Is It Possible To Be Too Healthy?
Every so often I come across what seems like a “perfect client,” someone who does everything I tell them and more. These individuals are typically seen as a model of health and fitness by their friends and community. Their healthy image is a strong part of their identity and the source of many compliments. However, being healthy isn’t about being “perfect,” it’s about being balanced and having a positive relationship with food and exercise. When healthy eating and exercise becomes an obsession, it can be at the expense of emotional wellbeing. Both Orthorexia and Anorexia Athletica are two disorders that can easily go undetected because they are an extreme version of behaviors that we generally associate as positive.
Orthorexia is defined as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy.” Those struggling with orthorexia typically display the following signs or symptoms.
Obsessively planning what to eat.
Fear of eating out.
Emotional distress when healthy or “safe” foods are not available.
Excessive elimination of food groups.
Anxiety about what foods will be available at parties or gatherings.
Feelings of guilt when deviating from self-imposed guidelines.
Many of these behaviors can start as positive strategies for improving health and wellness, but over time can snowball into dysfunctional psychological and behavioral patterns.
Anorexia Athletica, sometimes called exercise anorexia or exercise bulimia, is when a person feels they must exercise to work off the food they’ve eaten. The common signs of Anorexia Athletica are listed below.
A compulsive need to exercise everyday.
Working out even when sick or injured.
Anxiety or fear of missing a workout.
Exercise lasting more than two hours daily.
Increased exercise duration following or preceding consumption of dessert or other indulgence.
As with Orthorexia, Anorexia Athletica, can start with good intentions to live a healthier life. However, there comes a tipping point when the drive for fitness becomes rooted in anxiety, obsession and compulsion.
Sadly, these disorders occur most frequently in women and are perpetuated by media images and societal pressures to be thin. It’s not uncommon for a person to struggle with both Orthorexia and Anorexia Athletica in concert. If you are struggling with either or both of these disorders, consider working with a therapist to address the underlying psychological issues.
I also suggest taking baby steps toward establishing better balance. For example, in the case of Orthorexia, start by allowing yourself one guilt-free special food indulgence every week (even more fun when you enjoy it with a friend!). In the case of Anorexia Athletica, begin scheduling one day off from exercise per week. This will allow your muscles to recover (and rebuild stronger) and provide the opportunity to reclaim this time to pursue other hobbies, enjoy a book or movie, or meet up with a friend. In either case, it is important to enjoy the experience and to find peace in knowing that small deviations will not make a difference in how you look. When you shift your focus toward balance and wellness rather than perfection, you will find a greater sense of calm, reduced anxiety, and even improved health and fitness.