Orthorexia Nervosa: Why being super-healthy could be super-harmful

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Do you care about what you eat? If getting your 5-a-day isn’t enough, and you’re rigidly stuck to the latest food trends, you could be suffering from orthorexia.

It might sound crazy at first since we all know that it’s important to look after our health. After all, isn’t that what yoga is about? Well, yes, in a way. Part of our yoga practice involves becoming more aware of what — and how — we eat, as well as looking after our bodies with a regular āsana practice that suits our individual needs.

With mantras like “strong not skinny” and “eating clean” bandied around by lithe, glowing Instagram stars, the healthy eating movement seems like a good idea. It certainly sounds better than watching every calorie and skipping meals, but actually these mantras can be feeding us an idealistic, unattainable (often unaffordable) lifestyle.

Food labelling has become more than telling us what’s in our food: it’s now a way of labelling whether we’re a “good person” or not. The problem, as always with judgements between good and bad, is that they’re subjective. Eating meat? What about animal cruelty, or climate change? Not eating meat? Have you not heard of the Paleo movement? Where is your protein coming from? Trying to follow food trends leads us away from listening to the wisdom of our own body, and we can become obsessive, controlling, and ironically, unwell.

Too Much Of A Good Thing

Officially classified an eating disorder in 1996, orthorexia nervosa is a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.” In our quest to be healthy we risk becoming socially isolated as our ever-demanding eating habits make it stressful to dine at a friend’s house, and we judge others for eating the way they do.

Yoga should be part of the solution. In its truest form, yoga guides us towards greater inner peace and contentment. Unfortunately in our visual-heavy, aesthetically-pleasing culture (with a bit of competition and criticism thrown in), even yoga can be part of the problem. We see bikini clad babes on Instagram, and they look amazing in their one-hand handstand on the beach. We look at the bloggers like Deliciously Ella and admire their glowing skin or their enthusiasm for life. We can draw inspiration from these bloggers to help us live a healthier life, but don’t let their inspiring blogs and videos completely take over your life.

Real yoga is about truth and kindness. It’s true that with an established yoga practice your eating patterns can improve, which may result in you looking and feeling better. Don’t let this be your only aim. If it is, you’re depriving yourself of all the goodness yoga has to offer.

Are You A Control Freak?

We live in times where community feels scarcer, and we’re becoming more individualistic. This can lead us to try to control everything around us, as though if we were to let go for a tiny moment, everything would just fall apart. If you’re desperately controlling your diet, what else in your life are you trying to control? Are you scared of getting ill, or fat? Are you on a spiritual journey? Is your identity based around your healthy lifestyle? Try these following yoga practices to help you begin to understand more about where the need to control food comes from.

1. Be Grateful

Trying saying grace before you eat. This might seem a little weird if you’re not religious, but just giving a little moment of gratitude before consuming whatever delicious thing you have in front of you can not only help us enjoy food more, but also to feel a sense of gratitude to live in a country where food is so readily available to most of us.

2. Practice Flexibility

I’m not talking about how deep your forward bends are, more the flexibility of the mind. The 80/20 rules seems to work well here: if you eat healthily 80% of the time, perhaps the other 20% you can let go of control and just indulge in the pizza, beer or supersize bag of crisps. Seriously, learning to just let go of control and taking a break from your self-imposed rules can feel so liberating and freeing, and ultimately will lead in a better balanced life all around.

3. Enjoy!

Food brings us together and it nourishes us in more ways than one. Yes, too much of a good thing is too much, but in moderation most of us can enjoy a little bit of everything. With food intolerances and allergies food of course can not always be such an easy thing, but even then with a little bit of preparation and planning, it is possible to discover how to create great meals which nourish and sustain you. We know the world out there is tough. Let’s not make it harder than it needs to be. Check out this great article for some ideas of eating seasonally this autumn.

Need more help?

There’s nothing wrong with being healthy, just make sure it doesn’t take over your life. The National Eating Disorders Association have this advice. Let your identity shift to, “the person who eats health food” to the “person who loves, who works, who is fun.”

If you need some support, see your GP who may be able to recommend a specialist in eating disorders. Eating disorders are usually covering up another issue – such as control – and a specialist can help you begin to work through these issues so that you eat to live, not live to eat.

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