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Eating disorder recovery is not a linear process. While full recovery is 100% possible, how you get there and what it looks like is unique to each person. But diet culture is sneaky, and does not make it easy to slip from its grasp, so while you find yourself on the road to recovery you may still feel stuck with obsessive thoughts related to food and exercise. You may feel better than before, yet still trapped. You are not alone.

Orthorexia is an obsession with “proper” or “healthful” eating in which people become so fixated on so-called “healthy eating” that they can actually damage their own well-being. Many people in the process of recovering from eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia may find themselves drawn into the land of orthorexia as a socially-acceptable form of their eating disorder and way to continue to cope with negative thoughts or feelings and feel in control.

Here are some signs you or a loved one may be struggling with orthorexia: 

  • A preoccupation with eating “clean” and resistance to eat anything outside a narrow group of foods deemed “healthy” or “pure”
  • Cutting out particular food groups (e.g. all sugar, all carbs, all dairy) without medical reasons
  • Increased concern about the health of ingredients and compulsively checking ingredient lists and nutritional labels
  • Commonly substituting ingredients in recipes to “healthify” foods 
  • Spending extended periods of time thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events and showing distress when “safe” foods aren’t available
  • Obsessive following of food and “healthy lifestyle” accounts on social media
  • Using exercise to “compensate” for food and inability to take rest days or breaks from exercise

If you read through this list and recognize some of your own behaviors, it may be helpful to ask yourself the following questions: Am I choosing XYZ non-fat option because I actually prefer it this way or because I’m fearful the full-fat version is “unhealthy?” Am I making black bean brownies because that’s what sounds good to me or because I’m not giving myself permission to enjoy a chocolate brownie? Uncovering and fighting against orthorexia is undoubtedly a tough challenge, as diet culture and our image-obsessed society will convince you that you are not “sick enough” or that your behaviors are normal, and your “willpower” commendable. But you were meant for a life of so much more than counting your day’s macros. 

One of the first steps to coming out of the diet culture fog is to surround yourself with Anti-Diet, Health at Every Size and Intuitive Eating resources. From podcasts and books to Instagram and Tik Tok accounts there is a world outside of diet culture that is waiting to welcome you and encourage a way of living that both respects your body and recognizes you are so much more than your body! Eating disorder therapists are also well-trained in recognizing orthorexia and helping you put one foot in front of the other on the path to recovery. Undoubtedly, this work is hard. But it’s the right kind of hard. And we’re right here with you, rooting for you every step of the way.

By: Maddy Weingast, Assistant for Therapy for Eating Disorders and Body Image