food for thought

The Fine Line Between Healthy Eating And An Eating Disorder

How seriously are you taking your “diet?”

With so many trendy diets and “lifestyles” populating our Instagram feeds on a daily basis, it’s easy to get mixed up about what one “should” or “shouldn’t” eat. Which research is right? Are animal products or are carbohydrates responsible for everyone’s chronic health problems and weight gain?

In general, most of these “diets” aren’t inherently bad. Veganism, the Paleo diet, the Whole30, etcetera and so on are all geared at steering us away from processed, packaged foods, and filling our diets with whole foods and fresh fruits and vegetables. These diets can be a fun challenge for those of us looking to incorporate new methods of cooking into our lives or test our self-discipline to reach a short-term fitness goal. But these diets, at their core, also encourage the principle of extreme restriction and the elimination of entire food groups from your diet.

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And I know, because I’ve been on every dietary bandwagon you can name. I was a “clean eater” back in high school, before going Paleo in college after being diagnosed a Celiac. Then I tried veganism. (At one point, I even attempted to combine the two diets: No meat, gluten, dairy OR grains!) I went macrobiotic at one point, pescatarian at another… need I go on? While each regimen taught me how to cook creatively, showed me how certain foods affect my body, and kept me mindful about the food I was eating, these diets also eventually made me very sick.

I became obsessed with every ingredient I was consuming. I felt anxiety or guilt eating out at restaurants and treating myself to dessert. I was devastated if I found out I had accidentally consumed dairy, soy, or sugar. I could no longer enjoy simple pleasures in life, like eating out, or grabbing a drink with a friend, attending birthday parties, or even going to the movies. Everywhere I went, I always had a “clean” meal and snacks packed in my bag, just in case. My eating habits consumed me and my thoughts; it became my priority. I forgot about all the other wonderful things life had to offer.

All of which begs the question: When is taking care of your body in this way considered mindful eating, and when has it gone too far?  I’ve outlined some elements below of mindful eating, as well as signs of Orthorexia Nervosa (an obsession with eating purely) to help you differentiate.

Eating mindfully is…

…being aware when you eat. Steering clear of technology and other distractions while you eat to avoid mindless snacking, to appreciate what you are eating, and to recognize when you are truly full.

…staying away from processed foods at the grocery store. Choosing instead to fill your cart with fresh fruits and vegetables, grains and legumes, and sustainably sourced meat and dairy.

…acknowledging your cravings. If you really want a certain food, you let your body have it. Your body knows what it wants, and everything can be eaten in moderation. Acknowledging your cravings in the moment may prevent you from binging excessively later on.

…allowing yourself to take a night off from your “diet” when you’re out with friends. The side of rice with your salmon won’t hinder your progress. Nor will the cheesecake for dessert. Relax. Be present in the moment with your company. Food is just food.

…meal prepping for the week. This will reduce your chances of stopping for fast food or grabbing a Snickers from the vending machine on your lunch break. Having clean, healthy, delicious meals will reduce your stress throughout the work week and give you something to look forward to while you’re at work!

…finding cleaner ways to re-create your favorite treats. If you want to stay on track throughout the week but love to indulge nightly, it can be fun to figure out how to make healthy swaps for flour, sugar, etc. that will actually benefit your body when you consume them. Think: Zucchini brownies, gluten-free blueberry almond cake, flourless peanut butter cookies, and vanilla chia seed pudding.

When it’s gone too far when you…

…eliminate entire food groups from your diet. It’s one thing if these foods truly affect you negatively, if you are a Celiac or have another digestive disorder, are lactose intolerant, or truly just feel awful when you eat a certain food. But if you are avoiding a food because you have read that it is inherently evil or because your favorite food blogger is avoiding it, it might be time to reevaluate and reincorporate it into your diet, paying extra attention to how you feel when you consume it.

…turn down dinner or social invitations because of the food or lack of that will be there. Or even worse, bringing prepped meals to social gatherings or restaurants. There will almost always be light options for you to choose from if you don’t feel like indulging. Remember, the experience and connecting with others is way more important than if you can’t find anything on the menu that’s organic and grass-fed.

…feel guilt or anxiety after you consume something that doesn’t align with your “diet”. You should never feel guilty about something you choose to consume. I remember I even got to the point where I felt guilt about consuming meals that were perfectly clean and healthy but I felt weren’t balanced in macronutrients, or if I felt I ate too much of said healthy meal. You deserve to eat whatever you and your body want. You deserve to indulge, whether you’ve exercised or not that day. If you’ve made a decision you wouldn’t normally make, it’s okay! There’s probably a subconscious reason for it and your body is thanking you for listening to it. Fun fact: Stressing about what you consume skyrockets your cortisol levels, which slows your metabolism and causes your body to hang on to visceral fat.

I cannot stress enough that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to eat well and take care of your body. Doing so is essential to a healthy body, a happy mind, and a full soul. But it is so important not to get caught up in all the rules and restrictions that surface on a daily basis. Remember, we used to think that eliminating fat from our diets was healthy…

Moral of the story? Listen to your body, consume what you want in moderation, and use food as fuel, not as a platform for control and a negative relationship with yourself. Take everything you read with a grain of salt, and be sure to read both sides of the story when you come across new studies or fad diets. Do and eat what makes you happy! The health will come with that.

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