Eating disorder in disguise: When ‘healthy eating’ goes too far’

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Endeavouring to eat healthier sounds like a reasonable, admirable goal. Whether it’s cutting back on highly processed foods or swapping the burger for the buddha bowl, there is generally nothing wrong with that.

But in a society obsessed with health, can you take it too far? The answer is yes – the phrase “too much of a good thing” exists for a reason.

Sometimes, what starts off as a well-intentioned endeavour can turn into an obsessive fixation on food, clean eating, and overall health, which inadvertently has a negative effect on your physical and mental health. In my opinion, if your relationship with food affects your well-being, day-to-day functioning, or is negatively impacting any areas of your life such as your relationships, social life, or work, then you have taken it too far.

What is orthorexia?

The extreme version of such an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating is called orthorexia. It’s when someone obsessively 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”. Unlike other eating disorders like anorexia, orthorexia is more focused on the quality of food rather than the quantity of food. 

What are the warning signs of orthorexia?

  • Fixation on nutrition labels and ingredients of food
  • Avoiding more and more foods considered “unhealthy”
  • Spending a significant amount of time reading, researching and planning about what you’re going to eat (e.g. compulsively looking up restaurant food menus before visiting)
  • Isolating yourself and saying no to social gatherings out of fear to not be able to control what foods are available
  • Experiencing feelings of frustration, guilt and shame when eating things considered “off-limits, unhealthy or not clean”
  • Becoming anxious when there is food uncertainty (e.g. being invited to dinner at a friend’s, travelling with limited food availability)

Whether you recognise yourself in a couple or all of these warning signs, the bottom line is this:

Focusing on the quality of your food intake is only healthy if your relationship with food is healthy. So whilst you opt for the buddha bowl instead of the burger, check-in with yourself and ask if the mindset behind your food choice is a healthy one. Because if not, you might be achieving the exact opposite of what you intended to.

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

When you are stuck in a situation where there is no “clean food” available and you reluctantly eat something that you consider off-limits, the self-created stress of that situation (“I really shouldn’t be eating this.” “This food is bad for me.”) can increase the amount of air that is swallowed. This in turn increases the potential for gassiness or bloating. This internal stress can also negatively affect your body’s ability to properly digest food, which can cause constipation or bloating. 

See where I’m getting at? If you had simply eaten said food with ease and neutrality, 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 bloatedness or indigestion.

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, then 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.

Written by Stefanie Jung, a Holistic Online Health Coach & Yoga Teacher with a focus on helping women heal their relationship with food & their bodies. Check out ‘Discover Food Freedom‘, Stef’s 9-week self-guided online course, to help even more women ditch diets, overcome binging & start to trust themselves around food again.