Eating Disorder in Disguise: When Healthy Eating Goes Too Far

Doctor KIZ August 10, 2021
I’m sure we have all, at one point in time, declared “I’m going to make an effort to eat healthier.” And there is generally nothing wrong with endeavouring to swap your burger for a buddha bowl or your morning croissant for a more nutritious breakfast. But in a society obsessed with clean eating, dieting and thinness, many people may find themselves pursuing unhealthy food behaviors under the veil of “health”.

All too often, an originally well-meant intention to take better care of oneself turns into an obsessive fixation on calories, nutrition labels, macro tracking and the number on the scale. And whilst this focus on numbers, labels and tracking may result in a more nutritious way of eating, it often comes at an expense: one’s mental health.

From the outside, these people may be perceived as “the healthy one” amongst their friends, but their relationship with food is anything but that.

The extreme version of such an unhealthy obsession with eating healthily is called orthorexia. It’s when someone rigidly follows rules they’ve created around which foods are pure and healthy and which ones are not.

They may cut out certain foods or whole food groups as a result, and experience extreme feelings of guilt and anxiety when eating a food considered “off-limit”. The difference to other eating disorders like anorexia is that the focus is more on the quality of the food rather than the quantity.

Here are some tell signs of orthorexia:
  • Fixating on nutrition labels and ingredients of food
  • Spending a large amount of time reading, researching, and planning what you’re going to eat (e.g., compulsively looking up restaurant food menu’s before visiting)
  • Having an ever-growing list of “bad foods”
  • Isolating yourself and saying no to social gatherings out of fear to not be able to control what foods are available
  • Feeling frustrated, guilty, or ashamed when eating things that are considered “off limits, unhealthy or not clean”
  • Feeling anxious when there is food uncertainty (e.g., being invited to dinner at a friend’s, traveling with limited food availability)
But whether you recognise yourself in a couple or all these warning signs, the bottom line is this:

If your relationship with food affects your day-to-day functioning, overall wellbeing or is negatively impacting any areas of your life such as your relationships, social life, or career, then it is no longer healthy.

Focusing on the quality of your food intake is only healthy if your relationship with food is healthy at the same time. Your diet may be rich in green veggies, celery juice and whatever latest health fad is trending, but if your food choices are coming from a place of fear, deprivation and self-imposed stress, then that is counter-productive to the goal you are trying to achieve.

How different would it feel if you instead came from a place of genuine self-love and had a balanced, holistic, approach to nourishment with no room for food guilt, shame, or fear?

I’ll leave you with this example to illustrate my point:

When you are stressed, your body tends to slow down digestion. Your body cleverly does this to prepare itself for fight-or-flight, thinking that you are in real danger. Now imagine finding yourself in a situation where there is no “clean food” available, and you reluctantly eat something that you consider “off limits”.

Can you see how the self-imposed stress of that situation (“I really shouldn’t be eating this.” “This food is bad for me.”) has the potential to negatively affect your body’s ability to properly digest food? You might then attribute the constipation or bloating that follows as further proof that you shouldn’t have eaten this food, when in fact it was your mindset towards the food that set your body off.

If you had simply eaten said food with a sense of neutrality and no moral code, your body’s internal stress response wouldn’t have kicked in. As a result, you would have been able to digest the food more easily, not leaving you with an icky feeling of bloated-ness or indigestion.

This is just one of many examples of how an obsession with health can become unhealthy. At the end of the day, it’s not a bad thing to want to take better care of yourself and nourish your body from the inside out, but when this is happening to the detriment of your mental health (and consequently physical health), it’s no longer healthy.

If you feel like your relationship with food is unhealthy, you may want to consider working with a Holistic Health Coach to help you make peace with food.
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