Yes, TOO healthy can be unhealthy.
If the #cleaneats life is taking a toll on your mental health, it’s time to take a step back. Wellness blogger Lee Tilghman, who has a following of more than 300,000 on her @leefromamerica Instagram page, recently disclosed her struggles in “I was a wellness blogger until I realized I had an eating disorder.” In January she says she realized that her healthy lifestyle obsession was causing depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder tendencies. In addition to being preoccupied with living a “toxin-free” lifestyle, she admits she was obsessed with always “making sure my diet was perfect and always in my control. … I wanted no bloat, no inflammation, no stress, the best sleep, and I needed total access to my healthy list of “okay” foods – primarily, no processed sugar, no gluten, no dairy, no soy, etc. etc. etc…just to feel good.”
An unhealthy obsession with eating
When a well-intentioned lifestyle to improve healthy eating goes too far, as in Tilghman’s case, it’s called an eating disorder called orthorexia. Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating that can cause destruction to one’s well-being. In serious cases, orthorexia may lead to malnourishment when essential nutrients are eliminated from the recommended diet and can harm the kidneys and other vital organs. Eating food that people with orthorexia don’t consider “pure” may cause an extreme amount of anxiety, nervousness and even depression.
When “wellness” habits are taken to the extreme
She is not alone, as evidenced by the Instagram popular hashtags: #orthorexia (156,000 posts) and #orthorexiarecovery (78,100 posts). In fact, social media is packed with bloggers relaying every detail of every healthy meal and fitness feat. “These aspirations affected every single aspect of my life,” Tilghman says, including “who I hung out with, where I shopped, what time I went to bed, who I followed on Instagram, who I dated, where I vacationed. A major driver behind this “best version of herself” Tilghman says was a fixation over controlling her weight, which seems to be a common theme. Elli Feingold, the blogger behind @eatingwithElli, says she went from being “sickly thin” to a healthy weight after she recognized her issue and learned that it was OK to indulge in “unhealthy” food once in awhile. When a preoccupation with healthy eating and lifestyle starts to interfere with everyday life, it’s time to get help, as Tilghman and many others have.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, here are the warning signs and symptoms of orthorexia:
- Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
- An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
- Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
- An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’
- Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
- Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
- Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
- Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on Twitter and Instagram
- Body image concerns may or may not be present
Orthorexia seems to be gaining wider recognition as cases continue to arise and capture media attention. Although not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, it is still recognized by many mental health professionals and eating disorder experts. There is no official treatment for the disorder, but mental health professionals often treat the condition similarly to anorexia or OCD. If you or someone you know is experiencing any signs of orthorexia or think you may have concerns about an eating disorder, please seek help from a trusted professional. And remember, living a healthy lifestyle is all about balance!