How Giving up Gluten Made me Orthorexic
Orthorexia definition: An obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy.
This is an experience I underwent several years ago, after a slew of tests revealed potential allergies to numerous foods. As a vegetarian of 26 years, it seemed unfathomable that I would have to restrict my eating even further to now become gluten-free and vegan.
I’d already annoyed my friends and family enough by being the “picky” eater. But now, obsessed with the reasons why I couldn’t lose weight despite my heroic efforts, sitting in a doctor’s office, and hearing that in order to reduce inflammation in my body and recover from leaky gut syndrome, I had to also give up gluten and dairy.
In my desperation to stay healthy and thin to be a good role model for my clients, (as a Health Educator for a national health and weight management organization), I took on this great challenge and managed to persevere for ten months. But it came at a great cost to me physically, socially, and psychologically.
At first, I saw it as a challenge. I downloaded gluten-free restaurant-finder apps, created a Pinterest board devoted to gluten-free, vegan living and researched relentlessly all the foods I could eat and say “yes” to, so that I wouldn’t feel as deprived. It was hard, to be sure, but I was managing and also cooking a lot more at home to make the task easier.
I had hoped for a dramatic change in the way I felt – more energy, less brain fog, instant weight loss, etc. But the truth is, none of these things happened. In fact, the most important lesson was that I realized I did not have symptoms to begin with! I felt exactly the same not eating gluten as I had eating it. Same for dairy, peanuts and tomatoes and about fifteen other foods I had to omit to give this allergy “discovery” a fair shot.
I started to see certain foods – even healthy foods – as toxic to me. I became obsessed at restaurants that there be no cross-contamination. Friends and family started to worry about me and my commitment to this new protocol. It was one thing if I were seeing great gains in how I felt, but yet another to actually feel more anxious, more preoccupied about food than ever before and see no change whatsoever in my digestion and overall well being.
It wasn’t until some further testing showed I had an overgrowth of bacteria and needed to go on a strong dose of antibiotics that everything changed. The antibiotics made me so ill and nauseous that one day at our neighborhood block party, I wolfed down almost half a pizza — all the gluten and dairy I could handle that day. After a few hours I felt no change (beside being really full). Over the next few days I tested the waters further by adding more and more gluten and dairy back into my diet. I felt so happy and so liberated. And best of all, I felt no change whatsoever in how my body felt on these foods.
I realized that the food allergy/sensitivity diagnoses not only made me more likely to binge, but because of the massive restriction I’d practiced for so many months, it also made me feel very scared and anxious. Frankly I’d become very afraid of food in general – the very thing I try to help my clients avoid. It was clear this madness had to end.
Ever since that realization, I’ve been feeling great. I am no longer trying to “fix” what’s not broken and have embraced pleasure with food again; a very freeing serene experience, when you instinctively eat moderately and with healthy foods. Coupled with my strong fitness regime and weekly yoga and meditation practice, I adopt the very definition of a role model for health – even with a few extra pounds.
I have deep respect for functional medicine and do not dispute for a moment that many millions of people do suffer from very real and dangerous food allergies. These diagnoses need to be dealt with and handled in such a way as to make the patient feel empowered as to what they can eat to feel less deprived. But, blood tests can be imperfect or marred or just plain wrong. Maybe I should have dug deeper; maybe I should have gone for a second opinion. But for me, it was clear I just simply had to listen to my own body and trust my inner dietician. I knew these tests were wrong and psychologically harmful for me as well.
As I sit here with my whole grain pasta with broccoli and freshly grated Parmesan, I smile at the lovely meal waiting for me. I feel peace instead of fear, and anticipation instead of shame.
And really, isn’t this how it should be?