When my yoga instructor told me she was afraid my heart would stop during hot classes, I knew things were serious — and I was scared. My weight had plummeted, I was eating next to nothing, and I’d developed a fixation on fitness and weight loss that was anything but healthy.
My yoga teacher wasn’t the only one to notice my alarming physical transformation. Friends and family were begging me to get help. Even my college professors were worried, telling me I wouldn’t be able to finish my senior year unless I sought treatment.
Although I didn’t recognize it at the time, I was in the midst of a full-blown disorder called orthorexia. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) doesn’t recognize the disorder as a clinical diagnosis, but many people experience its symptoms, including an obsession with diet and exercise. At first, I was “just” anorexic, but as my compulsion grew, I quickly transitioned to orthorexia.
The tipping point came at breakfast one morning with a professor and some other colleagues. There was nothing on the menu that I felt was healthy enough to eat, so I just drank water.
No one will notice, I told myself. It’s fine.
Then I overheard someone at the next table saying how sad it was that “that girl” had an eating disorder. Wait, what? I thought. They can’t be talking about me.
Slowly, things started coming together. I realized I couldn’t sit on chairs that weren’t padded, because they hurt my bones. I had been isolating myself from friends, skipping meals so they wouldn’t see how obsessed I was with clean eating. And I spent as much time poring over nutrition and wellness books as I spent with my textbooks. My disbelief turned to shock. Is this actually who I am? How did I get here?
Time to Let Go
My fragile body image began to emerge in second grade. I remember shopping for first-communion outfits with a group of friends and our moms. I was mortified that all the others wore a girl’s size 8, and I needed a 10.
From there, my self-loathing snowballed. Although I was always conventionally slender, I started comparing myself with my friends and images in magazines; I could never measure up. When I gained a bit of weight as a college freshman, I began counting calories and adjusted my diet. I transitioned from vegetarian to vegan, thinking that cutting out dairy was the healthiest choice. After that, I went gluten-free to further “perfect” my diet. Then I decided I’d eat nothing but raw foods, and I quit carbs and sugar, too. Eventually, the only thing left was raw vegetables — and if something didn’t fit my rigid diet, I just wouldn’t eat at all.
Thoughts about exercise began to consume me, too. Although I’d never been athletic, I bumped up my hot-yoga practice to every day, then twice a day. If I wasn’t in the studio or doing wellness research online, I was out walking to keep myself moving. Ten thousand steps? No problem.
At this point, I was doing so much independent research on fitness and dieting that I launched a blog called Wellness Wonderland — on top of my college workload. I truly thought I was the picture of health, but that online image wasn’t the whole truth.
I felt ashamed and intensely self-critical. And my body was breaking down. My clothes hung on my frame and my hair was falling out. My doctor told me my organs were slowing down and my blood pressure was dangerously low.
I knew I needed to let go of what I thought “healthy” looked like and find help, first looking outward — and then looking inside.
A Path to Healing
Recovery wasn’t a solo effort. I knew in my heart that it wasn’t as simple as putting on weight and scaling back on exercise, because the disease was in my head, too. It was in my destructive thoughts and self-criticism, and in my obsession to make everything I ate or thought or read fit into my rigorous lifestyle.
To address those issues, I sought treatment from a team of experts — medical doctors, therapists, life coaches, and dietitians — who helped me step off the dangerous ledge of orthorexia.
Then something serendipitous happened.
I was at a bookstore, browsing in the self-help section, when I was drawn to the stationery selection and a particular journal. I happened to have a gift card and I thought, I’m going to buy it. Little did I know that small decision would change everything.
Every day that summer, I sat outside writing in my journal about what was happening in my life. It was cathartic; it offered clarity and deepened my self-awareness. I felt like I was being heard. Writing helped me sort through my destructive thoughts and begin to understand that I was going to be OK.
My journal allowed me to be raw and real in a way that I wouldn’t let myself be in therapy, because I was afraid of being judged. And it helped me acknowledge my thoughts in a way that I couldn’t through meditation, because I felt too much pressure to keep my mind clear. Writing stripped away that fear and frustration and let me express it all: the good, bad, and ugly. It was only by acknowledging those thoughts that I truly began to heal.
I gradually loosened my eating restrictions, relaxed my exercise regimen, and slowly began to gain weight. Seeing my body change — and discarding the clothes that didn’t fit anymore — wasn’t easy. But recording my feelings helped me maintain a clear perspective.
Journaling was a powerful practice during my recovery, so I kept it up. I began recommending it to other people as a tool that could help them see the big picture and recognize their true worth. That led to writing a book, Let It Out: A Journey through Journaling, to guide others through their own process.
Ironically, the solitary act of writing made me feel more connected to everyone, because it helped me realize that struggling is universal. Everybody — no matter what they weigh, no matter how much they exercise — has felt bad about themselves in one way or another.
Understanding that I’m not the only one with insecurities has made me feel less alone — and more empowered. I’ve realized that orthorexia is part of who I am, but I can still be confident.
As my disorder began to improve, my definition of “healthy” began to change. Now, I see true wellness as something that includes all aspects of life: mental health, relationships, environment, and career. Your body is obviously part of all of that, but it’s just one part. There is so much more to who you are than the way you look or how much you weigh.
Balance is key. I still think eating real, fresh foods is healthy, but I also think eating birthday cake with friends or having a really delicious pastry is good for you in other important ways. I believe exercise is healthy, too, but it shouldn’t cause guilt, stress, or shame.
These days, I’m not so hard on myself, and although it’s still difficult to see my weight fluctuate, spending time with my journal helps me manage those challenges. My biggest health goal now is to have a body that I like most of the time.
I’m writing myself a new story, one in which I love myself and live my life completely. And although orthorexia is something that will always be with me, I know I have a good beginning.
Meet: Katie Dalebout, 26, blogger, speaker, podcast host, and author of Let It Out: A Journey through Journaling.
Big Achievements: Conquering orthorexia, an obsession with “healthy” eating and exercise.
Big Inspiration: A desire to come out of isolation and live life to the fullest, inspired by her friends and family and their concern for her well-being.
What Worked: Daily journaling, in tandem with medical treatment and therapy, for sifting through her negative thoughts.
What Didn’t Work: Avoiding help from friends and family; bottling up emotions and hoping they would resolve on their own.
Words of Wisdom: “True healthiness means making your life, as a whole, really beautiful and wonderful — not just your body, not just the way you look.”