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Personal Experience of Eating Disorder

How Orthorexia Helped Me Heal From a Lifelong Eating Disorder

The following post was originally published on Clean Living Guide.

The Anxiety of Being Good

The pursuit of the illusive waif figure consumed nearly half my life. Each moment was permeated by the trinity of deprivation, binging, and purging. Everything revolved around "good" and "bad" choices, but bad choices had ramifications and solutions. This produced an immense amount of anxiety, leading to incredible release and relief when the misstep was corrected. In contrast, good choices felt good in the moment but produced an anxiety that had no solution. Rooted in deprivation, good choices would ultimately give way to the loss of control.

From the time I was 13 until about 30, I purged an average of 50 percent of my food intake. It began with throwing up bad foods, but quickly escalated to not only throwing up when I ate too much of a regular meal, but to eating simply for the purpose of vomiting. Not because I enjoyed throwing up, but because the anxiety produced around the struggle between having or not having the guilty food was so great that I knew it was safer to satisfy it by going all out with the binge.

Gluten, Fat-Free Foods & Bulimia

The real kicker is that bulimics don't often get skinny. Their metabolisms are so out of whack that their bodies hold on to every sugary, fat-producing carbohydrate — ensuring a perpetual pudge. So even though I was purging regularly, I was still what felt like "fat" throughout my high school years. It wasn't until my early 20s that I became driven enough to dramatically limit my food intake in addition to binging and purging. Finally I began to lose the weight that made me uncomfortable, but even so, I never got to be as skinny as I longed to be.

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For one I had a gluten allergy, which despite having all the symptoms of the disease, remained undiscovered by myriad doctors who tended to me all throughout my adolescence and high school (read more about the symptoms of gluten intolerance and Celiac here). In all likelihood, the puffy-pudgy body I began to develop as a little girl was a result of untreated gluten intolerance.

That was the beginning of my weight gain, but the second issue that perpetuated my bloated body was diet, and dieting specifically. As a teen I began to reject the healthy whole foods that my Polish parents made and began to shift towards non-fat foods, more processed American foods, and finally dipped into going vegetarian. Fighting perpetual malnutrition and anemia because of the gluten intolerance, while feeding my body fat-free carb and gluten-heavy foods threw my already slowed metabolism into a tailspin.

Healing Through Orthorexia

When the internet became a viable river of information in the early 2000s, my obsessive-compulsive personality drove me to pore over whatever information I could find on dieting, and conversely on holistic healing. I felt desperate to get better. The purging became so prevalent that I was afraid for my life and seeking the help of doctors, psychiatrists, and cognitive psychologists was not producing meaningful results. Seeing holistic healers helped me to better understand that emotional connection between the obsessive behavior and my childhood experiences, but epiphanies alone couldn't cut through the wiring to my obsessive behavior.

Here's where healing and orthorexia finally step in. First let me preface by highlighting that orthorexia is not an officially recognized disorder in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This is a term coined by Dr. Steven Bratman, in a piece he wrote for Yoga Journal in 1997. He came up with the term to refer to what he believed to be an "unhealthy obsession" with healthy food in patients with eating disorders. By using this term I'm recognizing that my first forays into genuinely healthy eating — as opposed to deprivation — may have been obsessive. But it was this obsession that laid the foundation for healing from inside out.

Over time as I continued to research glimpses of information began to surface pointing out that natural fats in whole foods were not the cause of weight gain. I began to learn that the copious amounts of processed soy milk I had been consuming for years was full of hormone-disrupting chemicals; that non-fat, high-carb foods were responsible for weight gain (not weight-loss); that there were GMOs in our food supply; that pesticides were not to be taken lightly, and that the story we'd been fed about saturated fat was a lie. And eventually, that grains and gluten specifically might be the cause of my hard to control weight, along with cause for the mental, skin, and other disorders I was battling.

Trusting Food Again

Living with an eating disorder means that you have a high capacity for creating order. So as this information began to flood my mind, I slowly — and I mean at a snail's pace — was able to shift my OCD mind to focus on eating authentically nourishing foods. It took quite a few years, but as I began to witness that eating healthy whole foods did not result in weight gain, I began to trust food again.

At the height of my dieting obsession, aside from anti-nutrient foods like saltines and soy milk, I ate healthy foods too — salads, soups, smoothies, and the like. But I was obsessed with the food that I "kept down" being nearly fat-free. I denied myself the nutrient-dense foods my body so desperately craved and needed, like butter, beef, eggs, and even olive oil. If I did eat those foods they were nearly guaranteed to "come back up." In effect I was starving my body of the nutrition and fat my metabolism and brain needed to function properly.

Once I started to eat well (including pasture-raised meats, bone broth, raw dairy, and fermented foods) with the help of regular exercise, I began see that it was possible for me to stay naturally slim. Those extra five pounds melted off and my mind began to calm. Over time manic thoughts that would lead to binging subsided. I could walk past a bakery without fear. I could keep foods like peanut butter in my pantry. And if I ate a bite more than was acceptable, with increasing frequency, I could control the desire to purge.

Trust Turned Love Affair

As I began to fall in love with cooking and progressively learned more about the various health benefits of a wide variety of whole foods, my acute ability to create order came into play in a positive way. My characteristically OCD mind switched its focus to this new obsession and I became consumed by my commitment to finding the very best foods available to feed my body. I was still controlling what went in, but that was exactly what my body needed — a steady flow of vigilantly vetted food that would build my body back up from decades of abuse, starvation, and malnutrition.

During this advanced stage of my healing I began to understand and accept that I have a gluten allergy (you can read more about why it took so long to come to the conclusion here). This was the last piece of the puzzle for me. After I cut out gluten completely, my obsessive thoughts finally quieted to a point that fell within completely normal range. We all have our moments where we give into a piece of chocolate that our rational mind would prefer to abstain from. With my mind no longer in a state of mania, such an instance would not lead to either eating the whole bar or to an abyss of self-loathing. I could have the piece of chocolate, or even three and know I'd be okay.

I still eat the very best foods possible, but if I have to eat out at a restaurant that's not exactly healthy because of travel or other circumstances, I can live with it without feeling paralyzed by anxiety. Eating natural, well-sourced whole foods is incredibly important for my health and for the health of our precious planet. This matters a great deal to me, but I don't have to be perfect all the time. Although I make the best choices within my means, I finally don't beat myself up over what I eat.

Let Food Be Thy Medicine

If you struggle with your weight or are suffering from an eating disorder, first set yourself up with, what life coach Sahar Paz calls, "an army of healers":

But as you work with these helpers, keep in mind that whether you have a tendency towards gaining weight or are suffering from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), that both real or perceived extra weight may be caused by malnutrition and putting foods into your body that cause mental or bodily imbalances. By this I mean nutrient-deficient, low-fat, non-fat, processed, high-carb foods, packed with chemicals, denatured salts, and sugars.

If you follow my recipes and allow yourself to reintroduce healthy saturated fats into your daily nourishment, together with fresh vegetables, mineral rich whole grains, legumes and meats if possible, chances are that you'll begin to see improvement in both how your mind functions and how your body metabolizes food.

Don't be discouraged if you're concerned that you can't afford an all organic diet! The most important point is that you start to eat whole, fresh foods complete with fats, minerals, vitamins, and all the wonderful co-factors that allow for absorption and assimilation. Despite what many people believe, farmer's markets are an incredible resource for extremely affordable produce (see more tips for shopping here). You will find both conventional and organic farmers at any market with prices to match your budget and needs. Combine fresh food with online options (like Thrive Market) for less expensive, yet healthy pantry staples and you'll be able to put together affordable, yet nutrient-dense meals.

The Gut-Brain Connection

Seeking psychological help alone will never work. You need to address the biochemical signaling that takes place between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system, what is known as the gut-brain axis. If you've been starving yourself through deprivation or by binging and purging, the entire ecosystem of your body is not going to be working properly. And taking an antidepressant or talk therapy alone are not going to fix a problem that is fundamentally rooted in malnutrition, gut dysbiosis, and a domino effect of other bodily disturbances. (1)

Even if you're certain that childhood abuse or other life experiences led to the psychological trauma which produced the obsessive compulsive behavior that you suffer from, you need to understand that your microbiome is still at play. Studies now show that children that suffer abuse or neglect develop different microflora than those who did not — that such environmental factors influence gut microbiota colonization.(2)

Although you need to heal the wound in your heart and mind, you will foster psychological healing by addressing your physiological needs first. If you're at all dubious about this hypothesis, just refer to current research that shows the undeniable link between gut health, and healthy cognitive function.(3, 4, 5)

Actionable Incremental Shifts

For a full understanding of the gut-brain connection and how gut dysbiosis plays a role in the development of eating disorders and other OCD psychological disorders, get a copy of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride's book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAP Syndrome or GAPS). This book will change your life. But don't wait until you get the book, or until you finally get around to reading it. Start making incremental shifts in your diet now.

If you're afraid of food but are a meat eater, try introducing Homemade Bone Broth first. Drink it every day if you can. You will begin to remineralize your nutrition deficient body. This is equally as important for people suffering from anorexia or bulimia.

If you're a vegan introduce nutritious high fat foods such as coconut oil and avocados, together with eggs if you're a vegetarian. Try making this wonderful smoothie, The Palm Springs Green Smoothie, or these delicious One-Pan Sautéed Spinach & Crispy Over Easy Eggs.

In either case it's essential to begin to include lacto-fermented foods into your diet to reestablish healthy gut flora. Lacto-fermented sauerkraut and Kimchi can be expensive, so you're better off making your own. Try making Traditional Sauerkraut or any of the recipes in my Fermented Foods recipe section.

If gluten sounds like it might be an issue and you're considering eliminating it from your diet, be sure to read this first: 6 Critical Steps to Successfully Diagnosing Celiac and Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance.

Be sure to visit my recipes page to get inspired! All these foods are as delicious as they are healing. Made with healthy fats, veggies, grains and meats, they will keep your body naturally trim while supporting a balanced mind.

If you're still afraid of fat, watch Sugar: The Bitter Truth with Dr. Lustig. This lecture explains in detail just how the myth that fat makes you fat came to be and describes actual physiological processes, not the fable we've been fed by the processed food industry.

1. Gut microbiome in health and disease: linking the microbiome-gut-brain axis and environmental factors in the pathogenesis of systemic and neurodegenerative diseases. Shivani Ghaisas, Joshua Maher, and Anumantha Kanthasamy. Pharmacol Ther. 2016 Feb; 158: 52–62.

2. The composition of the gut microbiota throughout life, with an emphasis on early life. Juan Miguel Rodríguez, Kiera Murphy, Catherine Stanton, R. Paul Ross, Olivia I. Kober, Nathalie Juge, Ekaterina Avershina, Knut Rudi, Arjan Narbad, Maria C. Jenmalm, Julian R. Marchesi, and Maria Carmen Collado. Microb Ecol Health Dis. 2015; 26: 10.3402/mehd.v26.26050.

3. Changing gut bacteria through diet affects brain function, UCLA study shows. Rachel Champeau. May 28, 2013.

4. Gut Feelings: Bacteria and the Brain. Jane A. Foster. Cerebrum. 2013 Jul-Aug; 2013: 9.

5. A Johns Hopkins expert explains how what's going on in your gut could be affecting your brain.

Image Source: POPSUGAR Photography / Sheila Gim
Product Credit: Tory Burch vest and shorts, BCBGeneration shirt, Gabriela Artigas ring
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