Is Your Quest for Health Making You Sick? Pt. 1

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d One of the most significant lessons I’ve learned at NTI is that no amount of healthy eating and exercise can eliminate chronic stress. When it goes unmanaged, stress is the biggest threat to our health.

This begs the question: How stressed are you about your health?

As students of holistic health and nutrition, our goals are overall and lasting health, which we work hard to achieve. We research, study, take supplements, cook meals, change our lifestyles, and oftentimes change on a fundamentally personal level. Who we are becomes inextricably linked to what we believe in and how we enact those beliefs.

The more we learn, the higher our expectations become. Education raises the proverbial bar. For those of us who seek new information, it can be challenging and downright stressful to keep up with the changes we seek to implement. We often learn at a much faster rate than sustainable change can occur. This can leave us feeling inadequate and somehow behind, which leads to stress, anxiety, and negativity around the very goals we’re seeking to meet.

“Good” Food vs. “Bad” Food

I remember a particularly low point during my first year at NTI when I decided to participate in the Whole 30 Program. Whole 30 is a diet consisting primarily of meat, vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs, and some fruit. I was making everything from scratch: Condiments, cauliflower rice, and nut milks, to name a few. I was constantly thinking about food and assessing whether something was within the requirements of the Whole 30 protocol (good) or not (bad). And didn’t realize the extent of my obsession until I was in class and a fellow student pulled out a snack of veggies and hummus. Because of my own dietary restrictions, my thought process went like this: “Hummus is made of garbanzo beans. Garbanzo beans are legumes. Legumes aren’t allowed on the Whole 30 protocol. Therefore, hummus is bad, and so is the woman eating it.”

Yikes! In an effort to improve my health, I had become mentally and emotionally consumed by what I was eating. I was judgmental of myself and of others, which added a palpable element of stress to my life.

I’d like to add here that I had this experience based on particular circumstances in my own life. By no means do I think the Whole 30 protocol, or any other restrictive diet, is detrimental. Much of the work we do as Nutrition Therapists involves some type of elimination or restriction. It boils down to perception and the ways we’re able to engage with the boundaries that we set.

When it comes to our quest for health, too much of a good thing can ultimately be harmful. Thoughts that are constantly calculating and assessing can take us down a path of disordered eating and compulsive habits around food.

Orthorexia Nervosa

According to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), the term “orthorexia nervosa” describes people who have an unhealthy obsession with the quality and purity of their food. People who struggle with orthorexia “become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with ‘slip-ups.’  An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style. Every day is a chance to eat right, be ‘good,’ rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts, and exercise).

Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake. Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.  Eventually, the obsession with healthy eating can crowd out other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous.”

While orthorexia is not currently listed in the DSM-5, it was coined by Steven Bratman, MD in 1996 to help his patients entertain the idea that obsessing about eating healthy may not be as beneficial as they presumed. For more information on orthorexia nervosa, visit the NEDA website.

Recognizing Orthorexia

If you or someone you know has a diet that takes up an inordinate amount of time and attention, causes guilt and/or self-loathing when deviated from, is used to avoid life issues, or causes feelings of isolation and loneliness, it is worth seeking professional support to work through the rigidity and dogma that can be attached to this disorder.

Restrictive and disordered eating habits are just one result of an underlying layer of stress attached to our relationship with food. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this topic, where we’ll look at the physiological impacts of stress on digestion and what you can do to maintain your health goals while simultaneously finding enjoyment and ease around food.

Anneliese Pyatt is a certified Master Nutrition Therapist and graduate of NTI. She targets gut health to address degenerative and inflammatory conditions.

Image is licensed under CC0 1.0

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