When an Obsession With Healthy Eating Becomes a Dangerous Risk

Orthorexia sufferers have a compulsion to eat "perfect" meals or not eat at all

November 13, 2014, 3:23 AM

— -- It was 8 a.m. in Santa Monica, California, and Jenni Victor was meticulously preparing breakfast, one of the many struggles with food she will face that day.

“I like my food to look pretty, which is not always the case,” she said. “If something doesn’t come out the way I want it to, or it looks unappetizing to me, I will just throw it away.”

Victor was trying to fry eggs, when she got frustrated and slammed the pan back down on the stove, because she hated the way the yolks looked.

“A major fail,” she said. “[The eggs are] still perfectly healthy, but I know if I eat it, it’s not going to be appetizing to me, so I’ll just do it again.”

The 23-year-old’s battle with extreme perfectionism around food and compulsive attention to every morsel has morphed into a full-blown eating disorder called “orthorexia nervosa,” which means “an obsession with righteous eating.”

“Orthorexia has taken a huge toll on my body,” Victor said. “I recently found out that I have adrenal fatigue and an underactive thyroid and I haven’t had a period in almost a year.”

In a nation where one-thirds of adults are obese, Victor has an obsession with making sure her food is as healthy and pure as possible – to the point where she won’t eat it if it’s not perfect.

“When you have Orthorexia, every single day is full of anxiety over food,” she said. “From the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed, you’re thinking about food. Your day is literally consumed with thoughts of food.”

For Victor, every bite causes inner turmoil.

“I’m scared of gluten, I’m scared of grains, sugar has become another thing I’m trying not to eat very much of,” she said. “Even eating a sweet potato for breakfast, I’m wondering how much sugar is in it.”

Victor was 17 years old when her eating disorder began taking over her thoughts. Six years later, every day is still a battle, every meal is fraught with anxiety. Her mother Tracy Victor, whom her daughter still lives with, said she found it baffling.

“I remember taking her to doctors’ appointments because she stopped menstruating,” Tracy said. “They all took me aside to another room without Jennifer and was like ‘you know she’s anorexic, you know she has an eating disorder’ and I was like, ‘I’m her mother, I see her eat.’”

Dr. Jennifer Ashton, a practicing OBGYN and senior medical contributor for ABC News, says there can be “confusion” with recognizing Orthorexia.

“A lot of people who take this type of eating pattern to an extreme can become malnourished, can become underweight or cachectic, and therefore a lot of the signs and symptoms with anorexia nervosa or bulimia can actually overlap with Orthorexia,” Ashton said.

Victor posts pictures of her meals regularly to her Instagram account, a social space that has become a support community for her.

“Instagramming has been actually really amazing for me,” she said. “It’s connected me to a lot of other like-minded people, people who are also suffering from eating disorders. I’ve connected with a few girls I would have never been able to meet otherwise.”

In fact, Orthorexia has taken on a life of its own on social media. The hashtag #orthorexia has over 40,000 tags on Instagram from around the world, connected to a flood of unappetizing photos of meals.

But Ashton says people posting obsessively about each and every bite they eat can signal a much larger problem.

“All of a sudden now you put a picture on Instagram and you have potentially hundreds or thousands of people weighing in and saying, ‘how could you eat that, that’s not healthy,’ or ‘that’s so healthy I’m so jealous of that,’ it’s like throwing gasoline on the fire for someone that really is on the edge to be tipped over into something that’s pathological,” she said.

Jordan Younger became a vegan sensation on Instagram, with almost 90,000 followers to date, obsessively chronicling her meals on her blog “The Blonde Vegan,” until her restrictive diet dissolved into Orthorexia.

“When it turns into an obsession rather than something that you’re doing because you’re passionate about it, and you’re excited about it, it just takes over your mind,” Younger said.

Younger said she restricted her diet so much that she developed a strange rash, grew weak and, like Victor, stopped menstruating.

“I started realizing that I had vitamin deficiencies,” Younger said. “I was malnourished, I was very much restricting myself through the shield of veganism.”

But when she revealed her Orthorexia publicly and said she was quitting veganism, Younger said she got surprising mixed reactions from fans, including death threats.

“It’s nuts, for people who are obsessed with not hurting animals, [they] can be so cruel,” she said.

Victor said she saw a reflection of herself in Younger’s blog posts, and said she wasn’t surprised when she went public with her eating disorder.

“I think one of the biggest signs of someone who is suffering from Orthorexia is when it’s so obvious they already have such a healthy lifestyle yet they’re constantly setting goals to be healthier,” Victor said. “I wanted to feel empty... I felt even if I was eating anything at all i had done something wrong, unless it was kale or green juice.”

Both Younger and Victor said they took comfort in knowing they are not suffering alone, but the struggle is ultimately a solitary one.

“There is that twisted aspect of having a disorder where you kind of don’t want to recover from it because you’ve put so much of yourself into being this way that you almost don’t know what you’re life is really going to be about without all these food rules and strict ways of doing things,” Victor said. “I think I’m almost scared to see who I am without all of the stresses I’ve placed upon myself.”

Victor said she is slowly trying to stop demonizing certain foods, having found out the hard way that too much of a good thing can be bad. In the three months since she was interviewed, she said she has made major progress and is free of her old ways.

“Recovery is not easy and it’s extremely easy to get down on yourself and think that it’s too hard to do, but I know that it’s not and I know I can do this, and I think just having that strength and knowing I can if I try hard enough is enough to push me to succeed,” she said.

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