Life With Orthorexia: ‘ How My Healthy Diet Became An Eating Disorder’

'My Healthy Diet Became An Eating Disorder'


by Contributor |
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She thought she was simply looking after herself. But, gradually, her desire to eat 'clean' tipped Kim Willis, 32, into orthorexia...

As the supermarket delivery driver handed me the last bag of food, he asked if I was throwing a party. The assumption was a fair one - after all, it seemed like a hell of a lot of food for one person. But had he looked inside those bags, he’d have seen no alcohol, no party food, nothing to feed a crowd. Instead, those heavy bags were full of vegetables destined for my juicer, my spiralizer and my blender. I'd painstakingly worked out everything my husband and I were eating over the course of the next seven days. There would be no spontaneous pub dinners, no puddings, no booze. I was the queen of healthy eating but I had no idea how out of control my need for control had become.

Healthy eating has never been more popular. Twitter and Instagram are filled with celebrities and health bloggers attributing their glowing appearance to eating ‘clean’, unprocessed food and shunning alcohol and sugar. But in trying to emulate them, I became so obsessed with eating the perfect diet that it took over my life and made me absolutely miserable.

Orthorexia is the term increasingly used by experts to describe what happens when the desire to eat clean, unprocessed foods becomes an all-consuming compulsion. It derives from the Greek ortho, ‘right’ or ‘correct’, and orexis, ‘appetite’, literally meaning 'correct appetite', or 'correct diet'. The term was coined in 1997 by Dr Steven Bratman and isn’t yet regarded as an ‘official’ eating disorder.

I’d never have classed myself as having an eating disorder, because I loved healthy food and always ate three times a day, plus homemade snacks. But there is a fine line between healthy eating and fixating on a way of life that takes all the joy out of food. A fine line that I crossed.

'I’d gone from being the life and soul of the party to not attending the party in case I was offered tonic water (full of sugar).'

Dr Bijal Chheda-Varma, an expert in eating disorders at London’s Nightingale Hospital, says: ‘We’re seeing increasing numbers of cases of orthorexia. Eating healthily is good, but severely restricting your diet or eliminating entire food groups is unhealthy and can spiral into an eating disorder. If rules about what you can and can’t eat start becoming the main focus of your day, you should seek professional advice.’

Once upon a time, I was known to finish a drunken night with a kebab and chips. I shudder to think of that now - a kebab? Me? Fast forward a few years and I’d gone from being the life and soul of the party to not attending the party in case I was offered tonic water (full of sugar).

My obsession started when I began to suffer adult acne a few years ago. Doctors couldn’t tell me what was causing it, a dermatologist offered antibiotics that did nothing, and I became convinced it had something to do with my digestive system. The solution, I concluded, lay in perfecting my diet.

I tried eliminating gluten, carbs, sugar, wheat, processed food, meat and alcohol. My rules were strict and if I stuck to them then I was happy, because maybe I was solving my skin mystery. But gradually, I came to dread social situations. In my attempt to appear laidback, I’d wolf down whatever pasta, pudding or pie friends presented me with. I’d have a glass of wine. Then I’d go home and hate myself. My once healthy self-esteem was diminished by disappointment. I began to cancel arrangements, or didn’t make them in the first place.

I was happiest (yet loneliest) at home, where I could be in complete control over breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Friends knew my husband, Gaz, 32, never stepped foot in the kitchen and implored the feminist within me to insist he took his turn at cooking. But they didn’t understand how much of a control freak I had become. If he cooked, would he use coconut oil? Would he add a teaspoon of sugar I didn’t know about? While my skin was getting better, my mental health was not.

From one month to the next, I fixated on different foods, depending on the advice of whichever super-healthy blogger I was obsessing over. Food fads ruled my life. Eggs, full fat milk and avocadoes went from banned to brilliant in the space of a week. Honey, carrots and bananas went from being eaten daily to never again.

I spent hundreds of pounds a week following the recipes of Deliciously Ella, I Quit Sugar, Get the Glow and the Hemsley sisters. I gave away all my old cookbooks, the ones that I bought before I knew the truth about sugar and its evil friends.

I couldn’t remember the last time I ate a solid breakfast. I was eternally juicing, cleansing, detoxing and buying so many bags of kale I didn’t have room in the fridge. I even started getting up 10 minutes earlier to allow for cleaning the intricate workings of my juicer. My husband begged me not to spend so much money chasing a lifestyle. He's all for healthy eating but felt I was setting myself too many rules, which only led to disappointment. And he missed our dinner dates.

I was chasing an elusive and expensive lifestyle, so glamorously and effortlessly championed by the beautiful (and spot-free) bloggers I’d fallen in lust with. Yet the chase wasn’t making me as happy as they looked. I was isolated, my diet was laborious and there was no room for the things I used to find so fun - pub grub, dinner parties at friend’s houses, a slice of carrot cake with Saturday’s coffee.

The turning point came when an old friend came to stay for the weekend. In days gone by, we’d have munched on crisps while I whipped up a huge curry, washed down with wine. One of my elaborate cheesecakes would have finished the meal. Instead she sipped on non-alcoholic beer (it was all I had to offer) while we dipped red pepper sticks in homemade humous. For breakfast I made something called a 'Get the Glow' skin saver juice - a parsley, celery and lemon juice concoction that really has to be downed in one because it’s so disgusting. My friend winced as she sipped on it politely. Her face said it all. Where had the old, fun Kim gone? Where indeed. Lost in endless rules and regulations that left me neurotic, unhappy and exhausted.

I realised that a clean diet is great, but the occasional treat is vital. The more I relaxed and re-entered my social life, the happier I became and would you believe it, my skin settled. It still hasn’t entirely cleared up, but healthy eating is now a general lifestyle choice rather than the militant execution of a precise ingredient rulebook.

The correct diet is the one that makes you happy. Eating healthily has helped my digestive issues and hopefully my skin troubles too. It makes me feel clean and energised, but I am infinitely happier since I learned to enjoy the recipes of all these gorgeous blogger chefs, but with a sprinkling of normal life treats. Because no amount of juicing celery (which I still loathe) beats a night of laughing until my side hurts with friends who know I like my gin and tonic with a slice of lime and my brownie without nuts, but with a dollop of fro-yo.

Healthy eating to the detriment of your social life, your sanity and your happiness? Not so healthy after all.

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