Obsessing about eating healthy is not healthy.
This morning my beloved cousin and life-long friend, Lissa Rankin, sent me an email noting a post she wrote for Mind Body Green, titled 10 Signs a Juicing Habit is Hiding an Eating Disorder. In it, she addressed an issue near and dear to all of us who work at Potentia: when eating healthy can mask the serious emotional and physical issues of an eating disorder.
I am so grateful for her post as it is important to continue the discussion around this often lightning-rod issue. A continued conversation helps push back on a common narrative in our culture that if you do not meet the criteria for an eating disorder and you are eating whole, fresh, organic food, you don’t have a problem. But when lifestyle change leads to obsession, it is this narrative that can keep people stuck in an emotionally paralyzing state.
Obsessions are connected to a multitude of factors: low sense of worth, traumas/distressing life events, family of origin, temperament, and even under-nourishment. And many people are genetically loaded to be more vulnerable to obsessive-compulsive traits, which are found on the anxiety spectrum.
The obsession with eating healthy is called orthorexia. Orthorexia is a sub-clinical term coined by Steven Bratmen, MD who is also the author of Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa – Overcoming the Obsession with Healthy Eating. I will explore orthorexia more deeply in an upcoming post, but for now, it’s enough to know that the problem is not simply about the food (I say “simply,” since we need to eat to live), but mostly about the obsessions and related impact on your life based on how you respond to your food obsessions.
Any obsession, whether it be with food or otherwise, can be mentally and emotionally crippling. When the desire to make lifestyle changes and improve how you feed yourself is taken to an extreme, it can lead to orthorexia and eventually develop into more debilitating disordered eating and eating disorders.
In her post, Lissa noted key signs you may be using juicing as a mask to your disordered eating. Below, I add some additional thoughts to unpack the important message of Lissa’s post. And thank you again, Lissa, for keeping this discussion going. It is a hot topic for sure, but I am so grateful for the conversation!
Here are Lissa’s 10 signs that you (or someone you love) is masking an eating disorder with juicing or cleansing:
1. Your BMI, or body mass index, reveals that you are underweight or normal weight, yet you replace meals with juice regularly.
Additional Thoughts: Yes, many people who are experiencing discomfort from negative body image want to lose weight or change their body. Restricting helps decrease the anxiety of this distress by the endorphins that are produced when their body is not getting enough nourishment. At Potentia, we use the BMI lightly. For most people, it is not an accurate indicator of ideal weight range. Plus, your worth is more than a number. Connect with Megan Holt for a consult to learn more about determining your ideal weight range.
2. You’re terrified of gaining weight, even if your BMI is normal or underweight.
Additional Thoughts: Regardless of your BMI, the fear of gaining weight needs to be addressed. Even if losing weight would be helpful to your overall wellness, a number of markers will be taken into account – not just your BMI. Your labs, your activity, physical pain, how you feed yourself, illnesses, medications, stress, social and emotional support and current life situation are all taken into account.
3. Other people think you’re skinny, but what you see in the mirror is a big fat slob.
Additional thoughts: Regardless of what other people think, if the image in the mirror triggers obsessive thoughts and behaviors, it is time to get help. And to those who are friends with someone struggling, be careful about compliments and encouragements around looks. If your loved one is in deep with this struggle, she will have a hard time trusting your words. Validating her struggle and encouraging her to get help is a very loving support without feeding the obsessions.
4. For women, skipping periods or not menstruating at all can be a sign that you’re not getting enough calories. The body is genius. If it thinks you’re not at a healthy enough weight to have a healthy pregnancy, your periods will disappear.
Additional Thoughts: Yes – your body is genius! Osteopenia can lead to re-occurring injuries and is a sign your body is struggling. Getting your period back does not mean the recovery work is done. Until you do the deep soul work to manage your anxiety, this cycle of obsessions is likely to continue.
5. You binge on unhealthy foods and then either induce vomiting, exercise excessively, misuse laxatives, or use juicing as a sort of penance to undo the damage.
Additional Thoughts: Binging does not just have to involve food deemed unhealthy. It can be any kind of food, even healthy food. Many people attempt to mask their shame of binging by eating food that is not shamed by our culture and “junk food”. And on that note, there is room for all food, even something that is not organic, processed or corn-fed – if the majority of your body’s needs are met with whole, fresh and organic when available and affordable.
6. You embark upon juice fasts that last more than a week. For example, a month of nothing but juice just isn’t healthy.
Additional Thoughts: Lissa referenced our popular Q&A post on juice fasts. This is an important resource as you think about the meaning and the motivation of your cleanse or fast. Even if you do not have a clinical eating disorder but are struggling with body image issues or eating issues, we caution against trying a fast to help manage your emotional distress. This choice could send you to a dark place that could take years of recovery.
7. You find yourself avoiding meals out with friends and family “because I’m cleansing.”
Additional Thoughts: This is such a common struggle for those with orthorexia. When eating fuels isolation, this is a red-flag.
8. Other people worry about how often you skip meals or cleanse.
Additional Thoughts: When those who care about you are concerned, it is not because they are working against your goals for health and wellness. Your disordered eating thoughts want to isolate you and be your only friend. In truth, eating disorders are toxic BFF’s.
9. Being away from your juicer or a juice bar triggers anxiety or even panic.
Additional Thoughts: If you lose flexibility in your lifestyle, it is a warning you are becoming a slave to your eating patterns. This is not how we are called to live.
10. You obsessively weigh yourself, and change your cleansing behavior as a way to diet yourself back to your target weight.
Additional Thoughts: Your worth is more than a number and dieting does not work. No matter what you call it, trying to lose weight by restrictive eating will only set you up to regaining the weight, even more than you lost, sending you on the dangerous weight-cycling path of disordered eating.
What do you think about the obsession of eating healthy? Is it an important response to weight issues in our country? Have you or someone you cared about ever struggled with orthorexia?
Cheering you on as you (re) define your definition of health –