After struggling with severely disordered eating, Elizabeth Knowles found solace through an unsuspecting avenue. When her friends and family learned she planned to compete in a bikini competition, she was bombarded with disapproval.
“People told me this would only make things worse,” Knowles said. “Everyone said my obsession would get stronger and I’d spiral back into my old habits.”
Bodybuilding turned out to be thoroughfare to Knowles’ recovery. Since adolescence, she grappled with orthorexia nervosa, a term not even added to the popular lexicon until a few years ago. Orthorexia is an eating disorder not about thinness, but about a moral fixation on consuming “pure” foods.
An alternative medicine physician, Steven Bratman, coined the term in 1997 as reducing the dimensionality of human life by giving excessive power to food. Despite its intrusiveness, orthorexia is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. Unlike anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder, which are listed in the DSM-5, there are no agreed-upon diagnostic criteria for orthorexia.
Knowles’ case of orthorexia came with symptoms body dysmorphic disorder, a condition in which a person obsesses over minor or fabricated flaws in his or her body. In fact, Knowles said she thinks body dysmorphia is what drove her to unhealthy extremes.
Knowles said she thinks every female struggles with body dysmorphia in some way, even if it never amounts to full-blown body dysmorphic disorder.
“We all wish we could change something about ourselves, whether that is our legs, our hair, our stomach, our nose, our whatever,” she said. “Was I happy in my body? Absolutely not. However, I knew I was not fat – that was never the issue.”
Rather, Knowles struggled with an excessive preoccupation with “right” and “wrong” foods. She thought she was epitomizing health, when in reality her body was devoid of essential nutrients. Her tipping point came in high school. During a morning workout with her softball team, Knowles fainted. This was the same morning she noticed blood in her stool.
Her dad picked her up, asking: “How would you tell your own kid she is dying?”
Knowles then voluntarily enrolled in a rehabilitation program for disordered eating, which she attended on-and-off for about two years. She worked with a nutritionist to understand how all foods have their own unique nutritional value and why it is important to nourish the body with all kinds of foods.
“I had to learn that foods with fat aren’t necessarily fattening foods and I had to understand that carbs are not the enemy,” Knowles said. “I had to reverse the way I thought about food entirely.”
Overcoming those obsessive and made-up “rules” was not easy nor was it quick, Knowles said, just like those rules didn’t come to be overnight. Like other eating disorders, brain chemistry isn’t entirely to blame for orthorexia. Recent studies indicate higher Instagram use is linked to increased and heightened symptoms of the condition. Knowles was battling years of magazine images, advertisements and social media posts that portrayed the “perfect” body or the “ideal” diet.
After getting a grip on her mindset and learning to be more open to food, Knowles decided to pursue a physique competition. She’d always been an athlete, but now she wanted to prove her own determination and discipline to herself.
Because bodybuilding places such an emphasis on aesthetics, Knowles’ friends and family worried she would undo all her progress. Quite the opposite happened. Knowles realized that to craft the physique she needed to compete, she needed to nourish her body properly. Food, then, became fuel – not just food.
“I love to train, to push my body to its limits to become a fitter version of myself,” Knowles said. “That’s not possible if I am not fueling myself properly, so I had to learn to eat to perform.”
Her hard work paid off. She graced the stage at Bayou Muscle in October 2017 with confidence and placed second in the novice division. She will take the stage again this April at Southern Muscle.
Still, 30 million Americans deal with eating disorders, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health. Many more struggle with disordered eating, a term used for dietary patterns that don’t meet the clinical criteria for anorexia, bulimia, or BED.
Any obsession can be taken too far - even an obsession with health can become unhealthy.
While occasional, or even regular, disordered eating doesn’t qualify as an eating disorder, it’s important to remember that almost all eating disorder cases begin with a few bad habits.
Eating a wide variety of foods, trying new things and taking pleasure in food is good for you. Also important is a structure of regular meals and snacks incorporating all food groups. The key to good health isn’t hiding in a fad diet or in the elimination game. Health is not found at the bottom of a green smoothie or as a prize for gym time or a juice cleanse.
Knowles encourages those who are struggling to speak up and reach out. The battle is more difficult alone, she said.
“I know it’s scary,” she said. “I know you think no one understands. What you are feeling is darkness, but it doesn’t have to be this way forever.”
Knowles is a group fitness instructor at Red Stick CrossFit in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She will graduate from Louisiana State University in May 2018 with a degree in athletic training – which is actually sports medicine – but she wants to continue her career as a fitness coach and personal trainer.
"I love helping people find themselves through fitness,” she said. “I have no greater joy than seeing the happiness people get from achieving goals they once thought were never attainable.”
She also intends to continue her bodybuilding pursuit and earn her Pro Card, the gold standard of fitness in the world of physique competition.
Have you struggled with disordered eating or an eating disorder? How have you overcome food, body image, or exercise struggles? Drop me a line at email@example.com. I'd love to hear from you!
About the F-Word
"Food" is the F-word. And the F-Word blog is all about helping you find your food-life balance. After battling an unhealthy relationship with food and body image for years, I'm dedicated to helping others avoid those misfortunes. Read on for nutrition guidance, lifestyle tips and stories from other bad-ass people who also overcame disordered eating.