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Obsessed with being healthy? You might have orthorexia…

How paranoia, fear and guilt are driving this modern condition

For those of us who are obsessed with being healthy, the age of information presents a mine field filled with conflicting information at every turn. One study says beans are good, next day there’s another saying that they’re filled with lectins and phytates. The same holds true for meat, eggs, fish, supplements and pretty well any other type of ‘healthy’ food you could imagine.

This has now extended into entire dietary ideologies; the “Paleo-Vegan War” being the most notable.

While the debates rage (and will unlikely stop any time soon), one has to wonder what the collateral damage has been. Have we as a modern society become more educated, more confused, or both? Have our lives and health become that much better because of our new-found knowledge? Or have we become completeyl overwhelmed and paralyzed by this onslaught of information?

A Story I’ve heard a 1000 Times…

One of the questions I ask every single client in my practice is “how do you feel about nutrition advice”?. Without fail, every one of them checks the “confused” box. To make matters worse, many of them are eating extremely clean diets (I sometimes jokingly ask if they’d like to come over and cook for me).

For years I wondered to myself why there was so much confusion. What’s more, I wondered why these people eating extremely healthy diets and “doing all the right things” were coming to see me with a variety of health issues.

There were/are many instances where someone is legitimately eating the wrong healthy diet for them. Sometimes their health condition/s might lend themselves better to a vegan, Paleo, ketogenic, etc diet and they are doing the oppposite. Other times it is a constitutional issue in that they are simply eating the wrong foods for their particular body type (known as constitution or Dosha in Ayurvedic medicine). But there’s something a little more insidious as well…..orthorexia

Othrorexia: The Condition You’ve Seen, But Never Heard Of

“an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy.
a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods in the belief that they are harmful.
noun: orthorexia nervosa; plural noun: orthorexia nervosas”
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely foods that we should avoid. Ones that we can all agree on (well most of us). Sugar, artificial sweeteners, hydrogenated oils and highly processed foods are some examples.
But the problem we are now experiencing is that healthy foods are also being shunned, fueled by ‘new research’ and fad diets. This is driving many health-conscious people down an obsessive path that comes with a host of health problems. Some of these include a variety of eating disorders, poor self-image, OCD-like behaviour, anxiety and depression. This also creates alot of internal stress which can impact seemingly unrelated issues like hormone health, blood pressure, chronic fatigue and menstrual issues

What Lies Beneath This “Healthy Orthorexia”?

A few years ago, I remember catching up with former students to see how they were doing. These were students that had studied graduate programs in holistic nutrition. To my amazement (and horror!), they shared how many of them had developed eating disorders once they left nutrition school. When I asked them why, a few key issues came up. I think these issues are even more relevant today as we see the incidence of Orthorexia steadily increase.

Fear

Fear has many faces when it comes to Orthorexia. Fear can simply be worrying whether a food, supplement or product will be bad for us. It can also be the fear of failure; of not living up to expectations (more on this under “guilt” below). But there is an important question we need to ask ourselves:
Are you motivated by fear or by reward?
Being motivated by fear means that you are afraid that something bad will happen to you if you don’t do ‘x’. A good example here is the person who goes to the gym because they are afraid of getting fat. If you are motivated by reward, you go to the gym because you are aiming for a higher level of health – optimal health (whatever that is?)
Perhaps a ‘gym example’ was a bad idea. Perhaps not. I think obsessing over exercise, and over-training fall into the fear category simply because we are afraid of what might happen to us if we cut back or stop exercising for a while.
Let’s bring it back to food. With regards to food and Orthorexia, the fear mindset tells us that we must avoid certain foods for fear of making us sick. Again, there are legitimate examples (see above). But what if we thought/read that all (healthy) food would make us sick? This creates a completely different situation that moves us away from eating for health, and into eating to avoid sickness. Can you see the difference?

Guilt

I often conduct online polls and ask questions to my audience. I have learned alot by doing this. It is interesting to see how people respond and behave. When I ask people if would eat a certain type of food, or feed it to their kids; I usually get consistent yes’s or no’s depending on the food. But here’s the interesting part: I often see people who have an opposite view (to the general comment thread) delete their comments; most likely for fear of judgement.
The online world, and social media particularly, has perpetuated the idea of perfectionism. One only has to take a look through the Instagram and Facebook accounts of health-conscious people to see this in action. This pursuit of perfection has created alot of internal pressure for people but has also bred a culture of judgement. These two together, I believe, drive people to become more obsessive than they normally would. It also causes them to avoid more foods than they would for fear of cultural and social judgement. Add this to the internal dialogue and self-chatter, and it’s easy to see why Orthorexia is on the rise.

What To Do?

I think that tuning into one’s own dietary and lifestyle needs is important. We are all unique in our own way and require slightly different fuel sources, stimuli and environments. I do think that avoiding obvious problem foods is a good idea. But when it comes to healthy foods (that are apparently bad), it is important to lighten up a little. Chronic disease takes a long time to come about and if you are at least eating a clean diet that comprises whole foods (mostly organic), you are light years ahead of most people out there.
The only guarantees in life are that we will one day get old and die. And, yes, you will go through some wear and tear along the way. This is life. A better mindset I think is to focus on the time you have here, do the best you can with what you have, and enjoy yourself (and the beautiful bounty that our planet offer). This will lead toward a rich and varied life that is fulfilling and rewarding, instead of one that is self-defeating; filled with angst and fear.
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