Health food anxiety and orthorexia

How do you balance a healthy lifestyle with real life? According to healthy food chef and founder of Honestly Healthy, Natasha Corrett, this is a common question amongst her followers. Worryingly, the strive for diet and fitness perfection can often lead to anxiety and in some cases, ‘orthorexia’, which is defined as an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food. Me included.

A few years ago, I was on a raw vegan diet and practised Bikram ‘hot’ yoga 6 times a week. I had huge anxieties about what to buy from the supermarket. I’d spend ages staring at the aisles and looking at packets, deliberating/panicking about whether it would be good for me or not. In the beginning, my clean eating lifestyle felt amazing. Then one year in, depression and anxiety hit, which I now believe was due to my restrictive, controlling lifestyle. I had lost the ability to let go. Most of the time, if it wasn’t organic and made from raw fruit, veg, nuts or seeds, I wouldn’t eat it…and skipping a yoga class made me feel so guilty. I didn’t like eating with friends and I was the most awkward person to go for a meal with. Cutting out food groups probably lead to a vitamin deficiency too.

I can still be pretty picky about what I eat, although I make sure I eat a balanced, healthy diet. However, going to university and studying nutrition from a scientific perspective really helped me to deconstruct these obsessively healthy habits and question whether I was doing more harm than good.

Our food practises and rituals are just as important to our health and wellbeing as the types of food we eat. The Mediterranean diet is considered one of the ‘healthiest’ ways of eating in the world. One could question whether this is purely due to the abundance of fish, tomatoes and olive oil and lack of processed food; or because the social aspects of meals i.e. eating with family and friends and the sensory delights of wine, bread and pasta are included in the recommendations too.

The topics of food related anxiety, orthorexia, mental health and stress were touched upon by myself and other experts in a panel at Be:FIT London recently. The discussion was lead by Honestly Healthy’s Natasha Corrett and we offered realistic, non-preachy advice which took into account the psychological aspect of food. Here are Natasha’s questions and my answers (in bold).

How do you balance a healthy lifestyle with ‘real life’ a lot of people say that they struggle with this and it is all or nothing?

  • Make small changes – drink one extra glass of water per day or add some fruit to your snacks.
  • Eat and exercise in a way that you enjoy, when you want to.
  • Be realistic and not idealistic. Be kind to yourself.
  • Try not to compare yourself with others and what is said on social media.
  • Whatever you eat, enjoy it and be present.
  • Question everything – don’t take an experts word for it. Proper scientists will never say that something is 100% true and should remain objective. 

Anxiety seems to be a huge draw to articles on the site. What advice can you give to combating this through food and exercise?

  • Firstly, your anxiety may not have anything to do with food and nutrition. We live in a busy world which can cause stress and feelings of not being able to cope. On the flip side, it could be that trying to be perfect with your food and fitness is bringing on anxiety so bare this in mind. 
  • In some extreme cases, anxiety is a symptom of vitamin deficiency. The only way you’ll get conclusive results is by a blood test. Go to the doctor. Vegans or strict vegetarians are recommended to take a daily vitamin B12 supplement (1.5mcg) as vitamin B12 is mainly found in meat, fish and dairy. A daily vitamin D tablet (10mcg) is recommended for all adults and children who live in the UK.

What foods would you lean towards for good mental health? Do you think this has a big impact and how?

  • Remember that food alone is not the only factor in mental health and there is no magic bullet when it comes to one particular food for the brain. However, omega 3 fatty acids ‘DHA’ and ‘EPA’, found in fish and fish oils, are linked to brain health, memory, learning ability and rational thinking.
  • We can increase DHA intake by eating good, sustainably sourced oily fish or a cod liver oil supplement. DHA supplements made from algae are also available.
  • The body can convert the around 9% of the omega 3 fatty acid ‘ALA’ found in chia, flax, hemp seeds and walnuts into DHA. 
  1. What foods should we be feeding our children more of to help them get a good and balanced start in life?
  • Whole foods which are unprocessed and low in sugar. A high sugar diet significantly increases chances of obesity and diabetes along with tooth cavities.

They say gut health plays a big part in a healthy mind. What fundamentals can we put in place, like supplements or certain foods to help this?

  • Make sure you eat 30g of fibre per day. Beneficial bacteria in the gut eat fibre and break it down into short chain fatty acids which help us absorb more nutrients. Short chain fatty acids improve the production of serotonin (for good mood) and leptin (the anti-hunger hormone).
  • Look out for ‘inulin’ and ‘fructo-oligosaccharides’ (FOS); naturally found in chicory, artichoke, bananas, aubergine and available in health stores as a powder. This form of soluble fibre swells in the stomach, making you feel fuller and helps the body to clear cholesterol from the liver (transferring it back to the gut to be eliminated). Inulin is sweet tasting but doesn’t contain sugar so wont effect blood glucose levels.
  1. What is your opinion on managing stress through exercise and nutrition?
  • Good nutrition and regular exercise can help you feel good, energised and combat stress. However, it can also be stressful maintaining a rigorous exercise and nutrition regime. It is about balance and being kind to yourself.
  1. Being healthy is often seen as expensive how can you cut costs and know what you are doing is still good for you? Exercising at home or shopping smarter?
  • Cook from scratch.
  • Plan your meals.
  • Freeze leftovers so you have homemade ready meals during busy times.
  • Use lots of fresh veggies for colour and flavour and add herbs and spices.
  • Make your own energy balls by blending dates, nuts and oats.
  • Eat high fibre foods that fill you up – oats in the morning are a perfect option.
  • Shop at low cost supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl where fruit and veg is good quality and really affordable.

Do you think you may have orthorexia / an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food? Find useful resources here and take part in scientific research by answering this online survey.

 Me and other Honestly Healthy ambassadors with Natasha Corrett at Be:FIT London.

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