Why healthy eating is not a mental illness

Imagine you are out to dinner with a friend and you are really craving a nice, big salad–Greek salad to be exact (my favorite).  You can’t wait to dive in because  you are starving but before you take your first bite, your friend looks right at you in dismay and says, “Oh my gosh!  you chose a salad?! I can’t believe it.  You are always eating healthy.  Are you sure you aren’t mentally ill?”

Okay, so odds are about 99.999% that a friend will NOT say this (at least not to your face).  But according to  this article, some doctors say eating healthy IS a mental illness.   The title alone really bugged me- “Officials Declare ‘Eating Healthy A Mental Disorder'”, and it’s what triggered this post. (keep in mind that what follows is purely my opinion on the topic of this article).

To clarify, there IS a condition called Orthoexia, which is not officially in the DSM, but here is the definition:

  • an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy.
  • a medical condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods in the belief that they are harmful.
    *Please note that orthoexia is an OBSESSION.  Not everyone who eats healthy is obsessed with it. For a good article on Orthoexia, please check out THIS ONE on the National Eating Disorders Awareness website.

I don’t dispute the (original) article on the fact that some people CAN take healthy eating to the extreme.  Now, whether or not Orthoexia should even be considered a mental illness is debatable (if it is due to OCD, I can totally understand).  As the article suggests, doctors could take this term and run with it.  Think Big Pharma.  They will prescribe drugs to anyone, just to make a buck.  What these people need is NOT more drugs, but counseling.

There was a time, that someone could have pegged me in this category.  As an overzealous health coach in training, I was learning about the 100 different dietary theories.  Interspersed with some great inspirational speakers, such as Deepak Chopra, and Geneen Roth, we also heard from some doctors and health experts who promoted all kinds of diets from the Raw Food diet, to the South Beach Diet.  Now, keep in mind, I was already super health conscious to begin with.  And in the past, I did struggle with disordered eating, which had eventually paved the way to a full blown eating disorder.  So I was vulnerable to an obsession with food and eating healthy.   I must have researched almost every healthy food out there.   I was judgmental of those who didn’t eat to my standards.  And I thought certain foods would solve all my problems and make me happy.

spinach loving girl

my daughter, the spinach loving girl 🙂

Newsflash:   the obsession with healthy eating was not making me a better person or a better health coach.  It was making me paranoid.

Would I say I was “mentally ill”?  I wouldn’t go that far.  But, if I wasn’t strong enough in my recovery, I could have definitely teetered off into relapse of my eating disorder.

Now, I DO STILL eat healthy…. but not to the extreme as I mentioned.  I have never been happier. I feel so much better, but also allow myself a dessert on occasion (which is also healthy).

The article I shared seems to be based on opinion.  However, it does make me realize just how stigmatized healthy eating can be. Frankly, many doctors are not trained in nutrition so how would they even recognize if we have crossed the line? I also don’t want people to worry that just because they are eating healthy, that they are going crazy. So reading this article makes me wonder:  will there really come a time when doctors do think that ALL  healthy eating is a mental illness?  If so, it would be a convenient way to push drugs. I sometimes feel like they are intimidated by this new wave of people who are becoming enlightened about how to better take care of their body.  Healthy eating = decreased sickness and disease which equals LESS MONEY FOR THE DOCTORS!!

I think what we really need to do here is to define WHAT HEALTHY EATING IS and WHAT HEALTHY EATING IS NOT. Now, I could ask ten different people and get ten different answers, but here is my opinion:

HEALTHY EATING IS…

1.  choosing fresh whole foods, as much as possible… but not feeling guilty if we don’t.

2.  listening to our body and giving into our cravings. If we are craving chocolate, we eat it. But we also know when to stop.

3.  knowing which foods make us feel bad.  I cannot eat gluten or most dairy.  This is NOT a fad for me. It’s a way to actually function in life.  If I didn’t know that gluten was causing me issues, I would still be suffering from chronic pain.

4.  eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but not forcing ourselves to eat salad if we absolutely hate it.

5.  coming to our meal with pleasure and gratitude.

6.  putting love into every meal that we make and every bite that we take.

7.  eating to fuel our body, not to fill an emotional void. along this line, knowing when we are hungry and in need of food. Not pushing food away because we are “too busy.”

8.  knowing that there is no one way of eating that works for everyone.  We are all “bioindividual” and require different dietary needs.  Some people thrive as vegans and some thrive as meat eaters. (note: this does NOT mean to go on a diet)

9.   choosing organic foods when we can but we do not feel like it’s the end of the world if we just can’t.

10.  showing ourselves COMPASSION with our eating.  If we eat too much, it’s okay.

Briana I Love Lucy

my daughter after her “Vitameatavegimin Skit” (it’s so tasty too!) 🙂

Why do I CHOOSE to eat healthy?  Because my body thanks me for it and I feel so much better than I have in the past.  Plain and simple.  I also eat healthy because heart disease runs in my family and I want to avoid it as much as possible.  I DON’T eat healthy out of an obsession to be “clean” or a better person.

Now, someone may “think” they are eating healthy, but they really aren’t.  Ironically, they may start to purge foods from their diet in order to maintain a sense of control, but in reality, they are feeling very much out of control.  So here is what healthy eating is NOT:

HEALTHY EATING IS NOT:

1. Meticulously counting calories at every single meal and if we eat too much, we beat ourselves up.

2. Starving ourselves just because a diet expert says it is “healthy” to consume 1,000 calories or less.

3. Eliminating whole food groups just because we are afraid to eat them.

4.  Avoiding our fears by overeating or binging.

5. Being paranoid about fat grams, carbohydrates and sugar.

6. Avoiding parties because we are afraid we might eat something we deem to be on our “bad” list. (along those lines, having a “bad and good” list of foods).

7. Being so obsessed with nutrition that find we find ourselves spending hours on the computer doing research.

8. Feeling better than  those people who do not eat according to our high standards.

9.  Avoiding restaurants because they might not have all Non-GMO, 100% organic, sustainable food. We panic just thinking about it.

10. Feeling guilty and beating ourselves up after eating instead of feeling pleasure and enjoying the taste of our food. We may go on constant diets just because we don’t know how to eat mindfully.

By the way, these are not comprehensive lists, by any means.  WHAT WOULD YOU ADD TO THIS LIST? COMMENT BELOW.

In a nutshell, what I am describing when I talk about what Healthy Eating Is…. is Mindful Eating! This is one area that I help my clients with.  Many of them have reported feeling much better about themselves when they learn to take themselves off of the eat-starve-binge diet mentality. Thus, when we are not eating healthfully, we are not being mindful and showing ourselves compassion.

Can you see  why HEALTHY EATING is NOT A MENTAL ILLNESS?

However, if you do find yourself resonating with my list of what Healthy Eating IS NOT… don’t fear.  Chances are,  you don’t have a mental illness either.  Do you have Orthoexia?  Maybe… maybe not.  But don’t run to your doctor thinking you are crazy because chances are, you will be taking home a prescription for something  that will make you feel worse than you already are.   If you DO feel like you have an obsession with healthy eating, know that you are not alone, but please talk to someone, because life is not meant for us to feel fear or guilt every time we eat!   Please, show yourself some compassion.  And the next time you see a B.S. article like this one… in your mind, tell yourself the doctors mentioned here are the ones who are “mentally ill”.

Kellie McGarry

Body Image Coach

www.mcgarrywellness.org

 

 

 

Disclaimer: What I write is purely my opinion and not to be taken as medical advice, as I am a Health Coach, not a Doctor or Therapist. If you feel you have an eating disorder or any health condition, please contact your provider. 

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9 thoughts on “Why healthy eating is not a mental illness

  1. Kellie,
    What a wonderful celebration of healthy eating. You also break some of the stigma related to mental illness in general (which is often dismissed as just about any behavior beyond “normal”). I have included a link and excerpt from this post in my “Mental Health Monday” feature this week. I also plan to send a link to a couple of friends wrestling with eating disorders.

    Keep up the faithful blogging.

  2. I love your post – thank you so much for this! I’ve shared it on my facebook page 🙂 I totally agree with you, and it’s headlines like the one you mentioned that really confuse people and make working towards a healthier life just that much more difficult. I’m currently in training to be a health coach too, and your blog is a real inspiration to me!

  3. You make some points I kinda have to question.

    1) I have never met a doctor who was upset to have a healthy patient. You think all doctors are psychopaths?

    2) I’m not sure that “healthy” eating makes you any less likely to develop an illness. My siblings and I were raised on a “healthy” diet, and yet every one of us caught as many viruses as our junk food eating friends. We also each developed mental illnesses before the age of twenty, despite not having much of a history of these illnesses in the family.

    3) Even so, it’s not uncommon for doctor’s to encourage orthorexic behaviours by recommending a patient cut back on carbs, or adopt a low-fat diet. I’d guess there are far more doctors who recommend this kind of thing, than those who are watching out for orthorexia.

    That aside, I am glad you are bringing awareness to this illness. The stress, physical damage, and social isolation orthorexia causes is not something to take lightly. In a stealth move, my anorexia morphed into orthorexia. Combined, these illnesses caused me to miss out on an entire decade of my youth.

    Also, I wanted to recommend the an article that explains more about how to identify orthorexia:

    http://www.youreatopia.com/blog/2012/1/27/women-laughing-alone-with-salad-orthorexia-nervosa.html

    1. Hi, and thank you for visiting my blog.

      I will say that this blog post may cause some confusion so I am sorry if I did not write this one clearly enough. I am definitely not trying to minimize Orthoexia. I have read much about it, and in fact, have shared quite a few articles about it on my Facebook page (Nourished and New). It’s a very real concern. I am sorry you had to go through that and thank you for sharing. I also had anorexia so I can relate.

      As for your points….I was in no way saying that doctors are psychopaths. I do think that doctors tend to push drugs, but only because they are not schooled in the benefits of good nutrition or other alternative treatments. That being said, I am not against drugs or doctors at all. I got to a doctor who I trust and respect. I was only responding to the linked article and was asking a hypothetical question.

      I never said that healthy eating will prevent 100% of illnesses and diseases. This was a minor point and a personal reason for me. My dad died of heart disease and I do believe that it’s good to prevent diseases as best we can. Healthy eating is just one way to do it, as long as the person doesn’t go overboard and develop orthoexia. Also, I know that being healthy is a lot more than just the food. It’s living a healthy lifestyle as well– reducing stress, finding an exercise we enjoy, practicing good self-care, positive thoughts, etc. That being said, someone can live a very healthy lifestyle, and still develop and illness or disease, as you mention.

      If you want to learn more about my philosophy, I do follow the Health At Every Size movement. (sorry to not link it here but you can look it up) Overall, my main point is that healthy eaters should not be stereotyped, as the main concern is just how extreme they go. That’s why I outlined the difference (in my opinion) between what healthy eating is and what it is not. (making it a point to say that healthy eating sometimes means eating that chocolate cake we crave…. it’s not only about clean eating) In the end, we all know our own motives and make our own choices about how we eat and it’s not up to anyone else to judge.

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