Every social media platform is filled with it. Images of “health”, from organic, gluten free, sugar free, dairy free, yummy “treats”, to the latest and greatest fitness craze, writes Integrative Health Expert, Clinical Psychologist and TV Presenter, Leanne Hall.
Sculpted bodies, food porn and an endless stream of fitness memes. If this represents your news feed, chances are you are in the market for some health motivation.
And while seeking out sources of motivation online is certainly not a problem in itself, the internalised beliefs we often adopt as a direct result can be both unhelpful and unhealthy.
And here is why
One word. PERFECTION. The overwhelming majority of these images and messages depict perfection. We must eat perfectly, and give 100% to every exercise session in order to be “healthy”. Otherwise we are lying to ourselves right?
WRONG! The problem with depicting messages of “perfect health” is what you already know - perfection simply does not exist. So when we fall short of this unrealistic expectation, we inevitably end up feeling like a failure. And so we ditch the healthy eating and exercise in favour of something that feels more familiar and easier to maintain (yet far less healthy!).
Of course it doesn’t help that we find it difficult to imagine our favourite #fitspo model or celebrity tucking into a burger and hitting the snooze button instead of heading to the gym.
They would never do such a thing right?
Well I’m betting that like all of us, they too have days where bed wins out over the gym, and fries win over salad. However, they just don’t talk about it, let alone post about it on social media!
The more we “see” perfection, the more we internalise the belief that it exists. And if it exists, and certain people DO achieve it – then why can’t we?
However, what we forget is that what we think we “see”, is often nothing but a façade. A manipulation of the real truth. Once we see the real truth, and understand that the information we see is a misrepresentation of reality, then it’s possible to challenge the belief that being “perfectly healthy” is a realistic goal.
So how do you know if you’re being unrealistic or obsessive in your quest to be “healthy”?
Here are seven warning signs you're being "too healthy"
1. You have completely cut out certain foods, which you used to enjoy because they are not “healthy”
Commonly this means only eating “clean” or “raw” foods and completely avoiding anything processed or artificial. It may also involve totally avoiding sugar or major food groups such as dairy.
2. If you miss an exercise session (even when you’re injured or sick) you feel overwhelming guilt
This may then lead to increased anxiety and even depression.
3. You avoid certain social activities
Because you can’t bring yourself to eat at THAT place. This can lead to a sense of isolation and loneliness, as previously strong friendships begin to feel more distant.
4. You spend most of the day thinking about what you have eaten or what you are about to eat
This may mean that work/study is impacted due to poor concentration, and associated anxiety.
5. You know all about every diet/eating trend
You may have a cupboard full of supplements and probiotics. This may mean an obsession with reading about health, and an associated preoccupation with anything related to nutrition and/or exercise at the expense of other interests.
6. You know more about “health” than the average GP/Health Professional
Or at least you think you do!
7. Your friends see you as a complete “health nut”
They may even stop inviting or asking you to certain get togethers, because they feel you are boring and no longer “fit in” (and not just because you don’t drink alcohol).
Individually, these factors don’t necessarily point to an unhealthy obsession. Being aware of your eating habits and swapping less healthy options for healthier ones is certainly not a bad thing! However, if your desire to be perfectly healthy begins to interfere with your life in a negative way then it might be time to hit pause and reflect on your goals.
Orthorexia is a term used to describe people who are seriously addicted to health
Although it’s not recognised as a medical/psychological condition as such – it’s often used to describe an overwhelming and often debilitating desire to be “perfectly healthy”.
At the severe end, people with orthorexia are obsessive and anxious and their entire life is centred around their perceived health needs. Like most things, many people can possess elements of these behaviours at certain times. The problem is when they become all encompassing and overwhelming!
Being obsessed and preoccupied with health more often than not leads to anxiety, and at times, even depression. How is this good for your health?
Instead of turning into a complete health nut, turn the focus inwards
Try to listen to what your body (and mind) is telling you. Often the health related goals we set for ourselves are based on what we have read (or what other people are doing), as opposed to what’s right for our body. When this is combined with goals that are perfectionistic and unrealistic – it takes us in the opposite direction to real and sustainable health.
So forget aiming for 100% all the time. Instead, aim for a batting average of around 70-80%. Rather than seeing exercise as a form of punishment, see it as a way of looking after your body.
Instead of cutting out foods, focus on eating nutrient dense foods that you enjoy while also allowing the occasional “treat”.
If you are injured or feel unwell, REST instead of exercise. Trust me, you will be no less healthy and in fact – your mind will be HEALTHIER as you will feel far less anxious, less guilty and less depressed.
Having said that, if you find yourself being drawn back into the world of “perfect” health, always remember that those who are health conscious are driven by a desire to care and nurture their bodies, whilst those who are health obsessed are driven by the avoidance of guilt, anxiety and fear.
I know which one I choose to be!
Inspired by Leanne's life coaching advice? Read more thoughts for better living and life advice from 25 of the web's top counsellors here.