How A Personal Trainer And Cycle Instructor Overcame Her 6 Year Struggle With Orthorexia
Hi Pegah, thanks so much for agreeing to this. Opening up about an eating disorder is incredibly difficult so I really respect your courage to talk candidly about your past struggles. Let's dive right in.
What was your relationship with food like growing up?
It was honestly very normal. I don't even remember paying attention to what I was eating. We are Persian-Iranian. My mom would make Persian dishes sometimes, white rice, chicken kebabs, all that good stuff, but it wasn't a daily thing for us. We had a mixed diet: American food, Italian food, fast food was huge. At one point I was actually underweight because I was so active. I was blessed to not have any food issues growing up. It really wasn't until I started to develop... I was a late bloomer, it wasn't until then that I started to experience [issues].
How did your relationship with food and your body start to change?
In high school I was pretty active up until my junior/senior year when I started getting into the party scene. Being in that environment, I wasn't as active, I kind of quit all sports. Socializing and eating out a lot... it came to the point where I was making really unhealthy choices but I didn't think about it. It was just social. I didn't really think about it until I got into a relationship where I started to become more self-conscious of my body. I was like, "Oh my gosh, someone is looking at me. Someone is actually paying attention to me and what I'm wearing." It wasn't until I started to develop the early signs of orthorexia, exercise obsession and body dysmorphia in my senior year of high school that I began to really notice my eating and thoughts towards it. [Orthorexia] was definitely something I developed while going through all the body changes- getting your period for the first time and all of that stuff.
Talk to me about the period when you were orthorexic.
Honestly I was just so in need of control of something in my life. I think that when I lacked having control over that silly relationship... I don't want to blame it on that person because it wasn't that person, I think it was not feeling loved back or not being wanted anymore, constantly being broken up with... It leads to you not having control and I felt like I needed to be in control of something. The one thing I could be in control of was my body, exercise and fitness, you know?
It first started off as me developing my own fitness regimen where I started to exercise a ton. With that, it was a lot of comparison. I was looking at my family members and comparing myself to them. What started off as me just wanting to get healthy and get in shape... led to an obsession where if I didn't complete a workout for the day, I would be a total mess. So I made it a must for me. I had to go. So daily, I would spend 2 hours on the cardio machine just working out... when I started to see results, I then brought in nutrition, or what I thought was nutrition, and all of a sudden decided certain foods were no longer good for me or no longer beneficial. I literally just cut out all carbs. I stuck to fruits and vegetables and lived a very bland lifestyle. I didn't have anything [to eat] to be honest. It was very minimal... That continued on for years. My regiment was literally 7 days a week cardio, just cardio... no lifting, no strength training, nothing... that's a lot for someone who has a petite build. It was a lot on my body. I dramatically lost a ton of weight within a short period of time and I just got so fixated on that.
People expressed concern but I was in so much denial that I just continued with it... I should have sought out help from a fitness professional before even getting into it. That's one reason why I became a fitness professional because I want people to have someone that they are comfortable with coming to, asking questions. There is just so much information out there. How do you know what's right for your body? I just picked up some random plan and I followed it even though it really wasn't working for me.
What do you wish people knew about orthorexia?
The thing about orthorexia is that it can be hidden. There can be people who don't look unhealthy but still have it. There don't need to be physical signs of it. You could look great and be a healthy weight but still have the thought process of orthorexia. It's an obsession with organic and clean eating. For example, if someone isn't comfortable going out to a restaurant and ordering food because they are worried about how it was made. It could be something as simple as that. That's why I'm always so cautious when it comes to my clients and their eating habits. You should never be afraid of food, ever. You should never be afraid of sugar or a carb. Everything has its benefits.
As horrible as it was, and as low as I was, I definitely came to a point where I was just lonely and really didn't have anyone to talk to about it. I know that all of that build me up to be the person that I am now. I am a completely different person now than I was then... Yes I was very blessed to not get sick and end up in hospital or get hospitalized in a rehab center, but not everyone has it that easy. I would say that I had a very easy case of orthorexia because my work was never affected. I still managed to get through a career where I built up my name in my sales executive days and travelled the world... I was still able to experience life and I think that's one of the biggest blessings. I was never paralyzed by [orthorexia]. Not everyone has that. I want people to know that there is an answer. There is freedom. There is healing. You do not ever have to be tied down by [orthorexia]. If that process for someone means having to see a therapist or having to go to rehab, that's okay. It doesn't mean it's wrong if you do. I think it's awesome if people do because you will not overcome [orthorexia] alone. It might sound harsh but you will never overcome any of those problems by yourself. Never, ever. For me, I had my family, I had God, and my close friends.
What's something you wish family and friends had said when you were struggling with orthorexia?
Everything and anything was said to me. Everything. People expressed concern but I was in so much denial that I just continued with it... I never had an intervention and I don't think I needed that. I think it was one of those, "time will have to get her back".
One day, my dad sat me down and was crying and my dad does not cry. Once I saw that, that was really what I needed... About a week after, my brother-in-law sat me down. Just hearing it from a family member who was newer to the family, who didn't know me (he wasn't married to my sister at that point), that was just a huge wake up call for me. That's when I decided I needed to stop. I completely cut out cardio and stopped working out for a while, which was what I needed. I sought out mentorship from a church member. My best friends saw me through all of it and they didn't cut me out of their lives. Some people did but now that I think back... I think that the friends who didn't stick by me through it and ended up just cutting me off... it wasn't a friendship that was meant to be. My friends who stuck with me through it never treated me differently, never judged me, those are the friends I'm still close to and I thank God for them everyday.
What would you tell those who are currently going through what you went through?
I would tell them, "There is light. It doesn't have to end this way. Food is not the enemy, ever. Honestly I know that you are stuck in this place where you can't see that and you need that control, you need to know exactly what you're having and what you're eating and all of that but there's so much more freedom and joy and love and light outside of that bubble. That's really what it is, you're in this bubble and I think you feel stuck sometimes. You need someone to constantly tell you over and over again until it hits you officially. You don't have to allow [orthorexia] to take over your life in any way. There's just so much life out there. Having [orthorexia]... you're just holding yourself back and why would you want to do that? I think everyone person has goals in life... and I think that orthorexia is just a block. It's a wall. You will never get to your goal and you will never get anywhere in life by having it so its something that needs to be broken down and healed and corrected. It's toxic and it's just going to grow and grow unless you care for it. It doesn't happen overnight."
What would you tell those who aren't religious or don't have a strong network of family and friends to lean on?
I advise yoga, meditation, therapists, rehab center, some doctors are very helpful in this area (if not them, they will lead you to other people), support groups, communities, social media... there's so much community on [Instagram] and you connect with so many individuals who are going through what you've gone through. That's been huge, just being able to connect with others who can relate.
How did you decide to pursue a career in fitness?
Even through orthorexia, I was very passionate about health and fitness. I just wasn't educated on it. I knew fitness was a huge thing for me. If you look back at all my past positions in my career, it was always geared towards helping people. I got my esthetician license to help people with their skin, I got into the sales industry with cosmetics and skincare to help people with their skin, and then I ended up becoming an Account Executive for 2 different companies for about 5 years and I was still helping people. After orthorexia, I was honestly just sick of being in a cube. I was like, "You know what? I know I am capable of more than this. I know that my business and my story started the day I developed orthorexia. For me, this was 6 years in the making and I know that going through orthorexia led to me starting this. While I was still working full time, I enrolled in NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine). On top of that, a Flywheel opportunity to be an indoor instructor opened up so I was doing bootcamps and trainings to become an instructor at the same time. It all just kind of fell into place. I quit my job. I became a Flywheel instructor, got my personal training certificate... started Pegactive and haven't looked back since.
What does living a balanced life mean to you today?
Perfection just doesn't exist and no one's life is going to be perfect, your fitness journey will never be perfect, your nutrition will never be perfect. Knowing that it's okay to mess up, knowing that it's okay to miss a day, knowing that it's okay to have a cheat meal, all of that. That's balance. You being okay with that, that's balance. When it comes to the point where everything is so regiment-based... that's where balance falls.
ON TO THE FUN STUFF! 5 more questions before we wrap this up 😊
Most flattering pair of leggings you own?
Carbon38's Takara Leggings. They're silky, leather, shiny-like material. Oh my god, I love them. They're high waisted. I love high waisted everything!
Favorite post-workout snack?
I'll have a protein bar and a protein shake. I'm a sucker for all protein bars. I know it's so lame and cheesy and so generic but right now I'm loving FITJOY bars. I love Rule One Protein powder, it's my favorite. If I'm getting super fancy schmancy, I'll do overnight oats with almond butter, dark chocolate chips, protein... but honestly who has time for that these days?
Go-to recipe when you're feeling lazy?
It's so random. It's literally tortilla, string cheese or Babybel cheese melted on the tortilla. I'll add avocado, lettuce, pico de gallo. If I'm feeling super random, I know this sounds so gross, I'll throw in turkey slices or whatever meat I have and I'll have a really easy quesadilla meal. If I'm extra, extra lazy and do not judge me on this, literally I'll have an entire pint of Halo Top. There's only so much dairy I can handle... it leaves me having stomach issues but it's worth it in the moment!
Best way to destress after an emotional day?
Nails, regardless of when my last appointment was. I love getting my nails done, hands and feet, or my lashes refilled. I pass out the second I lie on my lash lady's bed. It's like the only place in the world that I can nap at anytime. It's the best nap for 30 minutes. I go into a deep sleep.
What's the one thing you're grateful for?
The one thing I'm grateful for is my nephew. He's honestly the reason why I made the decision to get healed and pursue a healthier lifestyle. I did not want my future nephew to see their aunt as someone who was weak. He was a huge motivator for me. I hadn't even met him yet but he saved my life.
✨ 💖 ✨
knowing what to say to those who are struggling can be uncomfortable and awkward.
If you think Pegah's story might be able to help someone you love and care about, share it.