With beauty standards surrounding us everywhere we go, and endless products designed to enhance our health and appearance, it seems like we can never be healthy enough.
Healthy might be the new skinny with everybody trying so hard to be fitter, better nourished, more glowing, healthier.
We have always been told that healthy food and exercise are good for us, and we are quick to take that to mean more is better. But too much of a good thing can soon lead to trouble.
So, how can we draw a line between healthy and unhealthy? Are these the opposite sides of the spectrum or is it more complicated? How can we tell if we are preoccupied with eating healthy or exercise?
I consider myself a healthy eater. I find happiness when I put some effort and thought into my meals to make them healthy yet tasty.
I feel like in today’s world, everybody is trying to be healthier and better looking. We could be having perfectly balanced diets and be well-nourished but still worry about not eating right or having too much of this or that.
Moreover, social media has become all about food aesthetics, and influencers that are offering recipes have grown really popular. There is even a saying that says, If you didn’t post it, did you eat it? I believe that the emphasis on food on social media networks could add to the rising obsession with eating healthy.
In essence, planning your meals and balanced eating are the healthy way of living. Healthy eating can bring a new color to your life, make you feel more fulfilled, and content.
But trying to eat healthy can sometimes lead to counting calories, obsessively reading labels and/or food contents, or dividing foods and different food groups into healthy or unhealthy options.
Dividing foods into healthy and unhealthy, or into good or bad, can be dangerous. Dangerous for our mind as we are then likely to feel shame or guilt after eating what we have categorized as bad food.
This categorization of foods can furthermore lead to restricting certain types of food or food groups – naturally, those that are considered unhealthy. Some might want to cut out sugar, dairy, or plain flour from their diets completely, and others might try to restrict carbohydrates or fats.
Restricting foods, however, is never healthy as it usually backfires. It is known that it is most difficult to stick to restrictive diets. Desperately wanting something but not letting yourself have it can subsequently lead to an unhealthy relationship with food, disordered eating or even eating disorders.
Restricting foods can adversely affect us in two ways, physically and psychologically. Firstly, by cutting out certain food from our diet, the meals are no longer so balanced or are even lacking in some basic nutrients, which can cause deficiencies or even malnourishment.
Secondly, restricting foods has an impact on our mind, as we can feel psychological deprivation. For example, if you were to cut out all sugar from your diet, you will soon feel like lacking something, and restrictive behavior will likely make you miserable.
For example, because chocolate bars are suddenly forbidden, you might end up wanting it more. The desire for a chocolate will likely be greater than ever before just because you tell yourself you cannot have it. Just what we keep telling ourselves that we cannot have, that we want to taste the most.
A couple of years ago I tried to cut out chocolate completely. I would omit chocolate bars, chocolate cereal, and chocolate-based ice cream. And I can tell you, it made me desire chocolate so much more than back when I did not restrict myself.
The desire can then act out and come in binges, for example, an afternoon when I just lose it and eat every chocolaty sweet that I have at home. Now, if you think about it, this is much worse than having one bar of chocolate per day.
The key, therefore, is to have everything in moderation. Think about eating a piece of fruit or a portion of veggies for every sweat treat you have during the day.
This or something similar may work perfectly for you. I keep telling myself that fruit and vegetables are good for my body, but a bar of chocolate is good for my mind.
But how do you know when you have taken your healthy eating too far? How can you draw a line between healthy and an unhealthy preoccupation with healthy?
There are some signs that you could look for, which are likely to appear when your pursuit of healthiness has gone too far. For example, when you feel anxious for going to a party or a family gathering because you fear there will not be healthy foods available or, food that you are “allowed” to eat, I think it is safe to say that your “healthy” eating might be crossing a line.
Similarly, if you feel your energy levels dropping throughout the day, feeling fatigued, or badly rested, this could be your body’s way of telling that you might want to check in again and make sure that you are doing the best for your health.
Malnutrition can result in physical symptoms mentioned above, or even amenorrhea, which means the loss of period. You should be careful not to let your good intentions for a healthy lifestyle go out of hand.
Maybe you can think of a situation like this; as long as you feel in control of your eating, and genuinely feel that eating healthy makes you happy and fulfilled, everything is fine. But, if healthy eating gives you anxiety, imposes additional worries, or even makes you feel down, it is high time you reconsider your eating patterns and ask for help.
Not only that preoccupation with healthy eating can lead to a wrecked relationship with food, it can also lead to mental disorders.
Orthorexia is a proposed eating disorder, not yet recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), that involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. However, like other eating disorders, orthorexia can have severe consequences.
Unlike anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa, individuals with orthorexia are usually not focused on losing weight.
Orthorexia mostly revolves around food quality as individuals suffering from orthorexia have an extreme fixation with the purity of their foods, and they commonly classify foods into good and bad. They are obsessed with the benefits of healthy eating and optimal nutrition.
It is hard to draw a line between healthy eating and the onset of orthorexia. It usually starts with a diet to improve your health. Over time, good intentions can slowly develop into a full-blown eating disorder.
Because it is hard to differentiate between orthorexia and a normal preoccupation with healthy eating, prevalence rates remain largely unknown.
The transformation from enthusiasm for healthy eating to orthorexia could perhaps be determined when the obsession negatively affects everyday life. Negative aspects of orthorexia could be, among others, refusal to eat out with friends, extreme weight loss, or anxiety when “healthy” food is not available.
Negative physical effects of orthorexia include malnutrition, hormonal imbalances, impaired bone health, or abnormally slow heart rate. In extreme cases of orthorexia, physical complications can be life-threatening and therefore, should not be underestimated.
What is more, orthorexia nervosa can result in psychological and social adverse effects. People with orthorexia can experience intense frustration, guilt, or self-loathing, when their food-related habits are disrupted. In such cases, purification through cleanses or fasts is likely to follow.
Constant preoccupation with healthy foods and rigid eating patterns can make it challenging to take part in social activities revolving around food, for example, going out to eat with friends, dinner parties, or celebrating birthdays. This can lead to social isolation, which then in turn has other negative consequences for our mental health.
When diagnosing orthorexia, such consequences can be assessed. Furthermore, the symptoms of orthorexia can be divided into an obsessive focus on healthy eating and behaviors that disrupt everyday life.
Obsessive focus on healthy foods includes compulsive (that is, repetitive) behaviors or cognitive preoccupations with dietary choices that are thought to promote optimal health. Breaking the self-imposed rules of healthy eating often causes anxiety, fear of disease, sense of impurity, and shame. Healthy eating escalates and starts focusing on the elimination of food groups or even fasting and cleanses.
Moreover, personal distress and t difficulties in social or cognitive functioning can cause lifestyle disruption. Body image, identity, and self-worth are extremely fragile and depend on compliance with self-imposed dietary rules.
Only with the knowledge of orthorexia and other complications that an obsession with healthy eating can bring, we can mindfully approach the changes in our diet. By knowing the symptoms and ways in which orthorexia works we can timely notice the warning signs in ourselves to learn truly enjoy food again.
Overcoming orthorexia can be challenging, and therefore, you should seek a healthcare professional. Help can be offered from a multidisciplinary team that includes a psychologist, dietitian, and doctor.
When we have a clear goal in our minds, we want to reach it no matter what. Regardless the pains, no matter the tears, or our mind telling us it is enough.
The goal can be to be healthy. It can lead to an obsessive need to be super active every day or we think we are going to be unhealthy. It means making ourselves sweat when all we want to do is have a lazy day in front of the TV.
The goal can be to lose weight. Exercise then becomes a matter of dropping a few kilograms. It can turn into tiresome runs and HIIT training without having a day in a week to rest.
Such patterns can lead to ill health. Over exercising can affect not only our physical but also mental health.
Tough and repetitive exercise without rest is likely to lead to amenorrhea, the loss of period. Losing period can be the first sign that something is not right and that our body is not healthy anymore.
Amenorrhea is the body’s way of saying that you are not taking good care of yourself, therefore, how can you take care of a baby? Besides amenorrhea, tireless exercise can lead to fatigue, headaches, and lack of energy.
Moreover, over exercising can be detrimental to our mind and mental health. It can raise feelings of unhappiness, discontent, discomfort with ourselves, or even the rejection of ourselves and our bodies.
It is also important to realize why do you feel the persistent need for exercise. Are you trying to compensate for what you ate? Do you always try to push yourself a bit harder and do a bit extra?
Relentless exercise is one of the anorexia nervosa symptoms. Besides starvation behaviors, individuals with anorexia often over exercise to burn calories and lose even more weight than they can by restricting food.
Often, the mindless following of our exercise plan can put us into a bad mood and fatigue. On the other side, not following the plan brings up dissatisfaction with ourselves, or even guilt.
Over exercising can plant automatic negative thoughts into our head. Such as, I am unworthy if I am not fit. I HAVE to do this work out today or I will be become fat.
Do not feel bad when you cannot exercise. If you feel anxious, sad, irritable or depressed when you have to skip your work out, you are likely overdoing it. Your exercise routine should provide zest and sparkle into your life – not the other way around.
What can you do if you realize you have been over exercising?
Rest. Take a week off. Before you start exercising again, learn how important rest is. At least one day of rest per week is necessary. To let our muscles rest and our bodies reenergize.
Be kind to yourself. If you are trying to follow a workout plan but do not feel like getting up that day, decide to go for a walk instead of a relentless workout.
At the same time, forgive yourself for not having the strength to do what planned for that day. Forgive yourself and set your plan for the next day.
Love yourself and know when your body cannot take it anymore. Our body was made so that we can use it as an instrument – run with it, play, dance, swim, move. But we also need to nourish it. We only have this one body. We need to listen to its needs, give it rest when needed, and nourish it with whole and diverse food.
I hope this was informative and inspiring. I want my readers to feel empowered to make healthy life choices and live the best life that they can.
More is not always better. Let’s learn how to appreciate what we have and learn when to stop. Having the power to say when something becomes too much should be just as appreciated as the will to start is.
Let me know your thoughts on healthy eating, preoccupation with healthy food, and over exercising.