When Being Healthy Becomes Unhealthy

Posted On Sep 16, 2019 By Erin Kuh, MBA, RD

A woman standing on a scale weighting herself.

With the rise of social media and the internet, combined with increasingly extreme diets and fitness regimens, the line between commitment to health and obsession is being crossed more frequently. Although “orthorexia” is the technical medical term for being fixated on healthy eating to the point of damaging one’s overall well-being, this condition is not yet recognized as a clinical diagnosis (https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia). People with orthorexia, or in my hypothesized “gray-area” between healthy and obsessed, are often within a healthy weight range and “look” healthy but are hurting on the inside.

Being inundated with Facebook and Instagram posts touting 6-pack abs and perfectly chiseled bodies, sometimes manipulated by photo lighting, angles, and even air brushing, it’s hard to not compare oneself against these unrealistic and unattainable “standards.”

I recently read a Facebook post on a fitness page I follow from a middle-aged woman who was distraught over constantly being hungry but not able to get any smaller. She had gone from a size 8 to a 4-6 and was ignoring her body’s needs for more nourishment in an attempt to drop more weight. Instead of focusing on her increased strength and overall fitness level, and the smaller size she had already achieved, she was lost instead to the unrewarding pursuit of trying to achieve perfection.

Why can’t we each have a unique definition of perfection, built around our individual strengths, flaws, and curves in which we celebrate what we are capable of, instead of losing ourselves in a black hole of self-perceived shortcomings?

A woman in a gym looking stressed.

This list of 7 warning signs for you (or someone you know) is the first step in becoming aware a possible problem exists.

  1. You limit social events and outings in order to control food choices.

    It’s within normal healthy limits to adjust your calories and meals for the day or days around social events that may be full of higher calorie food and drink choices but to avoid them altogether is crossing the line. For example, eating a little less the day before and after a holiday, like 4th of July or Thanksgiving, to offset holiday indulgences is a healthy approach.

  2. You don’t adjust calories for increased physical activity.

    I’ve witnessed this too many times, especially with women. Sticking to an arbitrary calorie level despite fluctuations in physical activity and increased duration or intensity of workouts, can not only be detrimental to your metabolism and overall health but is a slippery slope towards a full-blown eating disorder. Honor both your physical hunger and fullness by feeding your body adequate nutrition.

  3. EVERYTHING revolves around your diet and fitness regimen.

    It’s one thing to keep workouts a priority, carve out time for meal prep, sacrifice 30 minutes of sleep to get in a workout (what I do on a regular basis) or add workouts as “appointments” in your calendar. It’s crossing the line if you can’t be flexible or miss a single workout without feeling overly guilty or irritated.

  4. There’s no time off for sickness or injury.

    This is a big one. As much as I need and love to exercise, if I’m feeling worn down and need some extra sleep, I’ll skip a workout to catch up on my shut-eye. Listen to your body’s warning signs. Rest is just as critical to overall health as diet and fitness. Overtraining also increases likelihood for injury or burn-out.

  5. Compulsive about tracking calories, measuring portions, weight, or some other aspect of diet and exercise.

    Tracking devices and technology can be a useful tool but if you can’t eat a meal without measuring every last morsel or logging every single calorie or weigh yourself every day, take a step back and examine whether or not your tracking is going overboard.

  6. Being permanently unhappy with your size, weight, or fitness level no matter what amount of progress you achieve.

    A tell-tale sign that an adjustment needs to be made. Focus on being happy first and not basing your happiness or self-worth on your weight or size.

  7. Any abnormal bloodwork or diagnostics associated with malnutrition such as anemia or osteopenia or missed menstrual cycles.

    This last one is a serious red flag that warrants immediate referral to a medical specialists to not only address the physical condition but also the psychological aspect at the root cause of inadequate nutrient intake.

I challenge you to set your own standards, come up with your own definition of strength, fitness, and beauty so that you can truly celebrate your body rather than loath it. If you are a parent or role model to children of any age, set the example you wish for the young impressionable minds that are watching you. Having a healthy lifestyle can be challenging but it should be enjoyable (perhaps even fun!) and sustainable without sacrificing or restricting to the point of obsession.


You may also like:

When Being Healthy Becomes Unhealthy: Part II

A woman standing on a scale weighting herself.