When Healthy Eating Becomes Obsessive

By Stefanie Sacks, MS, CNS, CDN

Some time ago, Jimmy Kimmel took it upon himself to quiz the gluten awareness of health enthusiasts with a Pedestrian Question, "Do you adhere to a gluten-free diet?" Then, "What is gluten?" The result? Astonishing. Almost everyone claimed to be "gluten-free," yet not a soul could articulate what gluten was or why they were religiously sticking to the restrictive regimen.

A gluten-free diet is used as medical nutrition therapy for those with Celiac Disease and other immunological disorders. Some facts to hang your hat on: about 1% of the US population has Celiac Disease and about 6% are gluten intolerant. Yet, roughly 25-30% of Americans follow a gluten-free diet. My take: If it makes you feel healthier, go for it. However, if you don’t have a digestive issue, or any symptoms related to eating gluten-filled foods, then enjoy them.

Coming Clean on Clean Eating

Healthy eating has become an obsession for many. The article “We’re Clean Eating Our Way to New Eating Disorders” suggests that, in true American fashion, our tendency to overdo things has transformed potentially wholesome habits into a novel eating disorder, Orthorexia Nervosa (though how to formally diagnose it is still being debated). 

The real deal for lasting health and wellness is creating and maintaining your own personal food lifestyle.

Orthorexia (ON), where moderation takes a backseat to healthy extremes, can be described as an excessive preoccupation with maintaining a healthy diet, accompanied by restrictive behaviors. Even clean eating can go too far. The pursuit of optimal health through dietary vigilance may result in malnourishment, strained relationships, and a diminished quality of life. It stands apart from other eating disorders by placing obsessive emphasis not on the quantity consumed but on the perceived value of the food itself. There is an increasing occurrence of ON, particularly in response to restrictive food trends such as gluten-free diets and heightened awareness of the origins, cultivation, and processing of food.

It might seem paradoxical, given that I'm the culinary nutritionist behind “What The Fork Are You Eating” and, but hear me out: While I'm all about promoting healthy eating, I also believe in moderation. For example, if you love cookies, eat one that’s void of chemicals and enjoy a few times per week vs. multiple cookies everyday. I'll confess, I savor chips, French fries, and even indulge in gummy bears (the dye-free variety), and I encourage you to find your own balance. Check out the "I Can't Live Withouts" section in my book for a glimpse into my guilty pleasures.

Recent research has revealed a significant connection between the use of social media and the emergence of disordered eating habits. It's crucial to ensure that the influencers you follow are well-informed or else you will end up right back in fad diet city. 

So what’s the solution? Ever hear of intuitive eating? Read this for more information but basically It’s a philosophy that encourages listening to and trusting your body's natural cues for hunger, fullness, and satisfaction. It involves rejecting traditional dieting rules and promoting a mindful and attuned approach to eating, emphasizing self-care and enjoyment of food without dogmatic rules.

Shifting what and how you eat is a gradual process. It requires tuning into yourself, figuring out what floats your foodie boat, experimenting with ways to make it happen, picking a lane, and gracefully swerving if things aren't clicking. In case you missed the memo, traditional diets and strict routines are always epic fails. The real deal for lasting health and wellness is creating and maintaining your own personal food lifestyle. 

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