When Can Healthy Eating and Exercise Be Dangerous?
Dear health junkie,
Is there a time when healthy eating and exercise can become unhealthy or even dangerous? For this post, the discussion revolves around two disordered behaviors that can be disguised as healthy behaviors, Compulsive Exercising and Orthorexia Nervosa.
In the post Using Dance to Boost Your Postpartum Workout Magic I mentioned that I used to have an unhealthy relationship with exercise. This unhealthy relationship began benignly enough. I was aware that I had an eating disorder and was attempting to recover from it by eating normally and exercising daily, sounds mild enough right? My one mile a day eventually turned into six to seven miles. During the next two years, I was teaching Jazzercise three days a week, attending Jazzercise an additional day each week, and running three to four days a week. I never took a day off.
I planned everything in my life around exercising,
I worried about any situation in which I may not be able to exercise. I was exhausted and repeatedly suffered from small injuries. Both of these things did not deter me from working out daily, however.
My grandmother would often tell me that I needed a break, she said over exercising could be counter productive. I did not listen. Compulsive Exercising is characterized as "excessive, obsessive exercise" by Eating Disorders Online (2017). Excessive exercise carries many risks including loss of exercise enjoyment, slowed metabolism, fatigue, frequent muscle soreness, osteoporosis, and amenorrhea (2017b, 2017c). I experienced the majority of these issues.
It is very surprising to me that I had never heard of this disorder. The term means "fixation on righteous eating.” Again like Compulsive Exercising, this disorder can start out benign; it can start out as trying to eat more healthy. Yet, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) explains that
"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. Eventually, the obsession with healthy eating can crowd out other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous" (NEDA 2017).
This disorder can develop from a number of underlying reasons, not just the need to be thin, but also the desire for control, for self-esteem, for an identity, or for spirituality (NEDA 2017).
A few months after I began my seemingly healthy exercise habit, I also started trying to eat more healthy. I searched dozens and dozens of websites for information about healthy eating and for healthy recipes. I attempted to change the pantry at my home to purge it and my diet from "bad" foods. I spent an unusual amount of time planning what I would eat each day. If we went out to eat, I had to look at the menu beforehand and see what food was offered, what ingredients the food had, and other nutritional facts.
I was always thinking about food (and exercise).
Looking at the Do I Have Orthorexia? questions put forth by the NEDA, during that time in my life I had many of the characteristics of someone suffering from Orthorexia Nervosa.
Though Orthorexia Nervosa may not seem like an issue, consider the following potential consequences such as malnourishment, guilt, social problems, or the inability to eat intuitively. As with Compulsive Exercising, these consequences pervaded my life.
I want to provide a quick disclaimer, during this time I also started living a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle. This choice, however, was purely for ethical and animal cruelty reasons, not as a means to "purify" or restrict my diet from "bad" foods. Still, my Orthorexia Nervosa dictated what I ate in my vegetarian/vegan lifestyle, i.e. avoiding sugar or "junk foods." I strived to eat only "pure" foods.
Looking back at this time now, I clearly see what was going on.
Though I thought I was healing from my eating disorder and body image issues through eating healthy and exercise, I had just replaced my issues with new disordered behaviors.
I was no happier, in fact, I would say I was more depressed and volatile.
Though these disordered behaviors are currently recognized as a clinical diagnosis in the DSM-5, they may still require professional help to overcome. Please look at the various reference provided in this post if you suspect you or someone you know is suffering from Compulsive Exercising or Orthorexia Nervosa.
It wasn't until I got professional help and developed a relationship with Christ that I was able to see my disordered behaviors and heal from them. I am happy and healthy now. I eat what I want without guilt, (I am still vegetarian/vegan) and I exercise moderately a few days a week. I had suffered from amenorrhea for years, and finally, I am beginning to have a regular cycle. Fortunately, I have a few people in my life who understand my past and are there to help me stay on the recovery road. I am so thankful to know the information I now know and will use it to help my daughter have healthy and happy eating and exercise habits.
Yours Truly, LeNae
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Eating Disorders Online. 2017a. "Anorexia Athletica". March 3. http://www.eatingdisordersonline.com/explain/anorathletica.php
Eating Disorders Online. 2017b."Female Athlete Triad Syndrome."March 3. http://www.eatingdisordersonline.com/articles/over-exercise/female-athlete-triad-syndrome
Eating Disorders Online. 2017b."Over Exercise: Signs Your Body is Ready to Throw in the Towel."March 3. http://www.eatingdisordersonline.com/articles/over-exercise/over-exercise-signs-your-body-is-ready-to-throw-in-the-towel
National Eating Disorders Association. 2017. "Orthorexia Nervosa."https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa
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