Surely in today’s obesogenic environment with alarming rates of chronic disease, there would be no such phrase as ‘being too healthy’ right?
Let me introduce you to a condition becoming more and more prevalent, now known as orthorexia.
It is characterised by a a pre-occupation with avoiding foods perceived as being unhealthy. Sufferers only eat healthy foods and limit certain food groups in order to prevent ill health and disease. Weight loss is also a motivator but not always the main driver. Sufferers often avoid pesticides, gluten, phytates, acid forming foods or obsessed with choosing free range, organic, activated, unheated, and concepts such as ‘eating clean.’
Now, of course living a healthy and disease free life is something every single one of us should be aiming for and the above health choices are certainly ones in which can benefit us. The difference with orthorexia sufferers, is that they are unable to deviate from their chosen health choices and this behaviour begins to negatively impact their life physically, mentally and socially.
Now, gluten free, dairy free, paleo, sugar free, superfoods, greens powders, organic, ethically sourced, phytate free, hormone free are all words that we are familiar with. But are they doing more harm than good?
The Scenario – Rachael
Nutrition across social media is huge. But for some, It’s another form of pressure.
With the rise of social media, has arrived a swarm of healthy peeps spreading the nutrition love and advocating for their chosen lifestyle, be it raw, vegan, paleo, sugar free, clean eating or just plain healthy eating. They share what they are eating and cite information from the latest book they have read or ‘talk’ they have been and seen.
Unfortunately some of the messages that are promoted are often misguided and have no scientific basis. Now, it is not my intention to be negative towards health bloggers or to be an elitist, but it is a (frightening) fact that incorrect nutrition advice can cause ill health, disease and yes, even death.
Despite all good intentions, the way in which many of these messages are often delivered are not conducive to good health and may in fact be highly damaging. The all-or- nothing mentality or scare mongering technique is rife – I’m sure you’ve seen all the ‘Don’t eat this because it will cause that’
In the case of Rachael, her favourite instagrammer is on a paleo diet citing grains as something to avoid and Sarah sees this message in various forms almost daily. Sarah’s friends have removed grains and all of a sudden Sarah is the only one at that birthday dinner not requesting grain free dishes, the odd one out. She feels bad that she has ordered the tomato pasta with prawns.
Now, thinking that several of her friends lost 2 kg by going gluten free, Sarah is thinking ‘maybe that’s what I should be doing?’ Rachael’s friends are religious green smoothie drinkers for breakfast, posting their creation each morning on Facebook. Though inspiring for many, it can also be another form of pressure to keep up with the trend and thoughts like “Maybe my morning muesli with a banana is not healthy, too many carbs, contains grains, is higher in calories and oh no, I’m not getting enough greens? Could the grains in my muesli be causing me to develop cancer?’ all start circulating in the mind
Rachael logs into Facebook and sees the graphic posted by a nutrition page with thousands of followers, that ‘dairy causes brain tumors’ and hence starts a vicious cycle of nutrition paranoia. A feeling that everything she is doing is wrong. So in order to be healthy, she should follow suit and cut out these death ingredients.
It’s highly dangerous for our body
Limiting of food groups is of great concern.
I consider this as much of an issue as if someone came to me who was eating McDonalds every day and was 40 kg overweight.
Whilst people on the verge of, or suffering from orthorexia may not be overweight or eating unhealthy foods, their social life, mental health and biochemistry can tell a different story.
You see, removing food groups can often give rise to deficiencies particularly iron, Vitamin B12, Zinc, Calcium and Vitamin D. You might read that and think not much of it, but these deficiencies can cause serious short and long term effects. To give one example, Zinc found in meat, eggs, wholegrains is crucial for a healthy immune system. Without it, it is like trying to build a house without cement and wondering why the bricks keep falling down. I see many people cut out certain food groups which leads to deficiencies in nutrients such as zinc, then *shock horror* they always get colds and flu. They don’t have the zinc (cement) to hold their immune system (house) together.
Unfortunately, they prematurely look at what else they should be removing from their diet or they may start a detox, with the belief that something such as gluten must be causing the low immune system, when it is in fact the deficiency that has caused the illness in the first place and their body needs MORE nutrients not less!
Mental health is just as important as physical health and weight
Healthy eating is much more than just avoiding unhealthy foods and drinking green smoothies.
It’s about having a healthy relationship with food which fits within your lifestyle, not a relationship with food which determines your lifestyle. I have seen girls refrain from dining out with their friends because they are trying to ‘eat clean’ and the restaurants menus do not provide options for them. They then stop being asked out to dinner.
The Chef and I make choices every day to eat as healthy as possible though we do know where to draw the line. If we go out for dinner and the chicken isn’t organic, we know that it will not cause cancer. If we go to a friends home and she serves a sandwich with bread that isn’t free from preservatives, we don’t care.
Because our friends, social life and mental health mean as much to us as our physical health.
Because life is far too busy, hectic and stressful to have our brain taken up with controlling and restrictive type thoughts.
I’m well aware that many people have allergies and intolerances that require restriction of certain foods. I myself have several intolerances that I have managed since I was a child. Hopefully though, for those that do not have reason to remove foods or food groups, this article may just inspire people to follow a holistic nutrition philosophy that promotes health for mind, body and spirit. Restriction isn’t the answer to all health problems.
Disclaimer: Dairy does not cause brain tumors and grains are not the devil. This article is not stating that all people following a clean eating diet suffer from orthorexia. This article is not stating that we should not try and follow a healthy lifestyle.
Do you think that you may need help? Does this article strike a cord with you? Please contact me so that I can point you in the direction of more information or a qualified professional
The Nutrition Guru is a university qualified Nutritionist, keen cook and all round myth buster. She cares passionately about advocating for holistic health and providing credible and up to date nutrition information in order for people to make their own educated decision about nutrition.