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Hunger Games: When Clean Eating Gets Out of Hand

When cable television created an entire channel devoted to food in the 1990s it seemed almost absurd. Who wants to watch someone else cook day in and day out? As it turns out, people ate it up. Today, there is a virtual food entertainment empire. From prime-time cooking competitions to top-selling cookbooks authored by food bloggers, there is hardly a medium that doesn’t include beautifully prepared foods designed to whet your appetite. One scroll through your Instagram feed, and you’re bound to see some #foodporn.

For a home cook this translates into a wealth of inspiration -- whether you’re looking for new twists on old classics (quinoa meatloaf anyone?) or healthier meal plans, there is no shortage of inspiration at your fingertips. But it just so happens happens that this abundance of delectable food entertainment can be a full-blown obsession. In our quest to follow the ubiquitous healthy eating trends, are we instead creating just another bad habit?

Katie Friedlander is a Runwell ambassador who struggled food addiction, but she didn’t know it until she was in her 30s. “I think that obsession is a huge part of addiction. People can obsess about things, but my experience with being an addict is that the obsession never goes away. It’s constant,” she says.

Food obsession can become quite a serious health issue. If someone frequently turns to food for comfort and develops cravings for unhealthy treats, then over time these behaviors can be classified as food addiction. On the other hand, if someone focuses on healthy eating to an extreme, this can become a condition known as orthorexia nervosa.

Like the more well-known anorexia and bulimia, orthorexia is brought on by a fixation on food in relation to an ideal. It can have serious health implications in that specialized diets (gluten free, paleo, plant-based, vegan) are not right for everyone. (There is a reason that commercially marketed diet and weight loss programs recommend consulting your physician.) There are also psychological, social, and quality of life issues that are affected by an obsession with healthy eating. If you gain more joy from thinking about the foods you will prepare than the meal itself and who you share it with, is that better for you than the weight you would otherwise gain on a mainstream meal?

Eating disorders are especially of concern for those recovering from substance abuse. Research suggests that nearly 50% of individuals with an eating disorder are also abusing drugs and/or alcohol. Conversely, substance abuse can develop before, during, or after treatment for an eating disorder. When food becomes a coping mechanism on the path to a healthy lifestyle, perhaps even a stand-in for drugs or alcohol, it can be just as detrimental.

Here are some questions* to consider if you feel food is consuming you, instead of the other way around:

·    Do you ever simply eat and not worry about food quality?

·    Do you ever wish you could spend less time on food and more time living?

·    Can you eat a meal prepared with love by someone else – one single meal – and   

not try to control what is served?

·    Do you feel guilt or self-loathing when you stray from your diet?

·    Do you feel in control when you stick to the “correct” diet?

·    Have you put yourself on a nutritional pedestal and wonder how others can possibly eat the foods they eat? 

*Based on a questionnaire from the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).

One coping mechanism for food addiction is distraction, and the same may be true for orthorexia. Instead of focusing on the grocery list, take up a new hobby. Try a new outdoor activity or pick up an adult coloring book. Keep your hands busy, your body active, and your mind will follow.     

Second, invite friends over for a potluck dinner. This is a great way to try new foods and experience how those in your social circle eat. Not only will you make some great memories, but you can lighten up on your strict diet and assess how you feel afterward.

Finally, switch gears on the media you consume. It will be easier to focus on other interests if you aren’t binge watching Chopped or reading articles claiming chard is the new kale. As the old adage attests, “garbage in, garbage out” and this can apply to even the “healthiest” of food culture.


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