Finding balance: Healthy eating should not be an obsession

With summer just around the corner, now more than ever, people are flocking to the gym and revamping their diets in order to lose a few extra pounds and tone up. However, there is a point in which diet and exercise can be taken too far.

With Instagram touting fitness models galore — all of which promote ultra-clean diets and crazy workout plans — it can be easy for people to fall victim to the toxic mindset that food is the enemy. 

Orthorexia is a condition in which a person develops unhealthy behaviors while pursuing a healthy or “clean” diet. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, the term ‘orthorexia’ was created in 1998, and, while awareness is on the rise, this particular disorder lacks the concrete diagnostic criteria other eating disorders have. 

While I have never been officially diagnosed, I cannot help but question my own eating habits as I scroll through the list of warning signs and symptoms. 

Orthorexia includes worry over the foods being consumed as well as obsessive thoughts regarding what foods might be served at meals, concern over unhealthy foods and an overall loss of freedom and spontaneity when it comes to food. Throughout my high school years and my first two years of college, I found myself struggling with these very things. 

If a food was not offered that I thought was “healthy” enough, I would lie to avoid eating. Several foods, such as bread, ice cream and pasta, were completely off-limits, and I’ve only recently started to reintroduce them into my diet. If I ate unhealthy food, I would cry, make myself feel bad or punish myself with hours of cardio at the gym. I would count calories and macronutrients and obsess over the numbers. 

Anytime I went out to eat with friends, I would scour the menu, and if I could not count calories, I would either suggest an alternative restaurant where I could or forget the idea completely. Not only did my health suffer, but so did other aspects of my life. I could not go out to eat with friends and family. Holidays were equally difficult; I could not indulge. At family dinners, I would have small bites here or there but nothing substantial. If I did eat anything deemed “unsafe,” I continued to beat myself up over it for days afterward. 

The most alarming aspect of my situation is that I really have no cause to be concerned over my health. I have always been in a healthy body range — maybe even on the small side. I am active, and I genuinely love healthy food. My doctor visits always go well, and I have no intolerances or food allergies to restrict me.

It was not until recently that I realized my behavior needed to change. I could not continue to live that way — nor should I have to. 

Yes, our bodies need fuel. Yes, we need to eat healthily and exercise regularly. But it shouldn’t be at the cost of actually enjoying our food and living our lives. It took a lot of discipline, and I am definitely not at the place I want to be yet. However, I am finally starting to accept that not all my food has to be “healthy.” 

Thirty million people suffer from eating disorders in the U.S., and they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. While I have not been diagnosed, I recognize my behavior wasn’t — and still is not — healthy. It’s my hope that others will see that as well and, unlike me, they will seek the help they need. 

Healthy eating is important, but not everything. There is so  much more to this life than what we put into our bodies or how many hours we clock in at the gym. In our health-obsessed culture, it can be so easy to fall into bad habits — ones that can even turn deadly. 

For anyone struggling with an eating disorder or thinking they have one, contact the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline. Counseling Services is also available 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. weekdays at 618-650-2842. 

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