Real health #30 Is obsessing over your health ruining your life?

We are nearly at the end of this Real Health January series and for this penultimate post I want to bring it back to where we started in post #1 What does it mean to be healthy?. Today’s topic might be another controversial one and also one that is close to my heart! I want to talk about how an obsession with health and wellness can ruin your life.

When it comes to health there are definitely two clear extremes. There of course are many people who could benefit from making lifestyle changes to improve their health and reduce their risk of disease. But there are also those on the opposite end of the spectrum who are so focused on being healthy that it actually starts to negatively impact their life. I am all about promoting balance and I really do think the meaning of true health is learning how to make healthy choices and look after your body without obsessing over it and letting it take over.

Be healthy to LIVE rather than live to be HEALTHY

When I was younger, I definitely fell into the trap of letting health take over my life. I was obsessed with clean eating and afraid to eat foods that were “bad for me” or would make me gain weight. I went to the gym religiously, sometimes exercising more than once a day and I was constantly thinking about how I could get in those extra active minutes. I would walk to the gym, do a zumba class followed by pilates and then walk home. All of this fuelled by soups, salads and low-fat ready meals. People thought I was crazy but in a good way and would praise me for my commitment and discipline. As I’ve shared before, all of this led to a lot of anxiety and totally messed up hormones.

Fast forward to my early twenties and the arrival of the wellness scene. At the time I was looking for a way to heal my body, get my period back and fix my relationship with food. I found the online vegan community where everyone seemed happy and healthy following a “whole foods plant-based” diet and I jumped right in. I was eating insane amounts of fruits and vegetables and all sorts of super food powers claiming to detoxify and cleanse my body. Thank god I let go of the crazy amounts of cardio I was doing but instead discovered weight lifting and still had this fixation on body control and fitness in the back of my mind. At the time I thought I was doing the right thing and it was almost like there was a moral value attached to this healthy lifestyle.

It alienated me from my friends and kept me focusing on health above all. I was probably pretty boring as that’s all I talked about for a while! And yes, I am aware this is a health blog and I am writing about wellness here every day. I really enjoy healthy living and sharing my knowledge and experience but the difference is it is no longer my life. My work, relationships and hobbies get much more of my attention these days. Yes I eat lots of fresh, nutritious food but I also eat cake and chocolate on the regular. I no longer buy superfoods just for the health benefits and focus on real, local foods instead. I like moving my body but I won’t push myself through HIIT routines that I hate and if I am tired or on my period I will take a break from exercise altogether without feeling guilty about it. And I feel so much healthier for it!

The one thing I am really happy about my venture into wellness obsession is that I also started practicing yoga and meditation at this time, habits that have stuck with me to this day and really changed my life. I think the question you have to ask yourself honestly when it comes to health choices is: “Will this thing make my life better or worse?”. If your diet consists mostly of pasta and takeaways, eating more fruit and vegetables will probably give you more energy and reduce your risk of disease. But if you are already eating salads and smoothies all day long, restricting yourself from having pizza with your friends once a week probably won’t do much for your health and might leave you feeling isolated and lonely. Are the benefits of a healthy diet worth it if all of your thoughts are consumed by what and when you will eat and you lose connection with your friends and family?

Same for exercise, there is no point following a strict workout regime if you hate it the whole time and feel exhausted and stressed. Chronic stress is terrible for your body and actually increases your risk of many diseases. If you find yourself saying no to social events just to go to the gym, all of your days revolve around your exercise schedule or if you find it hard to rest even when you are injured or tired, maybe it’s time to look at your relationship to exercise. No criticism here, I am saying this from experience. Like with everything it’s all about balance. We are sold this image of fitness as the ultimate ideal but is it really necessary to train like you’re going into the military or look like a fitness model in order to be healthy? I’d argue not.

You might be reading this and thinking it is unrealistic or extreme but orthorexia (obsession with healthy eating) and exercise addiction are real and genuinely impact the lives of many people. I want my contribution to the wellness industry to be a voice of reason and realism. I want to inspire you to make positive changes that help you to feel your best without all of the rules and rigidity. I want you to feel motivated and empowered by my posts and not like you have to go ahead and do all of these things otherwise you won’t be healthy. The most important thing is to stay aware of your body keep asking yourself how you feel. I recently posted a video on healing fatigue through yoga and self-awareness which is all about this if you’re interested. And stay tuned for the last post of the Real Health January series tomorrow!

Over to you…

I hope you found this article interesting and enjoyed the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and experiences with health and wellness obsession.

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  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

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Why am I so interested in hormones? Part 2 – veganism, PCOS and orthorexia

Unfortunately after I graduated I slipped back to some of my old ways. I was still struggling with gastritis and other digestive issues and doing endless research online to find the “perfect healing diet”. This is where I found veganism, specifically the high-carb low-fat vegan diet. I started following all of these Youtube channels with skinny, shiny women promoting this diet where you can eat as much as you want and as long as it is vegan and low fat you won’t gain weight. I dived straight into this whole-foods based diet. I was convinced I was doing the right thing for myself as well as the planet and the animals. My diet took on this new moral value instead of simply being a way to control my body.

On one hand it was great as after years of calorie counting and restriction I finally let go and allowed myself t eat as much as my body wanted. This meant loads of fruit, potatoes, grains etc. At first I felt amazing with this new found freedom and I genuinely believed I had found the golden ticket. However, in reality my eating disorder had just morphed into something new that I didn’t recognise: orthorexia nervosa. This is an obsession with eating healthy food to the point where it controls your life. I might have been allowing myself to eat more but food was still taking centre stage in my life. I spent so much time reading and watching videos/ documentaries on the vegan diet, talking about veganism, writing about veganism, taking photos of my food for instagram etc..

At the time it was fun and I genuinely enjoyed it. It’s crazy how eating disorders can shift and manipulate you. I know my parents were worried about me at this time thinking that I had switched from one restrictive disorder to another but I couldn’t see it. I was in denial and so defensive if they ever brought it up. I gained this self-righteousness that I was following the way and they just didn’t understand. I tried not to be preachy and annoying but I definitely was! I was always the odd one out at social events and had to bring my own special food. I pretended that it didn’t bother me but of course it did. I started to feel so isolated and dived into the online world and groups of vegans where I could feel like I belong. This only pushed me away from my real life friends and left me feeling insecure and lonely.

Around this time I also got back into exercise as a way to control the stress from my new graduate job. Again I thought that this time was different because I was weight lifting instead of spending hours on cardio machines. But I was still using exercise as a way to manipulate my body, following fitness influencers and trying their workout programs to look like them. I was still choosing to go to the gym instead of socialising and still pushing myself to exercise when my body was crying out for rest. By this time I was struggling with insomnia and feeling exhausted ALL of the time but instead of letting go and allowing my body to heal I continued to exercise on a daily basis using pre-workout and coffee to drag myself through.

So it won’t come as a surprise when I tell you that my periods disappeared again (if you could count the couple of feeble periods I had as them returning). After a year I was back in the doctors office and this time something showed up on an ultra-sound scan that I hadn’t seen before. Small cysts over both of my ovaries. With this and blood test results which showed low estrogen and elevated testosterone, I was diagnosed with PCOS and the doctor told me I might never be able to conceive naturally. This was such a bombshell I literally cried for days afterwards. I was angry at myself thinking that my behaviours had caused this and I was screwed for life.

My doctor recommended that I took birth control pills to regulate my cycle but I knew straight away that this wasn’t something I wanted. It just didn’t seem to make sense to add extra synthetic hormones into my already imbalanced system. Plus I knew that it would be a fake period and was really only masking the problem. Once I’d calmed down I (again) turned to the internet. This time looking for natural ways to heal PCOS. I found an amazing community where omen were healing PCOS naturally via a plant-based diet. As I was vegan already I was like bring it on and jumped straight in to the 8 week program. 

This was only fuel for the fire of my eating disorder. Of course in the mindset I was in this was exactly what I wanted to hear and I carried on down my orthorexia path with my food choices getting stricter and stricter over time. I spent months trying to do various detoxes and cleanses – raw food, fruit diets, smoothie cleanses.. Foods that I had previously thought were healthy under the high-carb low-fat diet banner such as bread and pasta now moved into the “unhealthy” category. I became more and more attached to my healthy food choices so that it became part of my identity to be the “health nut”. I rewired my brain to think that ordinary foods were toxic for my body and I became afraid of them.

Am I saying that veganism is unhealthy or “orthorexic”? No!! Am I saying that exercising and wanting to tone up is unhealthy? Again, no!! What I am saying is that the mindset I had at the time was unhealthy. I was over-controlling and the reasons behind my choices were out of fear and anxiety about what would happen if I chose otherwise. Maybe you’re reading this and you think well I do these things and I’m perfectly healthy. Maybe that’s true and if it is then good for you. However, I know that there a a whole bunch of girls out there (guys too but this is aimed at women) who are trapped in this cycle of obsessive thoughts. The easy access to information that the internet brings only makes this worse. You only have to look at the number of “what I ate today” and body transformation videos on Youtube to see this collective pre-occupation with food and fitness.

In Part 3 I will talk about what finally motivated me to recover and what this process has been like for the last 5 years.

Why am I so interested in hormones? Part 1 – my battle with disordered eating

My journey with my hormones has been up and down to say the least. I started my period at age 12 with no major celebration.. my mum explained what to expect and how to use pads and tampons and that was that for a few years. I don’t really remember much from that time but I think my cycles were pretty “normal” coming each month with some pain and emotional ups and downs but it was no big deal. I was a happy, active kid. I played hockey in school and had competed in judo competitions since I was 10 years old.

I don’t remember ever being a fussy eater as a child but once I got to my final years of high school, I became pretty self conscious (like many teenage girls do) and started to manipulate my diet in the quest of “the perfect body”. It started off pretty innocently with me trying to eat more healthy foods and cut down on snacks (especially the buttery doorstop toast we used to have daily in the school canteen- yum!). But over time things spiralled and I became obsessive with my eating habits, trying to eat as little calories as possible and joining a gym to burn off anything I did eat. This carried on for a couple of years, all through my final exams and the summer before college. I some weight but I was still in the normal BMI range so no one was too worried.

High school2   High school   sophs

Looking back there were a few personal issues that most likely played a big part in me falling into this black hole of anorexia. At the time I wouldn’t have even called it anorexia as I was eating, just not a lot. But the official definition of anorexia is “an emotional disorder characterised by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat” which is exactly what I was doing. I was so focused on dieting and weight loss and it never even crossed my mind that what I was doing could be impacting my hormones. Then at age 16 I decided to go on the birth control pill and that set off a cascade of events for the next decade.

I was having a regular period but I didn’t realise at the time but the periods you have on the birth control pill are not real, they are simply a reaction to the drop in synthetic hormones when you take a week break from the pill each month. I didn’t react well to the pill – like many women it made me anxious and emotional so after a year I decided to come off it.  And that’s when my periods went MIA. I saw a doctor after 6 months and was told that my body just needed to rebalance after the pill and that it would take a while for my body to settle out. But 12 months later.. still no period.

Back in the doctors’s office, after asking some questions and finding out that I was very active I was diagnosed with the “female athlete triad”.  I was told that losing your menstrual cycle  is common amongst women who exercise a lot and that it was nothing to worry about if I wasn’t trying to get pregnant. I felt something in my gut right there, my intuition telling me that is WAS something to worry about. I hadn’t been totally honest about my restrictive eating but I was in denial so I ignored the voice inside, accepted the doctor’s advice and carried on with my life. I tried to keep up my diet and exercise regime but after a while my body started to fight back with EXTREME HUNGER.

I still had my goal in mind though so I carried on working out and restricting my calories. But I would keep having these full on crazy binge eating episodes. I didn’t understand what was going on. Seriously I felt like something was invading my mind and forcing me to eat everything in sight! Then afterwards I would feel panicked and confused, guilty about everything I had eating and would vow to eat less and exercise more the next day. Always frustrated, angry at my body for not conforming to the size and shape I had decided it should be. Every time I binged I thought there was something wrong with me and I worked hard to make my body pay for its mistake. I spent hours researching how to stop binge eating, trying all sorts of tips to distracting myself from taking a shower or painting my nails to going for a walk or calling a friend but none of them could help me past the strong compulsion to eat when it came.

So my weight would fluctuate by up to 20lbs as I yo-yo dieted and the cycle continued until I was about 22..

Montpellier   bbq   Leaves   World challenge

croatia   cheer   euro   10616617_10154543788405654_85327801458386665_n

Don’t get me wrong I had some amazing times whilst all of this was going on. I made amazing friends, travelled Europe, volunteered in South America, got a job as a waitress, joined the university cheerleading team, had boyfriends, worked a year in industry and was on track to get a first in my engineering degree. But there was this underlying current of worry and anxiety and I was hiding the anorexia part of my brain leading me to go through periods of isolating myself from my friends and leaving me stuck in these mental patterns of criticising my body and myself, never believing I was good enough. I did seek help a couple of times with support from my mum but because I could go through periods of feeling ok again and because part of me was still in denial, I would discharge myself from therapy.

By my final year at university, my over-exercising and under-eating had spiralled into some pretty disordered eating patterns. I had been battling this whilst studying for my final exams and keeping up an active social life and eventually my body crashed hard. I was still in denial that I had a problem, believing that I “wasn’t sick enough” to need help (which I now know is a common symptom in disordered eating). So I carried on dieting and exercising until I was hit with chronic gastritis. This totally wiped me out and I wasn’t able to work out at all other than walking and some yoga. I put on some weight and funnily enough I got a period! It was only light and lasted a couple of days but after nothing for 5 years I was over the moon.

pub   chem eng ball  laos

I graduated from university and went travelling in South Eat Asia for 6 weeks before I started my new graduate job. Things were looking pretty good, I was exercising again but much more relaxed around food. I was maintaining a slightly higher weight that my body seemed happy with. But the story didn’t end there…

To be continued