'Things were getting out of control': Student's obsession with healthy eating nearly ruined her life

Teenager with orthorexia
The teenager spiralled into an obsession with counting calories and weighing herself. Photo credit: Caters.

An Aussie student has revealed how an obsessive 'healthy eating disorder' known as orthorexia nearly ruined her life. 

Perth woman Sophie Smith said her obsession with size began when was aged 15 after she was weighed as part of a high school fitness test.

Feeling less confident as her weight was higher than the other girls, British born Sophie - who moved from the UK to Australia when she was 10 - said she began actively researching ways to lose weight and eat healthy.

Smith said over the next few years she soon spiralled into a dangerous obsession with food and exercise.

"I'd look up top tips about how to avoid getting fat and I made up a list of all these foods that were bad for me," she told Caters. 

"I'd weigh myself every day and none of my family ever knew. It was very compulsive, and my mood depended on how much I weighed that day.

"I told myself to get down to a certain weight. I wanted to be the lowest range of healthy as I could be on the BMI scale."

Orthorexic teenager
Smith says she was stressed and anxios about food all the time. Photo credit: Caters.

Smith said her mood would be determined by how much she weighed each morning. She also weighed most of her foods and tracked every single calorie.

She forced herself to work out every single morning - even when sick - and became scared of family holidays, Christmas and birthdays because she was so worried about gaining weight.

"It was really damaging to my life, but I just couldn't see it at the time," she said. 

At 16, Smith was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, which she believes could have stemmed from the amount of ad pressure she put on herself to be healthy.

Although she never got down to a dangerously unhealthy weight, she said she did lose around 20 percent of her body weight while going through her struggles with orthorexia.

"When I was diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, I didn't think anything of it. I just thought it was my bad luck," the now 21-year-old said.

"But looking back, I really do think it was because of my disordered eating. I was putting extra pressure and stress on myself all the time."

It wasn't until a family holiday to Melbourne in 2017 with her mum and identical twin sister that she realised how much her obsession with being healthy was impacting her life. 

"What should have been great family holidays became sources of stress and anxiety. I could never enjoy myself or fully let go and be in the moment," she said.

"I just felt so much guilt and shame all the time." 

Over the next two years, Sophie saw a psychologist and a dietitian to help overcome her eating disorder and to restore a healthy relationship with food.

She also began taking care of her mental health by unfollowing 'toxic diet culture' accounts on social media and focusing on body positivity.

"I feel so much better now. I am more relaxed, and spontaneous. I can go out to dinner or go to the movies without being anxious about food," she said. 

"Diet culture is everywhere. I avoid looking at food labels and I don't follow any toxic posts on social media.

"My life is so much better now. I'm not weighed down by any mental baggage and I feel free and happy."

What is Orthorexia? 

Orthorexia is as a mental health condition which involves an obsession with healthy eating that becomes detrimental to a person's psychological and/or physical wellbeing.

Warning signs and symptoms: 

  • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
  • An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
  • Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
  • An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed 'healthy' or 'pure'
  • Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
  • Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
  • Showing high levels of distress when 'safe' or 'healthy' foods aren't available
  • Obsessive following of food and 'healthy lifestyle' blogs on social media
  • Body image concerns may or may not be present

(sourced from the National Eating Disorders Association)