bingeing and purging was not the thing that had to be stopped. Maybe it was the RESTRICTION that had to be stopped first.
So, from that realization, instead of doing another 30-day raw food challenge, I started my recovery. From then on, I wrote in my diary (where I always wrote down my restriction goals) to “eat what I truly crave.” I was just so tired of fighting against my body at that point. I was willing to try a different approach.
Finding balance and freedom from orthorexia, binge eating, purging, and food obsessions
It was a process of one year during which I totally re-evaluated my food choices, learned about my body signals, how to not restrict and eat what I craved and returned back to intuitive eating. It was a process of trial and error to find out how to recover. But one year after my final binge and purge session I was fully recovered from my bulimia and orthorexia.
I do not believe that eating fruits and veggies and trying to improve one’s diet to be healthy directly causes eating disorders. But when your healthy eating makes you binge-prone, obsessed with foods, fearful of foods, causes you to have too much stress over foods and eating, it overrides the health benefits and replaces it with more damage to your health and well-being instead. We have to know where to draw the line because there is a point where eating healthy can become unhealthy.
Now I am completely recovered from my eating disorder. I am able to eat when hungry and stop when full. I eat what I want when I want and how much I want. I have clear skin, good digestion, normal healthy weight, and no more cravings or junk food binges. I lost the ability to overeat and do not have a “good or bad” foods mindset. My health and eating are way more balanced now by listening and trusting my body than when I tried to actively control everything.
Even now, I still sometimes look back at my journey and am so thankful and amazed how the body is able to recover and find balance again with food and eating, if only given the right tools and conditions to do so. By not fighting against it but working with it.
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For more help ending binge eating, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF. It is a 30-page guide to help you understand why you binge and how you can take control back.