Are You Too Healthy?

by Dr. Krystal Plonski ND | Follow on Twitter

We advocate for healthy living, but when is it being taken too far? Does your healthy habits create an obsession, feeling self-righteousness, desire to control, or push you to over-exercise?

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I PREFER TO EAT ORGANIC, local, sustainable, and nutrient-dense foods.

But there are those occasions that I take a few bites of Hot Mama’s Pizza or have some fried cod and french fries from Ivar’s Fish and Chips, a local Seattle favorite.

*Gasp* (Hey, relax, I’m only human).

I always find it both entertaining and awesome to go to Naturopathic events where there are many healthy options to eat, including: organic, locally grown, gluten-free, soy-free, egg-free, dairy-free and peanut-free goodies. Some of the foods are even delicious and nutritious at the same time.

I fully support a healthy whole-foods diet and movement-rich lifestyle for all, especially due to the rising obesity rates within this country. I also support specialized diets for certain individuals, such as avoiding gluten for those with Celiac’s disease.

However, what about the average Joe who doesn’t have a clinically diagnosed malabsorption disease, obesity, or any predisposition to a chronic condition? – Should we be obsessively and restrictively conscious about everything we’re consuming?

Over 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States struggle with some form of an eating disorder.

An eating disorder can be classified as:an illness that causes serious disturbances to your everyday diet, such as eating extremely small amounts of food or severely overeating”.

Over 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States struggle with some form of an eating disorder. Photo credit: Pixabay.com

Over 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States struggle with some form of an eating disorder. Photo credit: Pixabay.com

Up until the past few years, I didn’t think I knew anyone in my life with an eating disorder. It was not until talking with some close colleagues and friends that I realize how common these conditions really are.

What I have learned about eating disorders did not come from books, rather from those who are affected by them. They describe an eating disorder is a condition that is difficult to escape. Individuals are faced at least 3-5 times a day with food-related decisions. I loosely compared this with other compulsions, such as shopping, alcoholism or gambling, and although the desires come up frequently, they aren’t required for even the most basic survival techniques.

The eating disorders listed below require professional medical diagnosis and treatment:

  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Bulemia nervosa
  • Binge Eating Disorder
  • Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (ED-NOS)
  • Diabulimia
  • Orthorexia (which may not be accepted as an eating disorder by some psychologists, psychiatrists, and eating disorder specialists)

From taking a look at this list, orthorexia is an interesting condition that is rarely addressed. The diagnosis includes a mental pre-occupation with eating “healthy” foods – which might mean organic and local and/or home-grown. This diagnosis strays from popular concepts of eating disorders; not eating enough food or someone who eats too much. Now the focus on quality of food has become the obsession, rather than the amount.

People suffering from orthorexia may initially begin as a healthy diet, which may turn awry in which obsession, desire for control of “purist” foods, calorie restriction, over-exercising, and self-righteousness may result.

In 1997, orthorexia was coined by the physician, Steven Bratman, MD, who described his own struggles with this eating disorder (although not recognized as a true eating disorder, according to the DSM-IV).

Below is a sample of Orthorexia-related questions that a physician may use to evaluate this condition:

  1. When eating, do you pay attention to the calories of the food?
  2. When you go in a food shop do you feel confused?
  3. In the last 3 months, did the thought of food worry you?
  4. Are your eating choices conditioned by your worry about your health status?
  5. Is the taste of food more important than the quality when you evaluate food?
  6. Are you willing to spend more money to have healthier food?
  7. Does the thought about food worry you for more than three hours a day?
  8. Do you allow yourself any eating transgressions?
  9. Do you think your mood affects your eating behavior?
  10. Do you think that the conviction to eat only healthy food increases self-esteem?
  11. Do you think that eating healthy food changes your life-style (frequency of eating out, friends, …)?
  12. Do you think that cosuming healthy food may improve your appearance?
  13. Do you feel guilty when transgressing?
  14. Do you think that on the market there is also unhealthy food?
  15. At present, are you alone when having meals?

 

Based upon a certain scoring system, a physician will be able to gauge a patient’s struggle with orthorexia, or other eating disorders of the like.

In the questionnaire, the questions are all directed at a person’s attitude towards particular types of food, whether they influence his or her mood, and the amount of preoccupation the foods generate. Does the person have to eat alone because of their extreme eating habits? Have they socially isolated themselves from participating in events with family and friends? Might there be a mental picture to this eating disorder that we are not addressing?

Taking a look at the clinical questionnaire, #11 is very interesting from multiple viewpoints – medical, cultural, and psychological. More often than not, physicians can be so hyper-focused on the nutritional and caloric deficiencies of their patients and may not take into account the experience of eating.

Do your patients have to eat alone because of their extreme eating habits? The experience of eating is as important as what they're eating. Photo credit: Pixabay.com

Do your patients have to eat alone because of their extreme eating habits? The experience of eating is as important as what they’re eating. Photo credit: Pixabay.com

The social component of eating is a commonly lapsed aspect of care for individuals who suffer from orthorexia, other eating disorders, and even those with food allergies, from a medical perspective.

Now don’t get me wrong, I for one am a huge proponent of eating organic, local, and sustainable food sources, whenever available. However, when this mindset crosses into taking up excessive amounts of time and rumination; induces a sense of anxiety about eating or self-loathing for consuming ‘impure’ foods; or causes isolation from eating with family and friends, then it is problematic.

My hope is that individuals reading this article will take a second look at their eating habits to become more aware of their tendencies. Rather than associating yourself with eating a clean diet, shift the focus to eating a “whole-foods” diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, protein, and carbohydrates to support a healthy mind, body and soul.

Disclaimer: This post is NOT intended for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment of disease. If you or someone you know suffers from an eating disorder, please seek appropriate medical attention and help in your local area.

References:

http://www.eatright.org/Public/content.aspx?id=6442471029
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/26/orthorexia-nervosa_n_937268.html
http://www.archivespp.pl/uploads/images/2012_14_1/BrytekMatera55__APP1_2012.pdf
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/eating-disorders-new-trifold/index.shtml
http://www.utne.com/environment/obsessed-with-nutrition-healthy-eating-disorder.aspx

About the Author
Dr. Krystal Plonski ND

Dr. Krystal Plonski is a licensed Naturopathic Physician and Licensed East Asian Medical Practitioner, specializing in pediatrics. Currently, Dr. Krystal is working in an accredited Naturopathic pediatric residency, where she combines Conventional, Eastern, and Western healing modalities to bring about the best possibility for health for all of her patients. Her passion is working with children and adolescents, where her greatest reward as a doctor would be to influence this population in a positive way, and be a healthy role model to a subset of future adult patients.