Can your diet be TOO healthy? Can striving for perfection with your eating actually cause more harm than good?
I know, it sounds a little crazy, but do you think it’s possible? Do you think that sometimes we can take healthy eating a little TOO seriously? That our dedication to our perfectly planned, macro-calculated, low carb, gluten-free, dairy-free, lectin-free, red-meat free, organic, all-natural meals has gone a bit too far? My example may sound extreme, but if you look around you it may not be too far off from what some of your friends, family, or coworkers are doing…or maybe it sounds a lot like you.
How did we get here?
Let me paint you a picture. We’ll call her Lisa (If you’re a client of mine named Lisa, don’t worry this is just an example!). Lisa was ready to get started on a healthier path in life. She was unsatisfied with her jeans size, her fitness level, her energy. She hated not being able to make it through a work day without wanting to nod off at her desk, and hated not being able to keep up with her kids when they wanted to go for bike rides. Lisa also felt like her skin was terrible and she was feeling bloated all the time.
So Lisa did what most people do when they want information- she googled it.
What she found seemed innocent enough. She knew from years of reading news and magazine articles that her morning extra large double double coffee would probably have to go, and skipping lunch when she got busy with work was bad (but she wasn’t sure why), and that her afternoon can of coke was definitely a problem. So she started making some changes. Made coffee at home, packed a lunch for work, and drank water instead of pop at 3pm. And she felt GREAT. More energy, better sleep, jeans fit better, and she even started exercising a few days a week with a friend.
She wanted more. She wanted to feel not just good, but AMAZING. She didn’t just want to be healthy, she wanted to be her BEST SELF.
Down the rabbit hole…
So, she kept googling. She found websites and blogs that warned her of the harmful effects of eating gluten and dairy. She came across articles that told her her skin and digestion issues would clear up if she cut out all sugar and only ate organic foods and that she would easily lose another 10lbs by Tuesday if she avoided all lectins. She learned that breakfast isn’t the most important meal of the day after all, and that intermittent fasting was really the best way for her keep losing weight. She read about the damage all the fruit she was eating was doing to her insulin levels, and that she should start detoxing her body from all the pesticides she had probably eaten over her lifetime. Lisa read that she should be taking nutrition supplements because today’s agriculture practices have stripped our soils of all their valuable nutrients. She found recipe swaps the used better ingredients like coconut sugar and almond flour instead of refined grains and sugars. She tried the recipes, bought the supplements, did the detoxes, and kept on reading. Lisa felt like she was learning a ton of great information about healthy eating, but at the same time started feeling a bit worried. Worried about foods she might eat that didn’t have ingredient lists she could study. Worried about the foods her kids might eat at school, or at friends houses, or at her parent’s house. Worried about eating in restaurants and what hidden dangers might be in the items they serve. Worried about cross contamination in the grocery store between the regular produce and the organic. It reached the point where most of her free time was spend reading and worrying. At the same time her digestive issues got worse, her skin stopped improving, and her energy levels were in the tank.
The problem? None of what she was reading was true.
Too much of a good thing?
Now of course I’m not trying to suggest that putting thought or effort into meal planning or eating in a nutritious, balanced way is a BAD thing… as a Dietitian I absolutely believe that food can play a very important role in our health. But we have to remember that there’s more to good health than just the physical part- our mental health can be seriously impacted by our food behaviours as well- for better or for worse. When our dedication to our nutrition plan (or fitness plan for that matter!) starts to become obsessive we can find ourselves in a bad spot. If you find yourself trying to go as long as you can without eating, feeling guilty each time you do eat if it wasn’t the “perfect” meal, or stressing over social situations where there might be “bad” food around you may be taking things a bit too far. You see, it may not even be the specific foods someone is or isn’t eating, it’s about how their eating is making them feel.
If some of these sound like you, you’re definitely not alone
- Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on social media like Instagram or Twitter
- Frequent dieting, anxiety associated with specific foods or meal skipping
- Chronic weight fluctuations
- Preoccupation with food, weight and body image that negatively impacts quality of life
- A feeling of loss of control around food, including compulsive eating habits
- Using exercise, food restriction, fasting or purging to “make up for bad foods” consumed
- Always checking the ingredient list and nutrition facts on every single thing you buy- avoiding any products than contain “bad” ingredients
- Spending a lot of time reading articles or watching YouTube videos about the dangers of certain food ingredients
- Experiencing a very high level of emotion when it comes to your eating. A “good day” can make you feel totally superior and on top of the world, while a “bad day” can make you feel totally worthless.
- Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
- Complete elimination of any and all “bad” foods
- Spending a lot of time paying attention to what other people are eating and how healthy their diets are
- Spending hours per day worrying or stressing about upcoming social events and what foods might be served there
- Becoming very stressed or anxious when your “safe” foods aren’t available
As I said, if some of these signs hit pretty close to home, you’re not alone. This obsession with healthy eating is becoming so prevalent- it’s actually been given a name… Orthorexia Nervosa.
Orthorexia is defined as “obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating”. The definition is a bit vague, but essentially it’s when a person is trying SO HARD to eat healthy, that they’re actually doing more harm than good. Some people may not fit the definition of Orthorexia to a T, but still have tendencies we might refer to as ‘disordered eating’ instead.
Let’s face it, we live in an appearance-focused society in which the pursuit of the perfect body is not only praised, it’s encouraged. Anyone NOT posting gym selfies or sharing their latest 10-day detox plan is almost…strange. Wellness influencers rule the social media stage promoting all sorts of wacky strategies and goods promising to make you look just like them. When you take a look around at the culture we’re swimming it, it’s no wonder people feel like they’re drowning in it.
What to do if you feel like you need a lifeline?
1. Unfollow, Unfriend, Unsubscribe. The best way to disengage from the misinformation overload is to get it out of sight and out of mind. Clean out your social media, inbox, and friends’ list from accounts and websites that are negatively impacting your wellbeing. If they are friends of yours who you don’t feel comfortable unfollowing, the mute button works great too. Instead, find accounts that promote a healthy relationship with food, share scientifically accurate information about nutrition and eating, and don’t encourage you to lose weight at any cost.
2. Take steps to loosen up a little on your eating habits. This can seem incredibly daunting at first, especially if you’ve been restricting for a very long time. Small baby steps are the best way to adjust to a healthier and more flexible relationship with food. It might seem hard, but it also might feel really good to recognize that you don’t have to live on kale and coconut water anymore!
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Some people might have a very hard time navigating this path on their own. Fortunately there are people who can help. Counselors, Psychologists, and Registered Dietitians like myself who can support you on the path to a healthier relationship with food and your body. We can help you calm your food fears, as well as provide you with factual information on healthy eating and nutrition, no BS!
Healthy eating should make you feel good not only physically, but mentally as well. Yes, we should choose to eat nutritious things most of the time so we get all of our essential nutrients, but let’s face it, what’s life without a little fun? We should be able to meet friends for dinner at a restaurant without it ruining our week, or take our kids out for ice cream on a hot summer day without them asking why you’re not having any. We should not feel the need to weigh ourselves after every meal, or take on extra workouts to “pay” for being bad. Being flexible enough in your eating habits to ENJOY the delicious treats life has to offer is the real icing on the cake. Really.
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