When A Healthy Focus Becomes Disordered.

Is there such a thing as too healthy? Too fit? What is the difference between health-conscious and obsessive? Many of us spend significant amounts of energy trying to get in shape and eat healthily, but when does it become too much? Let’s consider a few scenarios…

Scenario 1: You go out to dinner with girlfriends. You notice the restaurant has chicken fingers, and you are really craving them. You consider ordering them, but instead, you think, “Oh no, I shouldn’t. I need to eat healthily.” You end up ordering a salad and begrudgingly work your way through it as your friend next to you enjoys the chicken finger dish you wanted. At the end of the meal, after she has licked her plate clean and not offered you or anyone else a bite, she proclaims, “These were some of the best chicken fingers I have ever had!”

Scenario 2: You were up all night with your toddler who is sick. You get dressed, go to work and somehow manage to stay awake during all of your meetings and phone calls. You had planned on going to a gym class on your way home but do not know if you can make it through without hurting yourself because you can hardly keep your eyes open. Instead of going home to take a nap before you pick-up your child from daycare, you make yourself go to the gym and tell yourself, “You ate a big lunch, and if you eat the dinner you are preparing for the family, you really need to work out first.”

Scenario 3: You are a regimented person who likes schedules and routine. You typically eat a bowl of oatmeal at 7 am, a snack at 9, a salad for lunch at 12, another snack at 2:30 and chicken or fish for dinner at 6 pm. You rarely stray from your planned meals and sometimes make efforts to avoid get-togethers, parties and events if they do not adhere to your schedule. If you do choose to accept a spontaneous invitation, you sometimes notice an increase in anxiety when something interferes with your routine meal plans.

So, are these scenarios healthy or disordered? For me, the answer is it depends.

Scenario 1 could be healthy if you are trying to change your eating patterns and have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, for example. If you need to reduce the amount of fried food you are eating, ordering a salad instead of fried chicken could be a good decision. However, if you never listen to your body’s hunger cues and are willing to feed your body what it desires, then it is disordered. Yes, chicken fingers are not as ‘healthy’ as salads. Yet, your body knows what it needs, and if it craves protein one night at dinner, then it is your job to listen and fulfill its needs. Being aware of and following your hunger / fullness cues is an important skill and part of becoming a mindful eater.

Scenario 2 could be healthy if you are working hard to re-commit to the gym and know that tonight is the only night that you can get to the gym during the entire week. However, your body really needs rest and depriving your body of sleep leads to an increase in stress hormones, which in turn, leads to an increase in body fat over time. So, listening to and respecting your body’s need for sleep is an essential part of your self-care routine. Thus, going to the gym when you really need a nap could be disordered rather than healthy.

Lastly, Scenario 3 could be healthy if having a meal plan ensures that you eat regularly and if the foods you tend to eat are full of nutrition. However, avoiding social engagements because of anxiety related to food and declining invitations to participate with others because it involves foods that are outside of your norm, might really be disordered.

In the end, too much of a good thing can become detrimental. In other words, healthy can lead to distortion when it begins to interfere with other aspects of your life. The line between healthy and obsessive is thin and can easily be crossed. When your eating and exercise habits interfere with other aspects of your life e.g. family, friends or social engagements, then it is likely you are starting to cross over onto the disordered side. Being aware of your relationship with food and fitness can help you to be healthy and not so regimented, rule-based and obsessed that you become disordered. Being neurotic and inflexible about the types of food you ingest, the times that you eat, and the way that exercise is involved in your day, can all have great costs to your life: being health-focused while also maintaining spontaneity is a great goal for all of us.


Rebecca Glavin, MBA, MSW, LCSWA is a therapist in Charlotte who specializes in working with women with infertility, body image and self-esteem concerns as well as eating disorders. Rebecca also works with women who struggle with infertility, women who have miscarried, and women who have terminated a pregnancy. Rebecca lives in the Cotswold area with her husband and two daughters. To learn more about Rebecca, visit her website http://www.rebeccaglavin.com, or find her profile and information on the Psychology Today website here.


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