Orthorexia survivor says obsessions with eating healthy shouldn't be 'celebrated'

"Every dressing would be on the side. Everything was thought out."
"Every dressing would be on the side. Everything was thought out." Photo credit: Getty

A Kiwi woman is speaking out about how her healthy eating obsession was often overlooked by society, but when her habits did draw attention, they were celebrated. 

Five years ago, aged 17, Helena Nuich developed Orthorexia Nervosa but at the time, no one suspected the disease could be a bad thing.

The term 'Orthorexia' was coined in 1998 by eating disorder clinicians, but is not formally recognised as an eating disorder, nutritionist Jess Campbell says.

The obsession with dietary quality often creates rigid and restrictive eating habits, such as cutting out food groups deemed 'unhealthy' or 'unpure'.

Unlike anorexia, people with orthorexia are rarely focused on losing weight. Instead they have an extreme fixation over the 'purity' of their food. 

'Rules around everything' 

The now-22-year-old got into a 'health food' phase after following fitness Instagram accounts, and as a side effect of anorexia nervosa recovery.

"I got really, really into food, which was really weird after being scared of it for so long," Nuich told Newshub.

"But it was all 'health' food. Everything I was eating had to be clean, had to be 'no refined sugar', 'no dairy' - I convinced myself I was allergic to dairy and gluten… and I'm neither.

"Every dressing would be on the side. Everything was thought out. I would pick off all the seeds from seedy bread because I thought they would be extra calories."

Body Balance director and nutritionist Jess Campbell says orthorexia requires a sense of tight control, leading to distress when that control is lost.

"If we'd go out for dinner I'd have to plan it a week in advance so I would exercise enough and eat more-so clean to make up for that," Nuich says.

"If I was going out for Italian to have pizza, I wouldn’t touch bread that day. If someone invited me over for drinks that night I'd be like 'I can't' - just because I would've needed a few days to prepare myself. 

"There was no budging, rules around everything, there was no room to pivot - ignoring the fact life doesn't always go the way you plan." 

Eating disorder dietitian Jacqui Tyler says it's not uncommon to see withdrawal from social occasions where a person has little control over food choices.

"Being consumed by food-thoughts impairs a person from fully engaging in social activities and enjoying being in the moment," she says.

'It's constantly boosting your ego' 

Nuich says one of the problems about this obsession is that people were consistently praising her for being 'healthy'.

"I was really praised for looking the way I did."

"You get people like: 'You look so good what are you doing? What are you eating?' - It's constantly boosting your ego." 

"Look at half of the health-bloggers I follow - they too have this obsession… but it's celebrated," she says.

The 22-year-old says the stream of phrases often communicated like 'you should be eating this' and 'replace this with this' are fueling the problem.

"It's so weird how we have to re-train ourselves how to eat and re-train ourselves to eat what our body feels like."

Nuich eventually overcame her obsession when she realised how much internal energy she spent on over analyzing food.

"Sometimes you eat pasta, sometimes you don't eat the cleanest in the world, but tomorrow's a new day and you don't have to go for 10 walks to make up for it."