Orthorexia nervosa, a clean eating obsession, controlled former health and food blogger, Daniella Isaacs’s, life for years. Now she shares her emotional story with the eating disorder before taking her one-man show Hear Me Raw to theatres during this year’s Edinburgh Festival
I’ve been obsessed with food since a young age. What I call a ‘foodie’. Growing up I had a few mental health issues – anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and a disorder called depersonalisation, which is where you feel a detachment from your own body and the world around you. But the one thing I thought I would never have was an eating disorder.
A healthy size 10 I never had any real body hang ups. But things went downhill when I left drama school around four years ago, age 21. I thought as soon as I left I’d become a successful actress and earn lots of money. But everything I told people I would do wasn’t happening.
I read Deliciously Ella’s story about having an autoimmune disease like me, which she cured by changing her diet
Around this time my sister got engaged, and like many families, mine all went on a diet. I’d never interacted with dieting before and I became very focused. I joined a gym and started doing exercise for the first time properly, and it became a routine that I found quite addictive. It gave me a purpose, I guess.
I have coeliac disease, so I was already gluten free. But on my sister’s hen night I was speaking to one of her friends, who funnily enough didn’t have a full time job either, and she said, ‘you have to learn about clean eating. It will help your stomach’.
I felt proud, getting validation from the amount of likes on my photos on Instagram
Immediately I began looking into clean eating, reading blog posts online and popular books. I read Deliciously Ella’s story about having an autoimmune disease like me, which she cured by changing her diet, so I related to her. I cut out sugar, dairy and my gluten free substitutes like bread and pasta. I remember Googling ‘what does Miley Cyrus eat?’ Apparently she is free from everything, so I thought, ‘great, I’m doing it right!’
I felt better for a few weeks, particularly less bloated since I cut out foods like bread and pasta. I began taking photos of my food to put on my Instagram account, which was a new social media platform then, getting a lot of recognition. I felt proud, getting validation from the amount of likes on my photos. Which is when the obsession slowly started.
When healthy becomes obsessive
Things exacerbated when I went to Australia. Myself and another actor were performing at the Adelaide Fringe, an annual arts festival for two months. During this time, my life was consumed by constant thoughts about what I was going to eat and when I was going to exercise.
People were giving me compliments about how thin I was – despite looking borderline anorexic.
I would go the gym on the way to the theatre and run 5k before performing. I became scared of eating out with anyone, because I needed to control what was put on my plate. If I went to someone’s house I would offer to cook so that I could choose the food. If I ate at a restaurant, I always insisted on choosing it, normally vegan. If I couldn’t, I would find an excuse to go to the toilet and on the way speak to a waiter or chef, explaining I had an intolerance to dairy or oil, even though neither was true. Sometimes I would ring before to check it was safe, telling them I had a friend coming who had intolerances because I was embarrassed – deep down I knew something was wrong.
Australia has a really big healthy living culture, and I fit right in. My behaviour didn’t feel abnormal. I made good friends at the gym I was going to which had a strong presence in London. When I came back I put acting on the wayside and got in touch with them. I began working with them, and I became one of the health bloggers that I had looked up to. As a freelance writer and recipe developer, I collaborated with some really big influencers and trainers and made a name for myself in the wellness industry. I even launched my own gluten-free granola brand, with interest from health food stores such as Planet Organic. We found a factory and a 50 per cent investor was on board, but it fell through because I couldn’t match the investment.
It became easy to allow what I now know as orthorexia to rule my life. It was the norm for me to be eating ‘clean’. I created a lifestyle that facilitated that.
I dropped from a size 8-10 to a 6, although my size 6 jeans were a little big. I can remember how great I felt when I got so many likes on a photo of me at a friend’s wedding. People were giving me compliments about how thin I was – despite looking borderline anorexic. They came to me for advice like I was an expert and would ask me ‘What’s your secret?’
Unfortunately, in our society, thin is congratulated. The word thin is packaged in more empowering language, with Instagrammers using candy phrases like ‘I am happy and grateful’. But they just want to look great in their bikinis. I got sucked up by Instagram, and couldn’t help but compare myself.
When I reached Instagram’s version of healthy, I got sick
I had a mental health illness, that is what an eating disorder is. Being thinner didn’t make me any happier, I was boring and robotic.
What I ate
What did clean living mean to me at the time? It meant moving my body every day, otherwise I would feel guilty. It meant eating no processed food, sugar or dairy, and when I cut out carbs, that’s when it went over the edge. I counted vegetables as my carbs and I limited my fruit intake.
On a typical day, at my most extreme, I would have a smoothie for breakfast with almond milk, protein powder, spinach, chia seeds and maybe some berries. I cut out the banana because I was scared of them. I poured it into a bowl because it felt more like a meal, and I’d make it look pretty by topping it with superfoods (I hate to think how much money I spent).
For lunch I would have a salad. But not a boring one, it was always elaborate because I loved food. I wouldn’t have olive oil, maybe just some cider vinegar with lemon. If I had protein it would never be more than half a salmon fillet, for example. I may have had an apple or nuts in the afternoon. For dinner, I would have fish and I devoured so much roasted vegetables and tahini – that was my body crying out for starch and fat.
Then the binges began
I started to get into a binge and purge way of life. I would be restricted during the day, and then come 9pm I would indulge in ‘healthy food’ like nut butter and a bag of granola. I would never allow myself to have chocolate or crisps, just whatever fake nutrient dense healthy food I had stocked. The evenings spent experimenting with recipes for my writing were like self-torture. I remember always ending up with food on my clothes and crumbs everywhere. I felt sick and embarrassed. I would make up for it the next day by having a juice for breakfast, spinning for 45 minutes early every morning and avoiding carbs.
Portions were never restricted, only the foods I ate
Most of the time I binged in private, but the times my housemates saw me binge on roasted vegetables, they must have thought I was mad. But it was quite clever – by piling my plate high I made it look so normal. My mother used to say ‘Dan, you are eating so much!’ Portions were never restricted, only the foods I ate. Despite my binges, I stayed thin.
My social life became a lie
I didn’t take any risks, never going on holidays with friends because I was scared of what I would eat. Eating at a restaurant was stressful for me, and eventually I would only see friends with the same mindset as me. The first thing we would do is decide where to eat, often an expensive vegan café, before catching up.
I didn’t take any risks, never going on holidays with friends because I was scared of what I would eat
I hated dates because I lost my sex drive and was scared of drinking alcohol. In fact, at my cousin’s hen, I pretended my fizzy water and lime was alcohol because everyone else was drinking.
I felt sorry for people that didn’t understand what it meant to live clean, and quite frustrated. But if someone else showed interest I’d get jealous. If my mum skipped carbs at breakfast I’d tell her off saying how bad it was for your blood sugar, even though I was doing it, too. I’d often feed people manipulatively. I’d make a delicious and healthy cake and feed it to people. It made me feel better.
I come from a Jewish family, with a huge food culture, and every Friday night we would go round to one of the Aunties’ houses and have a meal. I would feel petrified and find excuses not to go. If I did, I would pile my plate high with salad so there wasn’t room to eat the good stuff. Eventually, my sister said to me, ‘Dan, you’re boring. Every time you come for dinner you have to be in control of the food and don’t lie to me and say it’s because you love cooking’.
My body was failing
I hadn’t had a period for a year when my sister told me she was pregnant. It was a wakeup call. I realised something wasn’t right. If a woman’s body is healthy, it can carry a child, but if you’re not having periods, that’s a warning sign.
The doctor asked me if I had any other symptoms and I suddenly thought, ‘hell yeah of course I do, I’m just blocking them out’.
My anxiety had come back terribly and I had osteopenia, where my bones were so thin because I hadn’t been getting enough calcium.
I had night sweats every night, so bad I would have to change my sheets. I had no sex drive, to the point that I was questioning my sexuality because I didn’t fancy a guy. I had orange hands (a condition known as carrot anaemia), because I had eaten so much butternut squash. I had tingling in my body. My anxiety had come back terribly. I had osteopenia, where my bones were so thin because I hadn’t been getting enough calcium. I never broke a bone, thank God, but I know people with orthorexia who have. My hair was falling out. My eyes were always weeping, a sign of dry eye and a lack of oestrogen. I effectively had signs of the menopause at the age of 24.
I had no periods because I had no oestrogen in my body. It’s an illness called hypothalamic amenorrhea; when your body is so stressed out, the part of your brain that controls your hormones, the hypothalamus, stops working. It said, ‘I don’t have time to focus on your ovaries. I need to keep your body functioning’.
I was put on hormones, which I wasn’t happy about because it didn’t feel ‘clean’. It made me want to find the route cause of the problem. I was part of a Facebook group called ‘No Period. Now What?’ More than 500 women in the group were also struggling with hypothalamic amenorrhea. They were all normal people, but funnily enough a lot were athletes, and a lot had been sucked into the wellness rabbit hole like I had.
I would Google late at night, after scrolling through my Instagram feed of food photos, ‘obsession with healthy food’, just to see if anyone else had it. Slowly but surely, what I found was orthorexia nervosa, which doesn’t yet have recognition by medical bodies.
Some people had caught on before I did. My mum hadn’t found my lifestyle alarming at first, until I was looking sick. My cousin said ‘You look shit. Yes, you are thin. But your hair and skin look awful. What’s going on?’ I also overheard two girls I knew leaving the gym talking about how awful I looked. That hit a nerve, that people were talking behind my back.
I put my body through turmoil for four years
I saw a gynaecologist about my periods, but looking at my body he said, ‘Imagine your body is a plant. You’ve not watered or fed your plant, and it’s become weak and in pain. Now you have to feed it, hydrate it and nourish it. It’s going to be weird for you to see it as a blooming flower, because you’re used to a dying plant’. I needed to relinquish my control on food.
Letting go of the rules
Now 25, I can see that I put my body through turmoil for four years and I feel bad for that. I ask myself why I got up at 5.45am six days a week to spin or pound my body on the treadmill. Did my body want that? No, I just felt guilty if I didn’t. My brain told me I didn’t like Parmesan cheese because it was dairy. But I love parmesan, my brain just didn’t want my body to get fat. It’s easy to indoctrinate yourself with these thoughts.
It was terrifying letting go of the framework that ruled my life. So much so that my anxiety from my younger years has seeped back because clean living was a focus that numbed me. I am still in the early stages of my recovery so I can’t say I feel brilliant. My period isn’t back yet, so on really bad days I wonder why I didn’t carry on. I still haven’t thrown away my size six jeans, either.
when your healthiness has made you unhealthy and you become aware of the voices in your head that’s a big warning sign
But what I can say is my life is so much richer. My friend said recently, ‘the old you is back’. I was like a robot for so long, switched off to everything. Now I feel so much more fun. I’ve got something to talk about that isn’t chia seeds (I still love chia seeds by the way). I know that if I go out with my friends I can still have wine or a pizza and it’s so refreshing to not feel guilty. If I’m sitting around the dinner table with my family most of the women will say no to a Magnum. Now I feel like it’s a political act by reaching for it, because why shouldn’t I? I don’t like the shame we put on food.
I’m now bigger than I was before my disorder started at a size 10. I feel like that’s the size my body is comfortable at. Balance and intuitiveness really is the only way, and I have had to go all the way to the other side to realise that. It means eating foods that make you feel great and that includes listening to what your body wants. I’d rather just embrace the real me, and respect myself a bit.
The true meaning of wellness
Some of the wellness industry is the antithesis to the true meaning of wellness. I think our wellness gurus have perhaps been misjudged. I have a great aunt who is 105 year old and enjoys eating cake. Why is she not the wellness guru of 2017? Why are we not looking at the people who have lived forever rather than 20 year olds? (Who probably don’t have periods).
It’s complicated to define wellness. To me, true health and wellness means being kind and genuine to yourself. It means embracing the chaos. Laughter, gratitude, nature and connection. Food doesn’t feature in any of that. What comes above wellness is happiness, and you have to ask yourself what truly makes you happy.
It’s time to talk about mental health
People are talking about mental health and orthorexia more, but a lot of wellness bloggers are scared of the clean eating backlash. I created my show Hear Me Raw, to be shown at Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year, to honestly tell my story of how smoothies, spinning and clean living amounted to fragile bones, debt and hair loss. I’m removing the Instagram filter.
smoothies, spinning and clean living amounted to fragile bones, debt and hair loss.j
The issue we have in raising awareness of mental health is that people only ever talk about their illness when it’s over. I am trying to show that it doesn’t have to be packaged up and complete. We need to accept it as a norm, not an illness that was cured.
Orthorexia ruled my life for four years. If your mind is constantly going around all day with rules, numbers, fear or guilt, beating you up and restricting you, that’s when your healthiness has made you unhealthy. Become aware of the voices in your head, because that’s a big warning sign you aren’t listening to your body.
My advice for people with orthorexia nervosa
1) Look after your body – Your body looks after you for your entire life. It deserves generosity and respect. That means letting it rest when it needs to, fuelling it with nourishing food and looking after it for life.
2) Be genuinely kind to yourself – This means eating whatever you think will make you feel best. If that’s a seriously healthy meal, great. If it’s a rich slice of chocolate cake, amazing! If you take the time to really connect with yourself, you will know. That’s the same with exercise too – sometimes having a few weeks off-plan is exactly what your body wants. So many of us over complicate what’s best for ourselves by instructing a set plan or recipe.
3) Surround yourself with people that make you laugh – I made a real effort to spend my time with people that couldn’t give a shit about green juice or exercise classes. They had way more interesting things to talk about. That really helped me start to let go of the grip that orthorexia had over me. I began to realise that exercise and food are just ways of enhancing your life not ‘being’ it. Cull anyone that makes you feel pressured to live a certain way particularly on your social media. You’ll soon start to realise there are so many more interesting things out there to think about than perfecting your bikini shot and soon the thought of taking a photo of your avocado on toast will feel absurd. Have fun with people that make you feel joyous – surely that’s what wellness should be about.
Symptoms of orthorexia nervosa
Orthorexia nervosa is an illness and obsession with eating healthily. There is an overlap with both obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and anorexia, sharing traits of rituals and intrusive thoughts for the former and perfectionism and guilt over food for the latter. It was a term coined by physician Dr Steven Bratman in 1996, but it is not recognised as an official eating disorder diagnosis. According to the eating disorders charity Beat, this is because it doesn’t have it’s own specific treatment pathway (which is to say that clinicians have not identified a distinct way to treat it the way they have anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating disorder, for instance). However, it is advised to have an assessment by an eating disorder specialist to determine the most appropriate steps for recovery.
Eating Disorder Hope list the common behaviours to be aware of:
- Elimination of entire food groups in attempt for a “clean” or “perfect” diet
- Severe anxiety regarding how food is prepared
- Avoidance of social events involving food for fear of being unable to comply with diet
- Thinking critically of others who do not follow strict diets
- Spending extreme amounts of time and money in meal planning and food choices
- Feelings of guilt or shame when unable to adhere to diet standards
- Feeling fulfilled or virtuous from eating “healthy” while losing interest in other activities once enjoyed
Daniella Isaacs is an actress and writer. She has previously performed at the Bush, Soho Theatre, the Tricycle and most recently appeared in Fleabag (BBC/Netflix). She is an alumni of The Oxford School of Drama & National Youth Theatre. Daniella has written as a lifestyle journalist for Psychologies magazine, Mayfair magazine and Women’s Health. Follow Daniella Isaacs on Instagram: @daniellaisaacs
Hear Me Raw is an autobiographical story performed by Daniella Isaacs and directed by Rosy Banham. The comedy delves into the fast rising health craze to reveal the dirty truth behind clean living, superfood smoothies and Instagram filters.
The Wee Coo, Underbelly, Edinburgh: 2 – 28 August (not 14), 14.40 – 15.40
www.underbellyedinburgh.co.uk | 0844 545 8252
14 July: Latitude Festival
27 – 28 July: Hackney Showrooms
As told to Vanessa Chalmers