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.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health blog series, like this post and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested
  • 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.

Other posts you might like

the problem with fitspo

Real health #16 The problem with fitspo and fitness influencers

I actually wrote this post about 5 years ago for my first ever blog site! This was before fitness influencers were a huge thing, or at least they weren’t really on my radar, but I think it is more relevant than ever today. I’ve updated it a little but the core message is still the same. Enjoy!

This morning a friend posted this image on Facebook..

fitspo

I know she had the best intentions behind the post but it really got me thinking about the “fitspo” trend, fitness influencers and their effects on viewers’ body image.  The Urban Dictionary definition of the word fitspo is:

“Images of active, strong, and fit women that promote proper exercise and diet. May also include images healthy foods. Much like thinspo (images of dangerously thin women used by people with eating disorders to motivate) but healthier.”

From the definition it sounds like a great thing. Replacing the horrible trend of “thinspo” and encouraging women to be healthy and active.. both of those things get a great big TICK from me. However, what can’t be escaped is the fact that images like this still encourage women to focus on their body shape and size. They still provide a body ideal, a goal for women to aim for. They still encourage women to base their self-worth on their appearance and attach morality to food and exercise. And this results in the same feelings of unworthiness and disappointment for those women who don’t follow the rules and don’t look like the picture-perfect Instagram fitness models.

The image above does an amazing job at showing us that the number on the scale is, well only that really. A number. The point here is that body weight and BMI are pretty meaningless and bodies of the same weight can have completely different body shape and composition. That’s all well and good, but what does the image imply? That we should be focusing on getting lean and toned instead of skinny? That it’s much better to be heavier and look like the photo on the right? Yes it may be successful in shifting the focus away from the scale and obsessing over how much you weigh but to what… the way your body looks in the mirror or a photo?

Lots of women (myself in the past included) have fallen into the trap of shifting their health and fitness goals from trying to weigh as little as possible to eating clean and looking lean and muscular. Maybe it’s getting abs or building a booty. But what the fitspo images like the one above don’t show is how the woman is feeling in each photo and what her life really looks like. What kind of behaviours is she engaging in to maintain her body? What is her overall health like? How are her relationships and social life? Is she following her passions or is she spending every waking minute obsessing over eating healthy food, exercising and comparing her body to others online?

There could be a whole range of things going on behind the scenes. We often assume that just because someone looks “normal” that they are not suffering and this is not always the case. Disordered eating can take on so many shapes and sizes. Bulimia and exercise bulimia, orthorexia, food fears, laxative abuse, binge eating, compulsive exercise. All of these can often go unnoticed as people can maintain a normal BMI and not end up looking like the skeletal eating disorder stereotype. I am not saying by any means that the girl in the photos is suffering from any of these issues but what I am trying to say is not to take photos like this at face value. Images mean nothing unless we know the full story behind them.

For me personally, looking extremely lean and fit came at a great cost. I did all of the healthy things. I worked out daily. I ate clean. I drank plenty of water. But I didn’t feel good and I didn’t know why. I wasn’t healthy. My periods were totally absent. I started to wake up in the early hours of the morning for no reason. I felt fatigued all of the time and had to rely on more and more caffeine to get through the day. I know not everybody will have the same experience but I am sure I am not the only one. It took a lot of effort to unlearn all of the so-called healthy habits I had developed and get back to focusing on feeling good. Finally after going back to university to study public health nutrition, diving into my yoga practice and becoming a qualified teacher I found a balance where I could feel good and maintain a slim, healthy body without taking it to the extreme or letting it take over my life.

For those of us in the health and fitness world, food and exercise and shaping our body can easily become the focus of our life. Yes it is fun to experiment with food and of course moving your body feels great. But it doesn’t have to be your sole purpose. It is very easy to get caught up in the social media bubble and forget that there is an outside world. Real life connections and meaningful relationships where you can be yourself can do so much more for your health and wellbeing than following some online fitness guru and feeling connected to others by the restraints of whatever lifestyle they preach. My point in this article is to let you know that you don’t need to idolize anyone and your body is perfect whether you feel more like the “before” photo or the “after”. Remember to focus on the things that keep you feeling happy and healthy above all!

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article from 5 years ago Amy. I would say my opinions haven’t changed much since then. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on fitspo and fitness influencers, do you find watching them uplifting and motivating or does it make you feel bad about yourself and like you need to change?

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January series, like this post, check out the recommended posts below and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested!
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on your 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.

Other posts you might like

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.