Obsessed with eating healthy food? Orthorexia put this woman's health in danger, now she's a nutritionist teaching others to enjoy food

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When she was in her second year studying marketing and public relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Rachel Li Xinrui thought if she lost some weight she would have more friends.

“I didn’t have many friends growing up. I … believed that if I was fitter I would have more friends and better relationships with other people. I guess that’s why a lot of young people lose weight – because they feel insecure, they want to increase their self worth or self esteem through something they can control. One thing you can control when you’re living by yourself in uni is what you eat and how much you exercise,” said Li, now 25, and a nutritionist at Pure Nutrition in Hong Kong.

She wasn’t overweight, and ate what she thought was a balanced diet that included protein such as chicken and fish, good fats like avocado, carbohydrates, and vegetables – but in small portions.

Although she was starving, Li thought she was doing the right thing. “I was getting compliments from relatives that I was losing weight, so that masked everything and I felt that I was doing this for my health.”

orthorexia, diabetes, weight training, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, here

Happy and healthy, Rachel Li now works as a nutritionist at Pure Nutrition in Hong Kong.

However, Li had developed orthorexia – an unhealthy obsession with eating only healthy foods, and being afraid of eating any kind of food one deems unhealthy. For Li, sugar, desserts, and processed food were all in that second category.

She had stopped menstruating for two years, and went to see a doctor. She came away with an incomplete diagnosis as her symptoms paralleled those for polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS): stopped periods, cysts detected in the ovaries, and higher levels of testosterone. PCOS can lead to a higher risk of diabetes, which is why the doctor told Li to keep up with her exercise and diet.

“That kind of gave me another excuse to have to exercise and eat well, which in my mind was to continue what I was doing,” Li recalls.

But then she read about women losing their periods while endurance training.

“Running expends so much energy and sometimes even suppresses the appetite, so if you do a high intensity workout, you don’t even have the appetite to eat,” says Li. “If you don’t have your period, what is actually happening is that your hormones aren’t functioning properly.”

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At the age of 22, Li realised she had to eat more and exercise less. Photo: Xiaomei Chen

It was then, at the age of 22, that Li realised she had to do less exercise and eat more. She wasn’t gaining muscle, which had been the original aim.

“I was plateauing in my training … I enjoyed weight training, but I found out if I don’t fuel myself properly, and don’t rest properly, I’m not going to improve. I didn’t have a coach at the time, I was training by myself. I’m not sure how I was overtraining but I was definitely not recovering very well, potentially because I was not eating enough.”

She also read that she would be at a higher risk of osteoporosis and have fertility issues if she didn’t fix her diet. Not eating enough was also affecting her emotional state.

“I had a lot of ups and downs because I wasn’t fuelling myself properly, and when you’re at a relatively low body fat and not eating properly, your emotional regulation is quite bad,” Li says.

Li started by eating more snacks such as biscuits every day, and then gradually began eating larger food portions. Six months later, her periods returned, though it took two years for them to become regular. In the end, she put on 2kg.

After finishing her studies in Australia, she went to the UK and studied behavioural psychology and nutrition for a year before coming back to Hong Kong in 2019.

Today Li advises clients in Pure Fitness’s various locations in Hong Kong. Most clients are interested in diets to help with weight loss, and she has the occasional client who is afraid of eating certain foods. She asks them to list the foods they are afraid of, and those they are not so adverse to, and encourages them to eat these foods every day.

Li says this helps them to manage their ‘food boundaries’, especially when they are around family or loved ones.

“One of my clients finally rejected food from her aunt because she didn’t want it. Before she felt obliged to finish the food, and now she was able to say no. It might seem small, but it’s so empowering for them to finally realise they don’t have to eat it, and they can eat what they want and they feel a lot happier.”

Li is wary about sharing her own daily routine or diet as she is concerned others may compare themselves with her, especially on social media. She says her audience consists of young people in their teens and early 20s, who she says are “very vulnerable”.

“When I post what I eat, people try to compare. They are not me, they don’t have my activity level, my needs, and my preferences. Some people like bread, some people don’t. If I’m eating bread, it doesn’t mean you have to, [and] if I don’t, it doesn’t mean you can’t. But no matter what you do, people will still compare.”

Li is still on her journey of self-acceptance. While she is more comfortable when dining out these days, periodically negative thoughts crop up.

“Now I am aware of it. If I see something that makes me feel uncomfortable, I make myself aware of that and remind myself of what is happening, and pull myself back. It’s OK to have those thoughts, but remind myself of my values and goals.”

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