Too much of a good thing? When healthy habits become a dangerous obsession

As much as we’re encouraged to embrace a healthy lifestyle, in some cases the way we eat and exercise can become detrimental. Here’s how.

A healthy lifestyle including eating well and exercising are among the best things you can do for your overall health.

But sometimes the best of intentions can turn into obsession, which can turn into a problem.

When ‘healthy eating’ becomes a problem

Clinical nutritionist Bec Miller says she spends the majority of her time encouraging clients to follow the 80/20 rule of “eating healthy 80 per cent of the time and not worrying 20 per cent of the time”.

But conversely, the founder of Health with Bec says an issue arises if someone can’t let go for that 20 per cent.

“It can become unhealthy if you find that you stop going out with friends for a meal or avoid a favourite takeaway,” Bec says.

“Or, if you do these things, and you later feel anxiety or even punish yourself for it.”

“Clean eating” refers to a wholesome diet comprised of mostly fresh foods, lean meats and grains.

But when followed to the letter, it can lead to an elimination of entire food groups (meat, dairy, carbs, sugar etc), which Bec notes can give rise to health issues if not done under professional guidance.

“By cutting out a food group, you can absolutely run the risk of developing a nutrient deficiency, unless you’re working with a qualified nutritionist or following a plan,” Bec explains.

Naturopath Vesna Hrsto agrees, adding that removing major food groups can mean “missing out on important nutrients required for energy, mental wellbeing and vitality” — and that includes gut health.

“Restrictive eating often limits nutrients and fibre, which impact on the diversity of the microbiome,” the Melbourne-based naturopath says.

How a good diet can go to the extreme

In extreme instances, healthy eating can reach the point of orthorexia nervosa.

A seminal York University study defined this condition as “a pathological obsession with healthy eating or consuming only healthy food” whereby the sufferer is fixated on the quality and preparation of their food being “healthy”, which paradoxically causes negative implications for their physical and mental health.

“People suffering with orthorexia place their self-worth on what they eat and consider healthy,” Bec explains.

“So, when they’re unable to comply with this way of eating, they experience extreme anxiety or feel out of control.”

Like many eating disorders, orthorexia can lead to nutritional deficiencies and lead to serious health complications such as cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and neurological consequences.

“This intense preoccupation with diet also compromises general quality of life, leading to less enjoyment, productivity and social activity,” Bec says.

“If this is the case, it’s extremely important to seek professional help.”

When excessive exercise can be dangerous

Exercise is another healthy habit that can become compromised when taken to the extreme.

Trainer Ben Lucas explains that overtraining manifests as “injury, burnout, fatigue, trouble sleeping and irritability” — and can occur as a result of either “going too hard when you exercise, or training too often”.

Overtraining can also be identified mentally as being “obsessive about going to the gym every single day or even twice a day”.

Although the ideal amount of exercise varies from one person to the next, the Flow Athletic founder says everyone needs adequate recovery time.

“Recovery is where all the good stuff happens,” Ben says.

“Treat your body like a bank account.

“What you take from it you should give back to it in the form of one to two rest days per week, eight hours of sleep a night as well as a good diet and lots of water.”

How to strike a healthy exercise balance

Eating well and keeping fit are admirable healthy lifestyle goals worth striving towards.

But like most things in life, psychologist Tara Hurster explains they must be approached with balance.

“When people have an ‘extreme focus’ on something — whether it’s their health, work or anything else – they tend to build their lifestyle in such a way that facilitates them to continue focusing on that thing,” the founder of The TARA Clinic explains.

“To facilitate this lifestyle, you choose to spend time with people who allow or encourage this thing and you build your environment to give you permission to focus on that thing.

“That way you remain comfortable because your environment doesn’t question your decisions.

“Balance is key, so when the idea of balance feels uncomfortable, then you have noticed an early warning sign that it might be helpful to speak with someone.”

If this resonates, Tara recommends seeking out a professional to get to the root of the behaviour.

“When you understand what’s going on in your brain and your body, you’re able to make educated decisions on the best next steps,” Tara says.

“Speaking with your GP is a great start, and I would also recommend speaking with someone who has a special interest in your specific concern.”

If you or anyone you know needs help or support for an eating disorder or concerns about body image, call the Butterfly Foundation national helpline on 1800 334 673.

Written by Sharon Hunt.