***Content warning: This post is about eating disorders and could be triggering to some audiences. Additionally, I am not professionally trained in health, nutrition, or psychology. Anything shared here is from personal experience. Please see the end of the post for professional help resources.***
I can’t tell you the first time I found myself afraid of food, but I know it happened gradually over the course of a few years.
As a college student in 2011, I started developing debilitating digestive and skin issues, and was constantly overwhelmed with pain and fatigue. When years of tests for common infections and diseases failed to diagnose the problem, I sought functional nutrition and dietitians to help me figure out if the foods I was eating were potentially causing these problems. I knew for certain I had a bacterial imbalance in my body (due to one test ordered by a nutritionist), and according to multiple experts all signs pointed to my diet and prior antibiotic use as the main cause of my health problems.
During this period, under the guidance of a functional nutritionist, I did the MRT test to check for food sensitivities. In simplest terms (and I mean simplest- please check the website for the actual science behind it), it is a blood test that determines how your white blood cells react to complex proteins in dozens of common foods. Following the blood test, you are mailed a large packet that shows you your highest, moderate, and low or no reaction foods. Additionally, you are given instructions on how to follow the LEAP diet, which is where you eliminate the high and moderate reactors from your diet, and slowly add them back in over time to see which ones you can actually tolerate, and in what amounts. I tested highest for amaranth and white potato, and had a long list of moderate reactor foods. Interestingly enough, white potato did and still does make me feel awful every time I eat it. With this information, I began the LEAP elimination diet, but was overwhelmed by how restrictive it was, and shortly ended it.
Following my first failed elimination diet, I turned to the Internet and began reading the stories of wellness bloggers I admired who had been through something similar. All of these bloggers had personal accounts of elimination diets, expensive blood tests, and cleanses that they had tried to determine the food culprit that was the source of all of their problems. I became completely obsessed with the concept of a “food intolerance,” or a food that causes discomfort and inflammation in your body, normally without triggering a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction such as that of a food allergy. I was no longer weary of being sensitive to foods, but believed that there were some I was completely intolerant to.
I began trying every elimination diet I could find online. FODMAPS, low-carb, dairy-free, gluten-free, low-sugar… you name it. Each of these diets failed before I could commit to the full term because they were so stressful. What I didn’t realize is that with each new diet, I subconsciously labeled the chosen culprit food as negative, and stored that away in my head. I would obsessively read labels. I recall one memory of going to Target with my boyfriend at the time, and spending a half hour reading the labels of all of the granola before buying one that seemed safe. None of this ever struck me as strange, and I thought I was just being conscious.
In 2016, I made the decision to go pescatarian because I truly never enjoyed meat (note: this decision was largely unrelated to my health problems, and is one that I’ve stuck with and never regretted). After my acid reflux became significantly better, I went vegan in mid-2017. While these choices made me happy, I was not feeling any better, and still looking for answers. One day in early 2018 I stumbled upon the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol, a very restrictive version of the Paleo diet that is designed to reduce inflammation that causes autoimmune diseases and gut problems. It sounded perfect to me, and exactly what I needed to try next. The only issue was that I was still eating a vegan diet, so meats were not allowed. Meats are huge portion of the AIP diet because so much else is eliminated. After speaking with a nutritionist, I decided to reintroduce fish into my diet so that it would be easier, although she still cautioned against it.
Suddenly, all of my main sources of protein (legumes and nuts) were gone, and I began eating small amounts of fish. I replaced my nut milks with coconut milk, and other drinks with strictly tea and water. I was eating strictly non-nightshade vegetables for all of my meals because I was so sick of fish, and was eating steamed broccoli when I went out with friends. I was counting the amount of fruit I had each day. I started reading that coconut could be considered a high-FODMAP food, and stopped eating coconut products which was my only real source of fat beside the occasional fish. My anxiety skyrocketed, and I called my mom crying every night. Each vegetable slowly became the enemy, and I started skipping meals altogether because I became overwhelmed with what would happen if I messed up a portion of what I was eating.
I saw my therapist one day about 3 weeks in, and told her what was happening on the diet. Somehow, I still didn’t realize the dangerous position I was in until she told me “Jenna, this is not good.” She told me I was afraid of food, and for the first time I realized I was, and had been for years. As is customary for me, I went home and Googled “obsessive fear of food”, and found information for Orthorexia. I was absolutely shocked.
Although not yet formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the National Eating Disorders Association describes Orthorexia as “an obsession with proper or healthful eating.” As I read the symptoms list, I began to cry realizing I was reading about myself. I told my mom immediately, and relayed this information to my therapist at my next session. We decided that the next course of action was lifting all restrictions on my diet.
This, of course, was not at all easy. I was absolutely terrified. The only restriction I resolved to keep was my pescatarian diet, because I had zero interest in eating meat. I slowly began eating foods I had long before eliminated. I allowed myself to indulge. At first, I felt guilty and ashamed, like I had let myself and other people down. I felt nauseous a lot of the time, likely from the unfamiliar foods and stress. Over time, with support from friends, family, my therapist, I was able to mostly recover. I still deem certain foods as “bad” in my head, read labels obsessively, worry about sodium, am basically terrified of dairy, and now have a problem with overeating, but I am working at it every day. In March, it will be one year since I began to recover.
I am sharing this today because Orthorexia is a condition that often goes under the radar and can be labeled as someone who is eating a “healthy” diet very easily. I want to raise awareness of this very common eating disorder, that I didn’t know I had until someone told me I did. I also want people to know that eating disorders show themselves in a variety of ways, and are not always about food itself.
I have come out of this with a few takeaways and things I’d like to share for anyone doing an elimination diet, or who may be concerned about eating disorders (please note: I am NOT a trained professional in health or nutrition. Everything I have shared here is from my personal experience):
Elimination diets are not necessarily bad, and I don’t intend to paint them as such. They can resolve a lot of health problems (I do still believe food intolerances are a real thing) and can change lives. However, in my experience, it is always best to do them under the guidance of a trained medical or dietary professional. It is so easy to get wrapped up in these diets when you’re feeling sick and looking for answers.
Everyone is different. Your body will not necessarily react the same to elimination diets as your favorite health influencer or your friend.
Be careful what you read and absorb online. Easier said than done, I know.
Listen to your body. I have been trying to practice intuitive and mindful eating. This has helped with my health problems in ways dieting never did. Post on that coming soon.
If you or someone you know if suffering from an eating disorder, there is help available to you. Contact NEDA online or by phone here.