Oh hello, my name is ____! I am a gluten-free paleo hyper-local non-GMO organic sugar-free vegan. Unless you are serving a kale salad with unicorn fairy dust I unfortunately cannot attend your holiday party tonight.
Ok, so that made-up person I just invented is a bit extreme. However as a Dietitian I am seeing more and more people who are taking healthy eating to unhealthy proportions. There is actually a new term that has emerged, called “Orthorexia Nervosa”. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has defined orthorexia as:
“Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity. They 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.”
A Dietitian’s struggle to be “perfect”
I will admit as a Dietitian I sometimes feel pressured to eat a certain way. Clients and colleagues expect that I eat a lot of salads, I don’t eat poutine and I have a super-human ability to pass up chocolate cake. All these expectations can sometimes lead to guilt, shame and many of the characteristics described above. For example, during my October Unprocessed challenge, I defintely felt guilt if I somehow “slipped”. I also felt that my social life was impacted, as I couldn’t enjoy take-out or I would turn down going out for dinner with friends because heaven forbid, I ate a dish that had processed ingredients. I don’t regret taking on the challenge, but reflecting back I should have given myself a bit of slack 🙂
How to create a healthy balance
Here are some of my thoughts to help not only myself, but others who want to approach good nutrition in a healthy way:
1) Don’t strive to be “perfect”: I try and make healthy choices when I can. However I tell myself (and others) that it is OK to have pizza with friends, it is OK to have a piece of cake. Moderation on both ends of the spectrum is important.
2) Don’t define yourself as the “person who is the healthy eater”: One of my favourite quotes from Karin Kratina (she wrote a great article on Othorexia for NEDA) is “in recovery, identity will shift from “the person who eats health food” to a broader definition of who they are – a person who loves, who works, who is fun”. I’m learning to identify myself not just as a Dietitian, but as a person who loves her friends, family, live music, snowboarding etc.
3) Don’t be afraid to talk to someone: Disordered eating is rarely about the food itself. Often it is about underlying emotions, the need for control in life etc. Talking to a friend, family member or health professional can be a great first step in feeling better about yourself and improving your relationship with food. I find it helpful to talk with colleagues (aka other Dietitians) and share the struggles we sometimes face.
Now I’m off to enjoy a guilt-free holiday party, with a few snacks! xo