Crossfit, paleo, and orthorexia: When “healthy” goes unhealthy

by ~jenniferlynn on August 18, 2014

in CrossFit, Eattoperform, Skinny Girl Problems

Eat healthily, be healthy. Eat unhealthily, be unhealthy.

It seems simple enough, but what all does it mean to be healthy? What happens when healthy behaviors trigger unhealthy actions? A while back, I briefly talked about struggling with switching from paleo to Eat to Perform and had all sorts of mixed emotions going into it. It led me to thinking that there may be a strong link between crossfit, paleo, and orthorexia.

The topic came up recently on the Girls Gone WOD podcast, talking about the dangers of orthorexia. I had heard the term tossed around before, and have seen many “healthy” bloggers fall into what I considered to be the definition: an obsession with “healthy” habits that turns into an unhealthy mindset. I thought it was restricted to those obsessed with counting calories and doing endless amounts of cardio, striving for a perfect body. But it really is a lot deeper than that.

The National Eating Disorders Association explains it as:

a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.”  Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity.  They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with “slip-ups.”  An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style.  Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise).  Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.

I won’t deny it; to some degree I was there. I take that back- not just to some degree, but this was almost spot-on, me.

Combining Crossfit and paleo can be a cause of orthorexia. Striving for perfection in diet and fitness can lead to a healthy body but unhealthy mind. For more posts on Crossfit, check out @winetoweights at www.winetoweightlifting.com

I consider myself to have somewhat of an addictive personality, and event admitted last week some of my neurotic tendencies. I may come from a long line of gamblers, and growing up, it was almost a rite of passage, in a sense, to take your first trip to the casino. When I was going through my divorce (oh hey, did you know I was married for 5 years?), the casino became my escape. Between a gambling addiction and a shopping addiction (think of the book, Shopaholic (ironically one of my favorite books), – in debt, get depressed about being in debt, spend more money on things to make you feel better..). The casino was a similar; gamble your money away, get upset, think for whatever reason that next time will be different, and end up in a vicious, self-destructive cycle. I justified it as a “hobby” and not an “addiction,” as I was working two jobs to support the habit, my bills were being paid, and it was my replacement for any semblance of a social life.

While the degree and frequency of trips decreased significantly after I started a new relationship, the devil still sat on my shoulder. And then when I found Crossfit, it essentially was one vice replacing another.

People joke about Crossfit and its cult-like mentality and that people are brainwashed, and become addicted to it. But I think it takes a certain type of personality to really let it consume you. I was going to classes twice a week when I started at my box, and struggled upping it to three days. My body was sore and tired, and I wasn’t used to the taxing workouts.

Then I went through a heartbreak.

And all of a sudden, Crossfit became my reprieve. I started to go 5x a week, sometimes 6. I hated taking rest days and all I wanted to do was be in the gym.

I ditched all plans that didn’t involve Crossfit.

I never really had many close friends outside of my sisters, so my Crossfit friends became my only friends.

Crossfit consumed me.

Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully..”

I made the decision that if I was putting so much time and effort into my workouts, I should be eating to support my new healthy lifestyle. I had previously completed a Whole30, and I needed to get back into that mindset, of eating for perfection and optimal health. Note: I never had any eating disorders before, never had any sort of self-body-hate, nor did I ever strive to look like someone in a magazine. I was naturally thin and was not switching up my diet just to look good.

And I previously lived off of Chinese food and pasta.

“..but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity..”

I was not so strict as Whole30, but started buying organic meats and produce. I stopped going to conventional grocery stores and only shopped at Farmer’s Markets and my local markets. I did still maintain the use of protein powder, which was not paleo-approved. Despite my 95% adherence to the lifestyle, I was told by someone who consuming one “bad” shake a day was the equivalent of only smoking crack on Saturdays..

“..they become consumed with what and how much to eat..”

I never had a problem with wanting to cut calories, nor did I ever believe I should; but it was more a matter of making sure I was eating enough. I started to measure food, and log everything. I would see what other girls were eating and scoff at them for not eating enough, reveling in the fact that I could, and should consume 2000+ calories.

“..Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.”

Holy nail on the head. I became super judgmental of anyone that wasn’t eating paleo. In fact, I even became judgmental of those who were eating paleo. Beef jerky and nuts were not the way paleo was intended. Paleo muffins and brownies were not real paleo. You say you eat paleo, but where are your organ meats and fermented foods? Why aren’t you brewing bone broth and drinking kombucha? I was not perfect in everything that I was doing, but boy, was it easy to point out that everyone else was doing it wrong.

We would get lunches catered in to work, and I would snub at the salads and processed foods because who knows where it came from? Our boss would buy everyone lunch and I would wait to eat what I packed before or after. I would pass on our monthly “birthday goodies” spread because there was more sugar and gluten than I consumed in a month in one item. I would stress out when work meetings were scheduled around the time that I was supposed to be eating. I silently mocked those that were eating their Lean Cuisines and Healthy Choice soups. I would walk by the candy dish and glare at anyone who was sneaking a bite-size Snickers.

Suffice to say, I think the infatuation with the marriage of Crossfit and paleo did not help my dating situation at the time either. It wasn’t so much that I was probably just not ready to date or that I was just way too closed-minded for my own good, but the thought of going on dates gave me anxiety. First of all, it would likely involve a blip in my training schedule (and what am I training for, anyway?). Second, it would mean a chance of having to go out to dinner, to a restaurant where I would be unfamiliar with where they source their meats and produce; I would be exposed to alcohol (oh, that whole Wine to Weightlifting thing? Yeah, the wine consumption has decreased about 90% since this blog started). I would have to eat beforehand or plan the dates as situations where there would not be food.

Eventually, I went on some dates, judging everything about the poor guys who took me out. They didn’t lift. They didn’t eat paleo. They loved pizza and beer. They think running is the healthiest form of exercise. They go to globo gym and bench press. Who the “F” am I to care what someone wants to eat or how they workout? Why should that matter to me?

In a conversation with one of the fine gentlemen that I let take me out, he told me that I seem to have control issues. Hows that for first-date talk? I took extreme offense to his statement and obviously wrote him off right away (because he didn’t “get” it), but as an after thought, I think that is not an inaccurate statement and often something that accompanies compulsive behaviors. I liked my lifestyle because I could control what I was eating. I could control when I workout and control who I hang out with. I was putting myself out there with online dating because it was something I thought I should be doing, but really, it was a perfect opportunity to exercise more control.

It is often when you stop looking that you find what you were looking for.

I think it is not uncommon to have thoughts like this. We work so hard in the gym and are surrounded by so much information on ways to improve our health and how to fuel our workouts and what we are doing to our bodies. We strive for a solid foundation on which to build our workouts upon, so it makes sense that we aim for some sort of perfection. But there must be balance.

It has been about a year since I discovered Eat to Perform, but it has been a slow transition into letting up on the compulsive behaviors and just using the recommendations as a guide and not as a bible. I acknowledged last fall that pumpkin pie was a weakness, though once the season was over, kept right back up with my strict eating. For the past four months or so, I have focused more on performance and focused more on how I feel, rather than plugging numbers into a spreadsheet. I still love to track food sometimes and I am still not gorging on fast food, junk food, and alcohol. But I am not feeling guilty if I eat something that wasn’t planned.

I still load my shopping cart with all the healthy goodies, meats and veggies, and I order my probably-not-gluten-free-and-possibly-contains-GMO oats and rice from Amazon. I rarely have any junk food in the house, unless it’s “paleo-approved.” But if I am craving some post-WOD pancakes? I am not denying myself them. PR donuts? Done. Twinkie that Mom brings me because I was having a bad day? Hmm…. okay. 😉

I know what foods make me feel good and what foods make me feel badly; and also know that with my volume of training, Rice Krispie treats (RKCs as they say in the ETP forums), will not kill me.

I have come to terms with a healthy relationship with Crossfit, finding a way to balance it with my lifestyle, feeling comfortable taking rest days when I need them and listening to my body; scaling when necessary and doing what is best for me. To complement the workouts, Eat to Perform continues to ground me and steer me back into healthier relationship with food. My body composition may be a bit less lean than it was last year but in reality, my weight and body fat have not really changed all that much, yet my lifts and skills have gone up.

I purged my closet of tons of clothes that no longer fit me and rid my linen closet of products I will never use (I also took coupon-clipping to an extreme..), and now stick to spending my money on things that are functional, rather than because they are on sale. Nearly all desire to go to the casino has diminished (because the high from lifting is almost equivalent to that of gambling), and I would rather direct my money towards Crossfit or food. We still have a tradition on celebrating birthdays between my grandma, mom, and sisters; but no more sneaking away for solo trips as I had before. I am in a much happier, healthier, place.

Whether or not you do Crossfit or eat paleo, this can be directed towards any type of fitness or diet lifestyle. I said before I believe there is an all-or-nothing approach, and now I believe that you have to do what makes most sense for you, what is in line with your goals, and what keeps you healthy, knowing that the mind is just as important as the body.

Your turn..
Have you ever experienced any thoughts similar to the ones above?
Do you think that an addictive behavior can only be replaced by another?
What is your biggest vice?

Tina Muir August 18, 2014 at 7:49 am

Jennifer, I LOVE this. Seriously. This is AMAZING! I was honestly really starting to worry about our healthy blogging world, especially on instagram as you see so much of this. Girls who only eat nutritional yeast, egg whites, and vegetables…..it makes me sad. I can see the obsession, especially when a quest bar is considered a “treat”. I am an elite athlete, and I am surrounded by girls obsessed with eating healthy. Lots of runners end up that way, but they all end up in rehab when it becomes Orthorexia….whereas in the everyday world, those women/girls are never going to be diagnosed as it is so unknown. In the running world we see coaches, specialists who know it and can help them get better, but I see so many people online who have no idea anything is wrong, and it makes me sad.

If I go out to eat, and there is a guacamole, bacon BBQ burger that looks incredible, I am sure as hell gonna get it, and yes, I am going to have fries with it. Just because I am a high level runner, doesn’t mean I don’t deserve some good food, and besides, when you run 80+ miles a week, you CANNOT just eat healthy fruits and vegetables, your body cannot get enough calories. It is not sustainable, and certainly not “healthy”. I could ramble on about this for hours….but thank you for this post, it is refreshing to hear!
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Mary
Twitter: inmyheadspace
August 18, 2014 at 8:49 am

Great post Jen! I want to drive over there and give you a BIG hug! It is good to see you recognizing this and having the courage to talk about it. Now, if you could change your habit of leaving your keys in your door. 😉

Lauren August 18, 2014 at 11:33 am

Love this post! I still drink and eat things like ice cream sandwiches and burgers and fries (all happened yesterday, eek) but fuel my body with good things too! I think the orthorexia thing is REALLY common now esp with the internet and instagram especially. People think only eating “clean” or “paleo” or counting calories or eating like a fitness competitor whatever is the end all, be all.
http://www.breathedeeplyandsmile.com

Lindsay August 18, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Thank you for your honesty. I think we sometimes disguise our need to control as a passion. Which can then spiral out of control… Ironic yes? But then we meet someone who gives us the reality slap we need, the eyes open, and we see the real problem. Humbling but oh so needed. Life is never worth perfecting .. Its worth living and loving

Christine August 18, 2014 at 2:04 pm

By far one of the best blog posts I’ve read in this community.

~jenniferlynn August 18, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Thank you for reading, Christine! I think it is an all too common topic not often talked about.

Renee at bendifulblog August 18, 2014 at 3:30 pm

I think it’s just as easy to fall into healthy “unhealthy” behaviors as it is to fall into non-healthy ones. Often addiction just moves from focus to focus. I struggled a little bit coming off from Whole30 like OMG NO I can’t eat that food it’s bad. After a few months it wore off but it is easy to cross a line and become unhealthy with healthy if that makes sense. I always appreciate your honesty about the topic.
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Kaila (@MissSkinnyGenes) August 18, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Hey! So, I’ve been following your stuff via Twitter for a while now, and I have to say, I’m glad that you have found a way of eating/exercising/living that works for you!

I have struggled to get the word out about the pitfalls of paleo perfectionism and orthorexia. I think there’s a place in the world for paleo, but too many people think that strictness and purity is the only way.

As someone who is recovered from an eating disorder, I’m all too aware of when portion sizes and meal timing and restrictions become a way of managing the unmanageables in my life–but I’ve also found that not eating gluten and using paleo principles (not rules) has helped me fix my brain chemistry enough to really start recovering. So there’s definitely a place for it, but as soon as you start living by someone else’s play book or a set of restrictions, it’s time to ditch that strategy…

Anyway, all of that to say: good on you for finding a way to break up with the bad habits! I’m glad that you’re inspiring others to do a gut check before they fall into the trap of obsessing about things that, ultimately, aren’t going to make you happy.

Stay hungry,
Kaila

~jenniferlynn August 18, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Thank you, Kaila! Yes, I won’t say that paleo is necessarily “bad”, but I will say it gets to be a gray area. I can name handfuls of blogs of women (and men) that do strict paleo most of the time, but it was impossible to sustain my workouts and it was started to affect other things.
I still hardly eat sugar or consciously eat gluten, but it is just a much more balanced lifestyle overall.

Thanks for the comment!

M. Love
Twitter: Ms_MLove
August 18, 2014 at 10:19 pm

I. Love. This. I’m learning the opposite side…the learning to care more side. I need to balance more and pay attention more. Only because I have different goals at this point in time. Love the honesty and truth. And you, duh 🙂
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Maria @amotherworld August 19, 2014 at 8:50 am

I think that if someone is doing something too extreme whether it’s diet or exercise, it can’t last forever. There will be a time when some modifications will have to be made. You have to do what is right FOR YOU. And that may change from time to time, depending on your body, environment, life challenges. And that’s ok. Moderation is key, with everything in life!
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Nathan the FFK August 19, 2014 at 9:11 am

You definitely touched on a lot of points that affect most of us in the losing weight/getting fit community struggle with and may not even realize.
I used to avoid foods because I was terrified that they would make me gain. I wasn’t running towards healthy, per se, I was running away from being fat. And in reality that was just as damaging. You’re so right, your mental health is just as important as your physical health. It’s all about finding that balance in your life.
Awesome post!
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~jenniferlynn August 19, 2014 at 9:13 am

Thanks for the comment, Nathan!

Not often I get male visitors hanging around my blog. It’s usually something I think more women deal with than men, but can happen to anyone!

Soozle August 19, 2014 at 9:38 am

Wow! Thank you for sharing your story.. Very powerful and thought provoking post!

Theresa August 19, 2014 at 10:27 am

I think that the line between “doing what I need to do to get healthy” and orthorexia is very fine, and different for all of us. As someone who’s only now taking baby steps towards getting healthy, it’s easy to sit back and say “Whoa. That’s crazpants,” about some of those behaviors I see from my fellow CrossFitters and paleo aficionados. However, those folks are often healthy, and I am not.

The big question for me, is finding the balance between staying mentally and emotionally sane, while learning to make better (smarter?) choices about my food and activity levels.

I’ve really enjoyed the last couple posts you’ve put up about your struggles finding equilibrium with CrossFit, paleo, and “real” life. They’ve been very thought provoking in terms of my own health and habits.
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~jenniferlynn August 19, 2014 at 10:56 am

Thanks for the comment, Theresa!
Yes.. I can absolutely see how someone looking from the outside sees crossfitters/paleos (?) as crazypants.. even being on the inside I see it all the time. Thinking, ‘why would you put yourself through THAT?!’, and not often realizing I am that same crazypants person.

Prior to a couple years ago, I was the antithesis of healthy. I was always thin, so I just figured hey, I’m skinny, I don’t need to worry about it. But living on fast food, macaroni, and Ramen noodles while the most activity I got was walking from the couch to the kitchen, I would never in a million years think I would be where I am at today.

For me, it was just making small changes that eventually added up to where I am at today, and realizing that you will ALWAYS be a work in progress. I doubt there is anyone that you look at that is in their final place; I am constantly tweaking my programming and my diet.. I feel every few months I can write a post about what I eat and it would be different than the one before, even though I eat about the same thing everyday.

I say just work to do one thing until it’s comfortable, then do another. Like lock down a solid breakfast everyday.. or getting 8 hours or sleep.. or putting in 10 minutes of work before class.. and then work on the next thing once that becomes routine. Keep at it!

Emily (@emlor24) August 19, 2014 at 11:02 am

I love this! CrossFit is often a “healthy” addition, replacing an unhealthy addiction for many people. Life is always about balance. You never want to burn yourself out in any aspect – family, hobbies, friends, etc. That’s when stuff stops being fun. Just keep doing you and finding what works for you, girlfran!

no addiction is healthy March 30, 2015 at 10:51 am

I disagree. This is the newly revised definition of an “addiction” (substance use disorder, DSM5, focus on the behaviors here, not the literal word)…

The person must have at least two of the following for X within the same 12-month period:

>X in an amount that is greater than the person originally sets out to do (or using over a longer period of time on a given occasion).
>Worrying about cutting down or stopping; or unsuccessful efforts to X.
>Spending a large amount of time doing X, recovering from it, or doing whatever is needed to obtain it.
>Common use of X resulting in (1) failure to take care of things at home, work, school (or to fulfill other obligations); and/or (2) giving up once-enjoyed recreational activities or hobbies.
>Craving, a strong desire to X.
>Continuing the use of X despite problems caused or worsened by it — (1) in areas of mental or physical health; or (2) in relationships (e.g., using X despite people’s objections or it causing fights or arguments).
>Recurrent X in a dangerous situation.
>Building up “tolerance” as defined by either needing to use noticeably larger amounts over time to get the desired effect or noticing less of an effect over time after repeated use of the same amount.
>Experiencing withdrawal symptoms (e.g., anxiety, irritability, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, hand tremor or seizure in the case of alcohol) after stopping X.

I have seen Crossfitters fit every single one of these criteria, more often than not. In fact, the entire Uncle Rhabdo phenomenon sounds entirely too much like an exercise version of a drug pusher/dealer with an ulterior agenda…who cares if you get hurt? At least I get my money.

Alysia @ Slim Sanity August 19, 2014 at 2:17 pm

I’ve definitely struggled with healthy eating habits – twice in my life. I am at a much, much better place now. I can make well balanced decisions and not feel guilty when things don’t ‘go as planned!’
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Shelly August 19, 2014 at 5:01 pm

Well said, Jennifer. There’s no question that I have and continue to monitor my weight and eating habits more than most. Luckily, I feel like eating Paleo has helped me tremendously to find a healthy balance, but I can honestly say that I will never be 100% Paleo. I love Greek yogurt and Paleo-ish baked goods, Ezekiel bread, and so many other things that are not Paleo and not “bad” for me either. It’s all about moderation!
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Audrey August 23, 2014 at 4:44 pm

Beautiful honest post. I am trying to drop some fat right now so I am tracking my calories in and out. Pre baby I was a lot stricter about what I ate when I lost a lot of weight, only high quality foods and specific percentages of carbs/protein/fat on certain days, different on others, no complex carbs after 6 pm blah blah blah. Honestly, I just don’t have the time or the energy anymore.

It may take me longer. It may not be perfect. But neither am I. 😉
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Lisa August 26, 2014 at 2:13 pm

I’ve FELT all this judgement from people who “eat more righteously” than I do, but I had no idea it was an actual term. Thanks for this post. I’m sharing it everywhere today. (Found you through SITS and you definitely gained a new fan!)
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~jenniferlynn August 26, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Thanks for the comment, Lisa! Yeah.. we’re all a bit crazy, I think..

You get so wrapped up in what is “right” that it’s hard to put things into perspective like maybe they are eating that way for a reason, or maybe they have different goals than you, or can’t afford anything differently, or frankly, just don’t care.

I’m much better about it with strangers but still rag on my sisters all of the time.. In an innocent sense I think we do it to try and help others, but totally get how it can be bothersome on the other end of it!

Jordan @ The Balanced Blonde August 29, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Wow!!! I am so, so impressed by this post. I am so glad I came across it via Kim’s blog. From one recovering orthorexic to another… bravo. Speaking out about our eating difficulties and challenges is NOT easy, but it is so helpful to others to show that it is common to blur the line between healthy & obsessive. I am so proud of you for how well you’re doing! I would love to interview you for the Recovery Series on my blog. Please feel free to reach out if you are interested. Xoxo

~jenniferlynn August 29, 2014 at 2:29 pm

Thank you, Jordan! It’s so weird from having NO body image or any sort of issues into a pretty dim place!

Feel free to email me at winetoweightlifting@me.com! 🙂

Angela September 3, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Great post!!! I don’t think a lot of people recognize this as a problem in themselves. This is exactly one of the reasons why I won’t do Whole30. I don’t want to fall down that rabbit hole, ya know?

And I love pizza and beer. Even if it makes my tummy hurt sometimes!
~Ang
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~jenniferlynn September 3, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Thanks for reading!

Yeah.. and it’s like how can being healthy be unhealthy? But it soooo messed with my mind, developing something wrong that wasn’t even there! There was another good post here: http://busy-bod.com/orthorexia/ that was similar story; just becoming so obsessed with the doing things right thing.

jill conyers October 15, 2014 at 3:24 am

Jennifer this post could have been written about me. Thank you for leaving a link in a comment on my blog. I’m surprised I didn’t come across info orthorexia when I started reading about almost anorexic.

“…starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully..”
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~jenniferlynn October 17, 2014 at 9:28 pm

It’s so backwards to think that trying to make ourselves MORE healthy we stumble down this rabbit hole of unhealthy habits.. I think it’s good to be aware of it and at least acknowledge that it is an issue or potential concern and it makes it easier to accept it and how we need to move forward. My biggest thing was finding that balance between healthy body/healthy mind.

Chelsea February 24, 2015 at 5:22 pm

I was hesitant to read this post, since I was afraid you were going to blame orthorexia on paleo. But I was pleasantly surprised! I think this is a thoughtful look at the way adopting a healthy lifestyle CAN lead to disordered eating.

I will definitely admit that I started to slide down the slope of orthorexic behavior when I found CrossFit and paleo – I judged others for not being as strict as me, I tore myself up for missing a day of CrossFit, etc.

Thankfully, my non-paleo, non-exercising boyfriend gave me a reality check before I dug my own hole too deep. I still consider myself paleo, but I’m not incredibly strict about it. I think my bigger struggle is with CrossFit – I still sometimes beat myself up over missing two days in a row or something like that, especially with the Open coming up.

Anyway, I wanted to comment just to tell you that I appreciate how thoughtful your post was (and then I rambled a bit)!
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