Ask the expert: Has my healthy eating gone too far?

Many of us will know what it’s like to go on a healthy eating ‘kick’. We decide to get serious about our health and start by looking at what we’re eating, setting new goals to change our diet. Sometimes this can lead to wonderful, positive things. For some, however, it is the start of a slippery slope that can lead to disordered eating.

Here we speak to nutritional therapist and eating disorder recovery coach Sasha Paul to learn more about orthorexia and how to find support.

I’ve heard the term orthorexia being used but I’m not sure what it means – can you explain it? 

Orthorexia is a term used to describe an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. What often starts out as a well-intentioned health goal can become a serious problem that affects all areas of a person’s life. 

Those experiencing orthorexia tend to follow rigid food rules around what they ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ eat and, in time, the number of foods they allow in their diet can often reduce. It is very common for orthorexia sufferers to spend a lot of time thinking about food and to feel a significant amount of distress if the foods they deem to be healthy are not available.  

Although healthy eating is not a problem as such, it’s when the pursuit for health stops being about balance that things start to tip towards unhealthy. 

I’m trying to eat healthier at the moment and am finding myself thinking about food a lot. Is it possible to take healthy eating too far?

It is wonderful to hear that you are considering your health, however, if you are starting to think about food a lot, it may be time to shift your focus from health to balance. 

When we focus on healthy eating, often we restrict the foods we really enjoy. This increases our thoughts around these foods and makes them more desirable. In many cases, it is far healthier to take an intuitive approach to nutrition, where we focus on nourishing the body, as well as allowing ourselves the foods we enjoy – satisfying both our wants and needs. 

It can also be helpful to consider if what you are eating is enough for you. This is important because one of the direct effects of under-eating is increased thoughts around food. 

My relationship with food feels unhealthy but I’m not sure what to do about it. How do I know if I need professional help?

Recognising a potential breakdown with your relationship with food is an incredible step. My ethos is that if your relationship with food is affecting your life in any way, then you are absolutely right to seek out support. And the sooner you reach out, the better!

The next step is to find a practitioner who specialises in this area so that you receive the right support for your journey. I strongly believe that eating problems require a holistic approach that incorporates work on nutrition understanding, shifting unhelpful thought patterns and emotional support. Together this can change your relationship with food for years to come.

Many health professionals will offer you a complimentary initial call, where you can ask their approach to this problem and if they have experience in this area. This is also an opportunity for you to make sure that you feel comfortable with the practitioner.

What support can a nutrition professional give me for orthorexia?

Firstly, it is important to work with a nutrition professional who has experience in this area. This is a specialist field and one that benefits most from a holistic approach, where we can support you to reach true and lasting recovery.

A nutrition professional will be able to provide useful nutrition education and guide you towards a place of balance. Rather than rigid food plans, you can expect to be supported with a flexible approach that centres around supporting you to make peace with food. 

Working with an eating disorder specialist, you will additionally work on shifting unhelpful thought patterns, tackling limiting beliefs, social factors and breaking free from the problem in a holistic way.

A friend is becoming quite obsessive about their eating and how ‘clean’ it is. I’m worried about them – how can I approach the subject?

It is commendable that you are worried about your friend and that you want to help. The first thing I suggest is to spend some time reading up about orthorexia, which may be what your friend is experiencing.

The next thing to do is to choose a moment to approach your friend sensitively. Let them know you are worried about how much time and thought is going into their eating lately and how much their food intake has changed, then get a sense of their response. 

Share with them that there is so much support out there and offer some resources so that they can learn a bit more. If they are not open to this yet, that’s OK! You have already got them thinking about it just by approaching the conversation. Let them know you are here for them, whenever they do want to talk.

Beat is an excellent resource.

Top tips for those struggling with orthorexia:

  1. Create a supportive environment for yourself. This may include spending more time with people who have a balanced relationship with food, coming away from triggering environments and following supportive accounts on social media. 
  1. Keep focused on your motivation for recovery. Connecting with your ‘why’ is one of the most powerful tips I can share. List all the reasons why you want to recover – think about what making peace with food will bring you. Next, create a vision board inspired by all the reasons from your list, so you can wake up each morning ready to take on the day.
  1. Get the right support. Working with an expert is such a powerful part of recovery and will arm you with the tools and support required to break free from the problem. Take the time to choose someone who specialises in this field and can support you with the different aspects of recovery.

This article was originally published in Happiful Magazine (September 2021). You can order print copies online, or read the e-magazine for free on the Happiful app

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Written by Kat Nicholls
Kat is a Content Producer for Memiah and writer for Nutritionist Resource and Happiful magazine.
Written by Kat Nicholls
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