People always ask me about Orthorexia – where do you draw the line? Some articles say that if you count
calories you have Orthorexia. Some articles make it sound like Anorexia. What is it? Should I be worried?
So, in this article, we’re going to talk about where that line is, and what to do when you’re on the line. Of course, if someone is over the line into full blown Orthorexia, they need help from a mental health professional. That being said, most fitness minded people “bounce off the edges” of Orthorexia from time to time, and don’t know why or what to do about it. I’m going to share a couple tools I use with my clients to keep them in a powerful, effective, and healthy headspace about diet and nutrition:
I’m going to start with that if you think you have full blown Orthorexia, you need to get assistance from a mental health professional.
When I worked at a big box gym, about 1/3 of my female clients told me that they had had an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Of course, if they were currently dealing with an eating disorder, I would refer them out to a mental health professional, and only train them within the guidelines of their treating physician.
But for people who were currently healthy, but want to be fit and lean and know that they have to eat healthy, it can be hard to know where to draw the line.
Let’s take a look at three common disorders:
Anorexia – Destructive obsession with losing weight and getting skinnier. Associated action is starving.
Exercise Anorexia – Destructive obsession with losing weight and getting skinnier. Associated action is obsessive compulsive working out.
Orthorexia – Destructive obsession with eating “perfectly”. Associated action is demonizing and fearing “bad” food, compulsively (unable to stop) calorie counting.
The key word in all of those is destructive.
If you are 26% body fat and you decide you want to lose 5 pounds, that doesn’t make you anorexic. There is healthy weight loss and destructive obsession with weight loss, And exercise is obviously a good thing, but taken to crazy limits where it becomes destructive is a completely different animal. Likewise, with Orthorexia, there is nothing wrong with eating good healthy food. But when it starts to run your life…
Extreme? That’s ok. Destructive is the problem
Take a look at bodybuilders and fitness models. Their diets are extreme, but they may or may it be Orthorexic. I’ve met plenty of bodybuilders with totally healthy relationships to food, much more healthy than the general public. They get food as fuel for results, they get food as a social construct, they get food as entertainment. And they do it all at different times of the week and/or different stages in their yearly training cycle.
I’ve also seen it go the other way: body image gets skewed. Self and worth start to become identified with body fat percentage. Then it all becomes destructive and obsessive.
What’s really sad is that both versions – totally healthy or totally Orthorexic, may be taking similar actions, just with a different mental context.
Context vs Content – The Most Important Fat Loss Mindset Tool
If you had a bowl of fruit, then the fruit is the content, and the bowl that the fruit sits in is the context.
So for example, the content of your fat loss is food journaling, strength training, ect. The context of your fat loss could be “I want to look good in my bikini for spring break.” Or the context could be “I feel like a fat pig and I hate myself.”
So while the food journaling and strength training is the same, it will be a different experience for each person depending on their context.
The girl who just wants to look good in her bikini for her vacation to the Caribbean might be very diligent in terms of calorie counting and picking healthy foods and getting enough protein. But it could all be from a very healthy context, and could be a fun challenge.
The girl who feels like a fat pig is going to have a very different experience. She’s going to calorie count like its the only way to save herself. She’s going to be scared of bad foods and horribly punish herself for eating wrong. This context is setting her up for Orthorexia.
Both could be the exact same girl, just with different contexts.
So if we want a healthy context, you’d think we would always want to focus on positive motivation, right?
Not necessarily. Positive motivation, like focusing on your future goal, isn’t usually as effective as negative motivation. Negative motivation would be focusing on what you currently have that you don’t like.
Case in point: Your future goal may not be a compelling enough reason to skip that chocolate brownie in the heat of the moment. Focusing on what you don’t want (unhealthy, unattractive gut, ect.) may be a stronger motivator.
You’re Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
If it seems like the need for a healthy context is at odds with using negative motivation, it is. This is where things get tricky.
Fortunately, there is a workable solution: Getting ok with how you are now.
If you are ok with how you are now, then you can use negative motivation without the negative motivation using you.
It looks lie this: “Right now everything is fine. I’m healthy, I look pretty good, but I want to take it to the next level for that beach vacation coming up. I’m going to skip
This chocolate brownie, ’cause if I eat crap like that right now, I’m going to have some extra fat when I put on that bikini.”
Context – Being ok: “Right now everything is fine. I’m healthy and I look pretty good”
Positive motivation: “I want to take it to the next level for that beach vacation coming up.”
Negative motivation: “if I eat crap like that right now, I’m going to have some extra fat when I put on that bikini.”
If your context is that you are ok, then it’s ok (and very normal) to not want to have some extra fat when you go to the beach, and to recognize that you may have to cut out some desert.
Wanting to change, get better, develop yourself, or improve are all totally great and wonderful things, and really great contexts for fitness.
Trying to fix something that’s horribly wrong with yourself is a really bad context and a quick path to destructive behavior.
Casting a Wider Net for “Ok”
I’m always telling my clients that they are ok; “You are fine. You have a better than average body fat percentage. You’re healthy. Where you are at is good, we’re just working on taking you from *good* to *rockstar*”
But I also never lie to them. There is an actual numerical “ok line” that everyone needs to get under just for health. Here is the scale I use for my female clients:
Over 33% body fat: Not ok. Heading towards health problems. Need to make a change in fitness for your long term health.
30-33% body fat: You aren’t where you want to be, and we are going to get you under 30% THIS MONTH, so you can be ok.
26-30% body fat: You’re ok. I get it, you aren’t at your ultimate fitness goal, but everything is ok. You’re healthy, you’re fine. You’re actually in much better shape than most of America.
23-26% body fat: Most people would consider this about average (based on what they see on TV). Truth be told, based on the reality of the American Public, this is actually fairly advanced. You’re leaner than most people in the United States, and you’re actually leaner than most people working out in the gym. Guys think you are attractive and fit. You look really good in the clothes you want to wear. You’re doing great.
20-23% body fat: Lets get real, you’re a hottie. You. At have some things you want to work on, but you look really good. You look good in clothes, you look good at the beach. You’re advanced compared to the gym population. Most girls could stop here and be really stoked with how they look.
16-19% body fat: You’re done. You look awesome. You’re hotter than most of the girls in the world. There’s nothing left to do. Let’s set a sports performance goal of some kind to keep you motivated, cause you already look like a rockstar.
So that’s the scale. It’s a lot more forgiving than most of the body fat scales out there, but that’s because most of the people talking about it are using the context of competing in fitness/bodybuilding competitions. That’s not my average client.
My average client just wants to look good. And this scale is very accurate for real people. I’ve had clients that hit their fitness goals at 23% body fat and clients that hit their fitness goals at 17% body fat, and they both looked great.
To be totally real, some girls have more hips and boobs and look better at 23% body fat. It depends on the girl and her individual body type. It’s cool to look sporty and super lean, it’s also cool to be curvier and have some girls parts.
I think a lot of people have been force fed goals or ideas about what’s attractive.
You’d actually be shocked at how varied different women’s goals actually are.
And with all these different goals, you get gurus and trainers and websites trying to tell you that your goal is wrong and that you should want something else. One website talks about how to avoid getting bulky. The next website says that it’s empowering to be strong and it’s wrong to want to be skinny.
I’m like a bartender. What ever you order, that’s what I give you. After all, it’s your goal. You should have what ever YOU want.
The Average Gym Girl
You’re going to bounce off of The edges of Orthorexia from time to time. It’s actually not that different from going crazy and binging on pizza and chocolate chip cookies for a weekend.
We try to stay on the healthy eating path, but we are going to fall off (on either side) once in a while.
Falling off the healthy eating path is totally normal.
It’s a commitment we try to keep most of the time. Whether you fall off on the *eating crap* side or you fall off on the *Im-getting-neurotic-about-eating-healthy* side, its the same. You just get back on the healthy eating path.
I repeat – for emphasis – everyone falls off. Just get back on.
That being said, if you find yourself dealing with actual Orthorexia, don’t rely on fixing it on your own. Immediately get the assistance of a mental health professional.
This Was A Hard Article To Write
I held off on writing this article for a long time. I was really concerned about “getting it right”, and with good reason – it’s an important subject.
I’m not a mental health professional, so I wanted to be really clear that if you need professional help you should get it. I had a major concern that if I wrote this article and gave you these tools, that people might try to use the tools instead of seeing a doctor.
But I also wanted to let people know that you can be very detailed and committed to your nutrition plan, and have a totally healthy relationship to it. It takes work, and you’ll mess up sometimes, but it’s worth it.
Most of my clients, truly, just need a little guidance in terms of what a healthy context for food might be for them – and then they are off and running. We can work together as a team to notice unhealthy contexts, talk about them, and work on managing them. At the same time, we can keep putting back in the healthy contexts.
In the end, the result you get should look like this:
1.) You got the fat loss results you want
2.) You have a healthier context for food and eating and nutrition
3.) You have a healthier, happier relationship to your body
ALL THREE need to be worked on, every single week. And this is why I’m willing to spend 10-20 minutes of a 50 minute “workout” session talking about “food”. My secret that know one knows is that we spend about half that time planning to overcome food obstacles, and the other half talking about context.
We keep working on a more powerful context, because as you get a healthier context for food, they get better results. And as they get a healthier and happier relationship to your body, you get better results.
Josh Hillis, RKC, CPT, PES, ZMIS