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Do You Have Too Many Food Rules?

Eating in a way that makes you feel good mentally and physically is a positive thing. But in some cases, a focus on healthy eating can go too far.

Being deliberate about food choices isn’t necessarily bad. Neither is reading ingredient lists. Ditto for cutting back on (or even cutting out) certain foods that don’t make you feel your best.

But if you mentally label foods as “good” and “bad”, skip social opportunities because you won’t have control over the food, or get upset with yourself when you don’t follow certain food rules to the letter, you may be veering into territory that can cause your health and your quality of life to suffer. Because being fixated on nutritious eating to the point that you’re constantly thinking about food – and missing out on your life because of it – isn’t healthy or sustainable.

And if you’re a parent, forbidding certain foods in the house, referring to ingredients as “poison” or “toxic”, or modeling restrictive eating can negatively impact your kids. Research shows that children who grow up around a lot of dieting and diet talk are more likely to diet themselves and have negative feelings about their own bodies.

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There’s even a name for a disorder based on an obsession with healthy eating. “Orthorexia” isn’t a formally recognized eating disorder, but it shares some characteristics with anorexia, including an obsessive preoccupation with food.

The signs of orthorexia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association, include:

  • Obsessively reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists
  • Cutting out lots of foods and food groups
  • Eating only within a small range of foods deemed “pure” and healthy
  • Feeling superior to others regarding eating
  • Feeling upset when “safe” and “healthy” foods aren’t available

Orthorexia is often treated in the same way as anorexia, with a team made up of a doctor, therapist, and dietitian to help overcome food fears and regain health. So if this sounds familiar, seek help for yourself or a loved one. Someone’s much more likely to successfully recover from an eating disorder when it’s treated early.

And if you simply feel that you’ve gone a bit too far with healthy eating, consider “legalizing” all foods and enjoying formerly forbidden foods sometimes. Unfollow social media influencers who promote rigid eating habits and attitudes. And try to stop thinking of foods as good or bad – and yourself as good or bad for what you’ve eaten. 

–Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

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