Why I’m fed up of giving up
Fresh starts are brilliant. I love the concept of New Year: optimism, goal-setting, washing off the past and getting excited for the 12 months ahead. But I won’t be falling down the same rabbit-hole as last year, or the year before – I won’t be giving anything up.
If you’ve stepped into a supermarket this month, you might have eyeballed smoothie mixes and low-calorie microwave meals padding out promotion aisles. That’s because two of the most common new year’s resolutions are to eat healthy and lose weight.
Healthy. That glorious utopia beyond crisps, thick-sliced white bread and purple Strongbow. It’s something I’ve constantly strived for since being diagnosed with coeliac disease five years ago. It’s also something I’ve made myself extremely ill with.
I believe everyone should educate themselves on what they’re actually eating. Too many people are ignorant and that’s why kids are growing up obese and addicted to junk.
Swotting up on bad foods and making slight adjustments to our diet is fine. Maybe you’re ditching the Merlot medication this month. Perhaps you’re relieving your work desk of your Haribo habit.
But in January, when food companies and wellness industries are offering ‘miracle cures’ at every click, it’s possible to get sucked into the promise of optimum health. Especially if you’re already ill.
The slide into orthorexia
When you find out gluten can kill you, negative messages surrounding other ‘bad’ food can be all-consuming. Two years ago I developed orthorexia, an eating disorder that excludes food groups and quickly turns to compulsion. The symptoms overlap with those of anorexia and OCD, only the aim is not to lose weight – it’s the desire to maximise health. For me, I simply wanted to get better.
The problem with orthorexia is that you don’t know you have it. Until you do.
Until you fall into the underweight BMI range and the doctor pleads with you to try a potato.
Until you’re so constipated from living on nothing but spinach and bone broth that you’re shoving enemas up your arse at 11am on a Sunday.
Until you’re not going to work in order to prep food.
Until you see the horror on your mother’s face as you come home bearing tupperware boxes filled with obsession because you don’t want her to cook for you.
Even then it’s not entirely obvious.
What started as a gluten-free diet soon turned to cutting out dairy, eggs, nightshades, soy, tuna, carrots, lentils, yeast – yes it was that specific. I spent hundreds on sensitivity tests, grass-fed meat, organic food, new kitchen devices… along with books full of digestive jargon and technical drawings of gut walls (which were fueling all of this).
I was spiralizing the shit out of everything. But I was spiralling out of control.
Back to now. It’s January. Our bank balances have taken a thwack and so have our metabolisms. We’re all a little bit chubbier and we’re all getting out of bed in the dark. Our skin’s a bit grey from festive indulgence and the closest we’ve come to any vitamin C in the past month is a creamy orange Quality Street (always left ’til last in our family).
You might be thinking about tackling a diet. Finally feeling human; healthy and pure. Dry January, Veganuary, whatever. Try them – but be mindful and don’t become a slave to them. If you really want a cheesy pizza or the odd glass of wine with mates this month, don’t beat yourself up.
Purity packaged into a health-boosting diet can actually have the opposite effect. Whether that’s a plant-based diet or some paleo protocol, before you know it, you’re in a bubble of nutritional babble, obsessed, miserable and malnourished.
When I started bringing food groups back into my diet, I came to life. I’ve had half a year of cognitive behavioural therapy to combat my fears of being contaminated. I still have overwhelmingly anxious days where this is concerned, but becoming more relaxed mentally – allowing myself treats and being less terrified of people cooking for me – has changed my body physically.
If you’re struggling with an illness and you don’t know what it is, staying on top of your mental health can do wonders. Even on bad days – the ones I get no work done from chronic fatigue, my stomach is a confident capital D and my gut feels like a washing machine full of jelly – I don’t freak out about it as much now. I have coping mechanisms, whether that’s taking time out to breathe and stretch or just calling my Mam when thoughts take over. I still get ill and I still have no idea what the cause is (apart from coeliac disease), but slowly, the bad days are becoming anomalies.
How to spot orthorexia
If you think yourself, a family member, friend or workmate could be susceptible to this obsessive mindset, the best book I’ve read on the subject is Orthorexia: When Healthy Eating Goes Bad by dietician, nutritionist and eating disorder campaigner Renee McGregor. She details the common signs of orthorexia, a few of which include:
- Cutting out entire food groups on a quest for a ‘perfect’ or ‘clean diet
- Citing undiagnosed food allergies as rationale for avoiding certain foods
- Performing elaborate rituals relating to food
- Turning down social situations that involve eating
- Thinking critically of anyone not following a strict diet
- Spending extreme amounts of time and money on meal planning
- Worsening depression, anxiety and loss of interest in other activities
- Overwhelming guilt or shame about ‘breaking the diet rules’
I read Renee’s book in a day and it’s the first time what happened to me made sense. It’s also the first time I had the tools to start my new year with a truly balanced, wholesome way of eating.
From sugar-free to cutting carbs, Renee dispels the myths and ‘false gold’ surrounding diets constantly pushed in our faces. She interviews wellness bloggers who admit that not all the images they post are in fact ‘real’. I’ve had relapses, so I now need to be mindful of new eating fads, social media trends and wellness books.
This year I’m finally embracing food for pleasure and achieving nutritional balance over a period of time. If I have to bung a gluten-free pizza in the oven on a deadline day or dive into nachos and cocktails with friends then I will – the overall trend of three wholesome meals a day will balance it out.
Ignore the promo aisles this month, stop fretting, ignore calories, eat whole foods, don’t deprive yourself. You will be fine. New year, whole me – nothing cut out, given up or stripped off. And the less said about bone broth the better.