When Trying to be Healthy Becomes Unhealthy

This post is copied from our older, original blog. Original post date 07/18/2013. 

By Marcie Bower, Lic.Ac.

I am an acupuncturist. It is my job to help people be more healthy – I do this with needles during a treatment, and also with patient education around exercise, diet and nutrition, relaxation, and other lifestyle suggestions based on my training in Traditional Chinese Medicine. So how can I say that trying to be healthy can, in and of itself, be unhealthy?

This is something that I have been thinking a lot about recently. First, I read a super witty, brutally honest, and all around fantastic blog post called The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater. The blog takes the reader on what is assumed to be a fictional journey from being “healthy”, eating wheat crackers and veggie patties…to thinking that gluten is the devil and that veggie patties will kill her because of the processing …to being unable to eat anything except for organic, self-grown kale because there is something morally, ethically, chemically, or organically wrong with every other food that we know of. It was humorous and made me chuckle and then made me say “Oh, crap.”

Why “Oh crap?” Because I can see myself in certain thought processes in the blog post. Because I can see zillions of my patients and my friends in the behaviors presented (although perhaps not going to the extremes of eating seal liver.) Because I know that thought cycles can be hard to break out of. Because of the way that certain healthy behaviors can beget other behaviors that are ultimately, as our poor blog writer discovers, drastically less healthy.

Then, I started reading about Orthorexia Nervosa. Orthorexia is a relatively newly recognized pattern of disordered eating that is defined as “a fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia can be part of a formally recognized eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa. However, it can also exist independent of either of these diagnoses. As such, I would argue, it is incredibly prevalent in modern society – particularly if you move in circles full of health-conscious parents, athletes of all varieties, or live in urban or suburban areas where CSAs and Whole Foods and health supplements abound. (For the record, I love all of those things, and see nothing wrong with them at all.)

The irony in orthorexia is that it seems to start with a desire to be more healthy – which is what I, as a holistic health practitioner, am all about. However, for an orthorexic individual, this desire to be healthy quickly morphs into a preoccupation with healthy eating. This in turn, becomes all consuming. The irony of orthorexia is that, to quote an article from Karin Kratina, PhD, RD, LD/N on the National Eating Disorders Association website, “Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.”

The term orthorexia was coined by Steven Bratman, MD, to describe his own experience with “healthy” eating. He writes, “I pursued wellness through healthy eating for years, but gradually I began to sense that something was going wrong.  The poetry of my life was disappearing.  My ability to carry on normal conversations was hindered by intrusive thoughts of food.  The need to obtain meals free of meat, fat, and artificial chemicals had put nearly all social forms of eating beyond my reach.  I was lonely and obsessed. … I found it terribly difficult to free myself.  I had been seduced by righteous eating.  The problem of my life’s meaning had been transferred inexorably to food, and I could not reclaim it.”

I think that many of us have a tendency to put our all into whatever it is that we do. This is great for healthy relationships, a vibrant career, and athletic endeavors. But it is not the best quality for creating a life of balance. When we put too much of our mental, emotional, and physical selves into one portion of life, the rest of us gets thrown off kilter. And that, to me, is what orthorexia does. It is, to quote our earlier blog reference, a “terrible tragedy” of a desire for health on overdrive. (It will take too long to go into here, but I see the same patterns in many patients, played out in exercise or supplements, if not through food.)

The problem with this whole picture, from a Chinese Medicine standpoint, is that when we are too fixated on being healthy, that balance we strive for gets thrown for a loop. When we are too fixated on balance, we become unbalanced. In regards to the obsessive healthy eating…should it get to a point where the body is not getting the sustenance it needs, obviously our body’s day-to-day energy stores are depleted. However, long-term, it depletes some of our more core energy, too, that is much harder to rebuild. The obsessive thinking itself causes stagnation of energy in the body – fixating on one particular way of being does not allow our energy to move in the myriad of ways it wants to. These depletions and stagnations lead to all sorts of health issues.

So what is the answer? Of course I believe that we should all strive to be healthy, and I still stand by earlier posts about limiting processed foods and eating organic foods and limiting sugar intake. But in this process of striving to live a healthy life, there must be moderation. Stepping Stone acupuncturist Karl is also an ordained Buddhist priest. I have heard him expound the importance of moderation again and again when people question his actions, when they somehow aren’t the image that one has concocted of a Buddhist priest. If we are out at a local bar having a beer, for instance, someone will say, “But you can drink?” And Karl will say “everything in moderation.”

I myself drink coffee. I love coffee. I have given it up for periods of time and have yet to be convinced that I am better off for it. I know others are. I know as an acupuncturist I am supposed to eschew caffeine. But I love coffee. It makes me happy. And I have adopted Karl’s answer. When patients say “YOU drink coffee?” I smile and say “Yes, I do. Everything in moderation.”

If you loosen the reigns a little, you allow yourself to make mistakes. You allow yourself to be less tightly wound, and you allow your energy to flow as it needs to.

And you will find, in that loosening, great health and balance.