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Too healthy for your own good

There’s an increasing trend to stick to a rigid ‘healthy’ food regime. Sounds like a good thing, right? Well, not always, says Healthy Food Guide nutritionist Claire Turnbull.

I’m a self-confessed health nut — I love how eating healthy food makes me feel and I really enjoy shopping for it and cooking it. However, on the odd occasion when I have a slice of pizza and a glass of wine, I don’t feel guilty for a week or judge myself for having ‘fallen off the wagon’.

Sadly, not everyone feels this way. More and more people appear to be so anxious and obsessed with healthy eating, their lives — their physical, mental and emotional health — have become unbalanced and, ironically, unhealthy. Instead of thinking of food as fuel and something to enjoy, their thoughts are dominated by it and it rules their day-to-day lives. Some health professionals view this as a type of disordered eating, or having a dysfunctional relationship with food.

Disordered eating

The eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia are at the extreme end of the scale. There are specific criteria to diagnose these and clear guidelines for their management. However, alongside people with these clearly defined issues, are an increasing number struggling with disordered eating, which is more difficult to diagnose and can have a profoundly negative effect on their well-being.

Clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Du Preez says disordered eaters may think constantly about what, when and how much they should be eating. They can experience anxiety before and after eating and obsessively read food labels, which can result in indecision, restricting intake or binge-eating healthy food.

One type of disordered eating pattern is called orthorexia nervosa, a term coined by the American doctor and author Steven Bratman in 1997. Although not yet officially recognised as a disorder, the National Eating Disorder Association in the US describes it as an “unhealthy obsession” with healthy eating.

Unlike anorexia and bulimia, where sufferers fixate about restricting their volume of food, people with orthorexia are more likely to be obsessed with food quality. In other words, food has to be to be as pure, healthy and as natural as possible.

When does it become a problem?

Dr Elizabeth Du Preez outlines some warning signs of this type of disordered eating:

  • Constantly thinking about what to have for meals and/or snacks and feeling compelled to eat according to self-inflicted healthy food rules
  • Feeling as if you need to be restrictive and have an all-or-nothing approach
  • Spending large amounts of time researching or talking about the latest opinions on what constitutes healthy food
  • Your eating is starting to have a negative impact on your quality of your life – you are stressed when you can’t follow your own rules when, for example, you are on holiday
  • Personal relationships suffer. You struggle in social eating environments because you are critical of the way others eat.

Where has this come from?

While disordered eating isn’t new, the increase in the number of people who feel the need to exert extreme control over their eating is worrying and sad. So why have they become obsessed?

A need to be accepted and look good

Dr Du Preez suggests we are socially hard-wired with a need to fit in to society and when this is threatened, anxiety and persistent thoughts about ways to become accepted creep in. To protect ourselves, we can create control strategies, such as sticking to a healthy food plan.

Everyone seems to be talking about food and nutrition

Really, this should be a good thing, but when an interest becomes an obsession, it isn’t good at all. Today we can view food 24/7 on websites, blogs, Instagram and Facebook. These show us what other people are eating and tell us about fad diets billed as the answer to all our health problems!

Although much of this is intended to be helpful, it can easily be taken out of context. Also, the accuracy of the information is questionable. You need to ask yourself, is the writer qualified?

One of the biggest concerns is we’re led to believe that the food posted on social media sites is a reflection of what the writers eat all the time — but it isn’t. These are the just the best bits and can create an unrealistic view.

I describe much of what is on social media as a ‘Photoshopped life’ — where filters and angles are used to make people look better. We can fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to these online ‘fake’ people.

Rules and extremism

There is something about rules that people seem to love and being strict about food seems to be ‘in’ right now.

Rather than cutting down on certain foods, some people are banishing whole food groups and vowing to be sugar-free or carb-free, or to eat only raw food. These days it is commonplace for diners to have long discussions with waiters about what needs to be altered or left out of their meals.

Once the brain has come up with a control strategy, it usually links an anxiety response to it, to make sure you adhere to the rules, says Dr Du Preez.

The rules can lead to a mindset of right and wrong, or they pit good and bad foods against each other, and that can lead to an unhealthy and unbalanced relationship with eating.

What can you do?

Remember, being healthy is more than what you eat

I’m not suggesting you ditch your healthy eating plan, but remember good health includes your physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual well-being and being obsessive doesn’t make you healthy overall.

Aim for a balanced diet, not perfection

There is no such thing as a perfect diet. If you look at the places in the world where people live the longest, you’ll see there are many different diets — but they all include fresh, whole food, lots of veges and very little processed food. You don’t, however, have to banish certain foods to live a long, healthy life.

Don’t get caught up in the hype

It is so easy to become addicted to the drama in the world of food and nutrition and it just isn’t helpful. It’s time to relax and enjoy food and look at what we do all agree on (see our story Don’t believe the hype for more).

Aim to be flexible, not rigid

Many people imagine that by relinquishing control they will become out of control but, in fact, letting go results in freedom and flexibility. Dr Du Preez says if we make value-based decisions rather than anxiety-based ones, our eating can be shaped by the things in our lives that matter the most — fully experiencing the present, relationships, sharing, contributing, healthy eating and self-acceptance.

Eat with awareness

Eating is about so much more than simply ingesting nutrients. From the moment you are born, eating is a sensory experience that represents closeness and comfort. Being aware of the taste, texture and aroma of what you eat increases the enjoyment of food — not because you have stuck to your food rules, but because the act of eating has nurtured your soul.

Eat for the right reasons

Eat because you are hungry, stop when you are full and avoid distractions. Eat because your body needs food, not because you are using food to cope with a bad day or because you can’t say no. Get back to enjoying food for what is really is — fuel for our bodies that can taste really good!

Eating disorder support

NZ: edanz
Australia: Eating Disorder Hope
UK: Beat Eating Disorders

For more on eating disorders you might be interested in: Gaps in eating disorder understanding, 9 ways to support someone with an eating disorder at Christmas, The long run: A path to understanding bulimia nervosa, or How to help when eating is scary

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