Is It Possible To Eat Too Healthy?

I hope everyone had a happy and safe Memorial Day holiday yesterday! It’s always nice having the day off work to enjoy festivities and BBQ’s but of course it’s important to remember those who gave their lives so we can have the freedom we enjoy today. I admire their bravery and am forever grateful for our fallen soldiers.

We live in Senoia, GA, a town outside of Atlanta and enjoyed the small town festivities there. A parade, lots of really good southern food along with family and friends to celebrate with made it a wonderful afternoon.  A traditional southern BBQ was a great way to wrap up the day- full of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, mixed drinks and ice-cream cake. It’s always nice to let loose a little and enjoy greasy foods and sugary desserts and drinks. I love to eat healthy, but I live for those cheat days! Even though I eat a balanced diet, every now and then that balance goes out the window- just for a day- and then I go back to my normal way of eating.

For some, it’s not so easy to just take a cheat day or to allow themselves to enjoy foods made for them by their loved ones. Being a healthy eater is of course wonderful and can positively impact your life in a number of ways. I think that our nation is finally starting to make a shift away from fast food and soda to a “whole foods” approach. Fast food restaurants are catching on to this trend and offering healthier items on their menus. Soft drink sales are at an all-time low and have been steadily decreasing over the years. More and more people are attempting to eat “clean”- avoiding gluten, artificial sweeteners and flavorings, added sugars and non-organic foods. Veganism is on the rise and diet plans like Paleo and South Beach (Mediterranean-style) have become extremely popular. I don’t necessarily recommend these eating plans although they typically result in the individual making healthier food choices. Of course these shifts usually lead to a positive impact on health and this is a wonderful thing, especially if these changes can be maintained. In some cases the desire to be healthy can be taken to a level of obsession which in turn manifests signs of disordered eating.

Those who have an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy (or “pure”) may be suffering from orthorexia nervosa. Unlike bulimia or anorexia, orthorexia is not currently recognized as a clinical diagnosis and the person suffering from it is not fixated on being thin or losing weight. Orthorexics are focused on food quality and purity to an extent that results in a very rigid way of eating and can ironically cause nutrient deficiencies if the diet becomes too restrictive.

I like this definition given by Dr. Steven Bratman who originated the term orthorexia in 1997, “a disease disguised as a virtue.” Dr. Bratman wrote in his 1997 essay, published in Yoga journal:

“Orthorexia eventually reaches a point where the sufferer spends most of his time planning, purchasing and eating meals. The orthorexic’s inner life becomes dominated by efforts to resist temptation, self-condemnation for lapses, self-praise for success at complying with the self-chosen regime, and feelings of superiority over others less pure in their dietary habits. It is this transference of all life’s value into the act of eating which makes orthorexia a true disorder.”

This does not mean that eating healthy is a bad thing. It only can become a bad thing if it becomes all-consuming and self-esteem becomes wrapped in the purity of your diet. How can you tell if you may have orthorexia? Here are a few of the symptoms and warning signs:

  • It’s hard to function in society and you feel socially isolated. This is largely due to having obsessively check and see if a food is prepared by the “pure” standards you’ve put in place. You may avoid going to functions where there is food because the food served doesn’t fit in the rigidness of your eating plan. You may not eat anything other than what you prepare in fear of ingesting an ingredient that is “off-limits.”
  • You may think your way of eating is the only right way to eat and feel superior to others because of it
  • You spend an excessive amount of time thinking about pure foods and how to make your diet even more “clean.”
  • You constantly look for ways that food may be unhealthy for you and constantly cut foods out of your eating plan
  • You feel in control when you keep your diet clean
  • Love, joy and work take a backseat to eating the perfect diet
  • You feel fulfilled from eating “healthy” and lose interest in other activities you once enjoyed

While the term “You are what you eat” is true, food is just one small aspect of life. If your life becomes consumed by eating only healthy foods, you may miss out on building relationships and engaging in activities that bring you joy. Health is multi-dimensional and nutrition is just one part- you can certainly have a healthy diet while enjoying yourself as well!

If you or someone you know is exhibiting the signs of orthorexia, early intervention is crucial to prevent it from turning into a full-blown eating disorder. This can not only save a life, but can prevent years of struggle with disordered eating. Eating disorders are serious and raising awareness is important to recognize the signs, triggers, causes, and treatment. Visit https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/ for more info.

 

My thoughts on dieting

Spring is here and everyone is wanting to fit into their bikinis by summer. After the holidays and a winter of hibernation, it’s easy to put on a few pounds. Then the snow melts, the flowers start to bloom and the panic sets in. “I need to lose 15 pounds by summer!” The quickest solution is often looked for- the latest diet fads are sought out and the fasting begins. Juicing, low carb, high protein, the latest Dr. Oz recommendation…but do they actually work? Of course they work! Anything that results in a dramatic decrease in caloric intake will result in weight loss. Will the weight stay off? Probably not. Can you maintain this diet for the rest of your life? I’m guessing no. The diet ends and you are hungry. REALLY hungry. So you eat all your favorite foods that you gave up for the past couple months. And the weight comes back, typically bringing more weight on along with it. After that the guilt and frustration set in the emotional eating starts which results in the number on the scale creeping up more and more. Finally you decide you’ve had enough and try another diet. The cycle continues.

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Extreme dieting almost never works long term. I’ve seen success in those who track calories and exercise, but that can lead to obsession with counting calories which can sometimes result in losing the ability to eat intuitively. Understanding the difference between high calorie food- especially those high in empty calories (soda, sweets, etc) and nutrient dense foods (“real food” high in nutrients such as fiber, vitamins and minerals) is important to making healthy choices. As a registered dietitian, I teach people what this means and how to differentiate between the two. Once this concept is understood it’s important to find balance in your diet and high quality nutrient dense foods should make up 80% or more of what you eat. However, to be successful in stopping the diet cycle you need to dissociate yourself from any guilt you may feel when eating foods that aren’t in this category.

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I recommend to focus first on shifting the focus away from losing weight to taking care of yourself. The scale doesn’t define your self worth and much of the time this is what lead to the guilt associated with eating. I suggest to focus on the following to get your body and mind in a healthy state. Practicing these will result in life-long health and satisfaction, while dieting will only lead to short-term results.

  1. Get hydrated. Not with soda (even diet soda), juice or coffee but with water. Our bodies often mistake hunger for thirst.
  2. Eat breakfast, lunch and dinner with balanced portions of high quality carbohydrate, protein and fat at each meal.
  3. Listen to your body and don’t eat if you’re not hungry. However, make sure you don’t skip meals (even if you’re not particularly hungry at one meal- just eat light at that meal). Skipping meals will set you up for overeating later, and most likely the foods you are going to seek are nutrient-lacking foods
  4. Make time for exercise. This should be a priority. Exercise not only keeps our bodies functioning well but can also help to diminish food cravings. Movement releases brain reward chemicals (endorphins) that improve mood and help you sleep better.
  5. Go to bed! Being overtired leads to overeating and we are most likely to reach for sugary junk food to increase energy levels quickly
  6. Don’t aim for perfection. More than likely you will never eat perfectly. If you have an off-day or week (holidays, vacations are common culprits) learn from it and move on. The strive to eat perfectly will either lead to an eating disorder or frustration that fuels mindless eating.

On a side note, I was very happy with the results of the marathon I ran a few weeks ago. My finish time was 3:16:50 which was over a 3 minute PR for me! I finished 4th overall female and 1st in my age division. Next up is the Indianapolis mini marathon in May (this will by my 5th time running) and the Columbus Mill Race marathon in September. I have a lot of family in Columbus so I am really looking forward to that one!