On Christmas Eve almost 10 years ago, I left hospital vowing to never let myself become so painfully thin ever again. After more than a month of being fed through a tube and moving around in a wheelchair, I'd convinced myself that this experience would scare me away from anorexia and my disordered eating. How wrong I was.
Five years later I was back to my severely malnourished, miserable shell of a person that an eating disorder causes oneself to become. With a BMI of just 15, I was trapped in my own restrictive and ritualistic behaviours. Only this time, I was adamant that what I was doing was healthy.
I was hitting my daily recommended intake of fruit and vegetables, ensuring a more than adequate amount of protein and hitting those calcium targets. Yet, I was obsessed. Obsessed with tracking every morsel of food that went into my mouth, and avoiding so called 'toxic' and 'harmful' food products. I was obsessed with clean eating.
The media and government guidelines are forever touting the need to eat a healthy diet and live an active lifestyle, but what does this truly mean? I had become fearful of everyday conventional foods; these were foods like gluten and dairy, soy products and anything that contained sugar.
It is often socially acceptable to cut out certain food groups in the name of health, but we need to ask ourselves if this is really necessary.
My diet became more and more restrictive and, with this, my world shrunk. I'd avoid social settings that involved eating. I'd fixate about what I was going to have for dinner. Eating at a restaurant involved navigating the menu and I simply couldn't enjoy myself. I felt extremely isolated and trapped in my own anxious thoughts -- that eating something that wasn't 'clean' would drastically hurt my body. The irony was, that I was already hurting. My mind was out of control.
Today it is trendy to eat a certain way, to follow a 'food lifestyle' like paleo or vegetarianism or an organic-only diet. On the surface, this seems harmless, but we have to ask ourselves what our underlying intentions are. What happens if we eat something that doesn't align with this lifestyle? Does consuming other types of foods cause distress or worry? Does it define our self-worth?
This is not healthy at all and this type of behaviour can certainly cause disordered eating. It's called orthorexia and this is where an individual is fixated on their definition of 'clean eating'. There's nothing clean about waking up at night and ruminating over having that slice of cake at your best friend's birthday party.
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Obsessions with this fictitious notion of 'clean eating' and orthorexic behaviour can really fly under the radar. It is often socially acceptable to cut out certain food groups in the name of health, but we need to ask ourselves if this is really necessary. I had completely forgotten what it meant to have a balanced lifestyle. Food became the epicentre of my life. It was my number one priority and I had forgotten what it felt like to go out with friends and just enjoy myself.
It is the most liberating feeling to step back and stop letting food control your life. People with eating disorders appear to be in complete control of what they eat, but the truth is, it's the food that is controlling them, that was controlling me. In the pursuit to be 'healthy', I had once again orchestrated the complete opposite. I was underweight, miserable and now facing a whole host of health conditions: early signs of osteoporosis, the inflammatory bowel disease ulcerative colitis, and extremely low white blood cell counts.
Yes, eating a healthy diet is important, but being healthy is about everything in moderation. It's about enjoying the experience and listening to what your body wants and needs at any time. This might be a salad, it might be a steak, or it might well be a burger and chips. My new mentality is to eat from the whole rainbow, and enjoy the irreplaceable social experiences that a flexible diet and lifestyle offers!
Thomas is a guest on tonight's episode of Insight at 8.30pm on SBS, which explores what happens when the drive to become healthy becomes unhealthy.