In our feverish quest for health, do we sometimes lose sight of what’s really important? Do we sometimes take healthy eating too far?
Yes, I believe we often do. Although most people’s intentions are good, as a private practice registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in eating disorders and disordered eating, I see the negative consequences of taking healthy eating too far.
What makes it even harder is that many of these concerning behaviors are actually seen as healthy, desirable, and even enviable in our modern day culture. Because of that, it can be difficult to detect when you’ve gone too far.
So how do you know when you’ve crossed the line from healthy to disordered eating? Let’s talk through eight behaviors that might indicate problematic patterns.
1. You’ve lost the joy of eating.
If you are trying to eat healthily and not enjoying your food, you will likely run into problem No. 2 below (you won’t be able to stick to the changes you’ve made). Experiment with different cooking methods, flavors, and recipes and find a way to enjoy your food. Food and eating can be both nourishing and satisfying—and, you should enjoy eating!
2. You’re unable to sustain the changes you’ve made.
Whatever changes you make with your eating need to be changes that are sustainable and lasting. Think of the shifts you’re making with food and self-care as long-term improvements rooted in self-love rather than a short-term diet because diets don’t work long-term.
3. You feel a deep sense of shame or guilt associated with your food choices.
When you call one food “good” and another food “bad,” you often assign a moral judgment on yourself based on the foods you’re eating. You might feel really good when you eat a salad and you might feel like a terrible person when you eat a donut. Eating should not result in shame or guilt. Your sense of self-worth, either positive or negative, shouldn’t be tied to the foods you eat. Aim for neutrality when it comes to food and eating.
4. You’re hungry all the time.
Your body isn't meant to be starving all the time. Your body will get the food it needs for survival, whether it's now (in the form of a reasonable, satisfying meal) or later (in the form of a binge). Leaving each meal with a sense of satisfaction and fullness that energizes you and lasts for a few hours is essential for a peaceful, sustainable relationship with food.
5. You 'cheat'.
As mentioned in No. 3 above, eating should not be a moral issue. Your eating routine should allow for "fun foods" here and there as part of the bigger picture. If you feel like you’re cheating when you eat a food, you are assigning a moral judgment on yourself about that food and about who you are. If your version of eating healthy results in cheating, then your healthy eating is likely problematic and needs rethinking. Life events such as vacations, injuries, birthdays, and holidays shouldn’t cause complete chaos for you. And, when you know you can enjoy a cookie or your favorite treat here and there, there's no reason to overdo it on that food now. Cheating just breeds more chaos with food.
6. Your 'healthy eating' is guided by a strict set of rules.
Rigidity with food can make us feel safe; having rules can give you the sense of security that things will be OK. While this logic is understandable, it's not how it works for the majority of people. Rather than rules, can you operate from a framework, allowing for lots of flexibility from the curveballs life sends your way? Rather than rules, can you practice mindful self-care in your nutrition, which sometimes might include spontaneous ice cream with your kids or friends? Think framework and guidelines with nutrition, rather than a strict set of rules and notice how your life is enhanced.
7. You think about food, eating, body image, and related topics during the majority of your day.
Planning and preparing meals takes time and effort. Being mindful and intuitive with eating requires some time to be able to be effective. With all of that in mind, we shouldn’t spend the majority of our time focusing on food-related issues. Healthy eating does take time and effort but should also allow room for a full and happy life.
8. You put nutrition on a pedestal.
There’s more to health than what we put in our mouths. Think of your health as a pie chart (pun intended). The pie is made of up various slices including nutrition, sleep, relationships, exercise, mental health, adventure, personal growth and discovery, spiritual connection, and more. In our efforts for healthy eating, we sometimes focus on nutrition and exercise while neglecting our mental health, our spiritual lives, our relationships, or some other aspect of well-being and health.
There’s only so much time in a day, and if our efforts for healthy living get imbalanced in any of the dimensions of health, our health will suffer. Nutrition is one important part of health, but it's not the only part of health. Keeping that in mind will help us stay balanced and healthy.
If you struggle with one or more of the above, please don’t despair. There is a fine line between functional, positive and a healthy relationship with food and problematic patterns with nutrition. Look at your intentions and your innermost thoughts surrounding your food and eating. If your intentions are grounded in self-care, you're likely on the right track. If your intentions are tied up in dieting, body manipulation punitive rules or overall negativity, look deeper and make some changes in your approach.
Try to stay balanced, flexible and moderate in your approach with food and continually ask yourself if your eating feels sustainable and realistic for you and your unique needs.