Did you ever think that eating healthy could lead to an unhealthy lifestyle?
As dancers, we often strive to perfect the imperfect. We continuously work to build upon a basic framework of movement that allows for both the improvement of our technique and the creation of our art. Though this demanding road helps to fuel motivation for progress, it can also lead us down a path to burnout if our goals represent impossible standards.
When the same perfectionist all-or-nothing mindset is transferred onto our food choices, restrictive eating behaviors leave us isolated and at risk for physical and mental exhaustion. To add fuel to the fire, a culture hyper-focused on health and wellness sets the stage for confusion as we navigate conflicting messages about what we “should” and “shouldn’t” eat.
Orthorexia is an unofficial term that represents the obsession with eating healthy. Unlike other specified eating disorders such as Anorexia Nervosa and Bulemia Nervosa, orthorexia lacks diagnosable criteria, which makes it difficult to identify and diagnose. Dancers are at particular risk for developing orthorexia given the need to fuel the body while immersed in a sport largely impacted by body-aesthetics.
When eating habits become too healthy, they cause disruptions in other aspects of life. The inability to engage in social situations, such as a friend’s birthday dinner, is just one sign that eating habits may border the “red zone” of disordered. When trying to achieve your body goals, consider the following as potential flags for unsustainable habits.
Overwhelming Concern Over Food Quality
Do you feel anxious about eating something without knowing every ingredient? While being aware of food labels is essential to a healthy lifestyle, don’t restrict yourself only to foods with ingredients deemed “healthy” or “clean.” Providing your body with all three macronutrients (complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats) at multiple times throughout your day is important, BUT—enjoying your favorite foods is key to lifelong habits.
Food Consumes Your Thoughts
Interest in nutrition is a great way to lead a healthy lifestyle. However, obsessive thoughts can emerge if anxiety develops over foods served at upcoming events. Restrictive food choices and regimens like “clean eating” or “grain-free,” can set the stage for obsessive patterns. Does your interest in nutritious food prevent you from experiencing unfamiliar environments where food is served?
Inflexible Eating Patterns
Those with disordered eating habits often struggle to eat foods that they don’t prepare themselves. Due to severely rigid diet rules, they may avoid meals completely if not presented with a choice that has been deemed “healthy” or “safe.” They may also feel it necessary to prepare and bring personal food to events. Meal planning is great and can be helpful to manage busy schedules. However, meal plans should always leave room for the unknown. Avoid “cheat days” or “cheat meals” as they can lead you towards a binge- and restrict- cycle.
Emotional Distress When “Food Rules” Are Broken
Food rules are rigid standards that involve the omitting of specific foods and/or food groups (examples include eliminating sugar, carbs, dairy, meat, non-organic options). Choices are important, but rules are unsustainable. A person with disordered eating habits may feel extreme guilt, shame, anger, and sadness if self-imposed rules are broken. The bottom line: restrictions don’t work long term. A healthy relationship with food is one that incorporates nutrient-dense options, like nuts, fruit, and whole grains while also making infinite room for unapologetic enjoyments, like cookies, cake, burgers, and fries!
Severe Concern Over Your Health and Performance
A person with orthorexia is unable to enjoy food for the experience. Rather, the sole purpose of eating is to gain a nutritional and/or performance benefit. Improving your performance through food is great! However, avoid heading down the all-or-nothing tunnel of restriction. Grant yourself permission to eat food, not nutrients. Every decision that you make around food doesn’t have to be based on nutrition!
If your decisions around food seem inflexible, or you develop anxiety over the idea of eating foods that you have not prepared, then you may want to reassess your health goals. The cost of food- and social-avoidance may outweigh any potential health benefits. Consider speaking to a clinician who specializes in disordered eating behaviors, such as a registered dietitian, a psychologist or a psychotherapist.