Many people struggle to live a healthy lifestyle, with the motivation to be active or eat a healthy diet occurring in fits and spurts.
Motivation waxes and wanes, or our health goals are re-prioritised (consciously or subconsciously), as a result of competing demands in our day-to-day lives.
For some though, being healthy becomes an obsession, and for a portion of these people this obsession becomes unhealthy.
Seeing positive changes in our health, our weight or attaining a more “ideal” body shape can be highly reinforcing. For the most part this is fine. Taken alone, strict adherence to exercising regimes, “clean” eating or dieting do not necessarily constitute a problem.
Is There a Formal Diagnosis?
Although the terms “orthorexia” and “exercise addiction” are both in general use to describe people whose efforts to be “healthy” have become unhealthy, these do not actually constitute formal diagnoses under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Likewise, there is no diagnosis for people whose “healthy” lifestyle as a whole is unhealthy. However, the fact that there is no formal label does not mean that people don’t experience genuine problems, as a result of obsessively striving to be healthy.
So when do Healthy Behaviours become Unhealthy?
Generally the determination of whether a set of behaviours constitutes a problem in a mental health sense depends on two factors: whether it causes the person engaging in the behaviour clinical levels of distress; or whether it significantly impairs their functioning in some way.
So to understand whether these healthy behaviours are actually unhealthy, we need to look at:
- what attitudes, beliefs, urges and goals are driving your behaviours;
- what happens to your mood and functioning if you can’t undertake those behaviours; and
- what impact do these behaviours have on your overall quality of life.
When Being Healthy Becomes Unhealthy: the Signs
Using the above criteria, here are some examples of when “healthy” habits may actually be unhealthy:
- When lapses in exercise or diet routines lead to intense frustration, guilt, self-loathing or other distress;
- When restrictive, “pure” eating practices or rigid exercise regimes are undertaken to suppress otherwise poorly managed negative emotions (eg body dissatisfaction);
- When an intense focus on health and wellbeing reinforces poor body image or disordered eating behaviours;
- When a disproportionate amount of time is spent planning, preparing or tracking eating or exercise, such that “life” more general suffers;
- When someone experiences intrusive thoughts about maintaining their healthy lifestyle (eg being distracted by thoughts about “needing” to exercise when at work);
- When engaging in these behaviours comes at the expense of relationships or causes social isolation (eg a person fails to meet their obligations in order to stick to their regimes, when they avoid social activities because they would be exposed to “unhealthy” food choices);
- When engaging in these behaviours comes at the expense of genuine physical health (eg people become too lean, experience disruptions to menstruation, or persist with potentially damaging exercises despite injury).
- When not being able to exercise or stick to a healthy diet leads to significantly depressed, low or irritable mood or increased anxiety.
Diet and exercise are both really important determinants of our mental health and wellbeing. There is some evidence that eating “unhealthy” food can increase our body dissatisfaction, and that different foods exert different impacts on our mood. Exercise in particular is useful as a tool to enhance mood and reduce anxiety.
However, exercise and diet should be just one part of your arsenal of coping strategies. If one or more of the experiences impact on someone they may benefit from seeking assistance from a psychologist.
Supplements, Stimulants and Methods of Achieving a “Fit” Look
In addition to exercise and diet, there is a range of methods that people use to increase their muscle size and visibility in an effort to look “fit” or “cut” . These include supplements, steroids/hormones, the overuse of caffeine and the use of other stimulants, and strategies such as dehydration and insufficient caloric intake. There are many risks associated with the use of these methods; they can serve to sabotage your overall health and lead to impairments in your mood and cognition (thinking). If you take supplements or are considering using the other methods discussed above, it is important to seek information from a reputable doctor on how these choices may impact your health.
Want to Achieve a Healthier Balance?
If your pursuit of health has come at too great an expense and you would like assistance to re-gain a better, healthier balance then consider making an appointment to see me at M1 Psychology.
Author: Kelly Gall, BSc (Hons), M Psych (Health), M Clin Psych, MAPS, MCHP.
Kelly Gall is a Health Psychologist who is passionate about helping clients to improve their physical and emotional wellbeing and overall functioning. Kelly develops tailored, holistic and evidence-based treatment plans that incorporate psychological, physical and social strategies aimed at empowering her clients to achieve relief from psychological symptoms and improve their health and effectiveness.
To make an appointment with Health Psychologist Kelly Gall, please call (07) 3067 9129 or you can book online today.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- erczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M. D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B., Urbán, R., & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use & Misuse, 47(4), 403-417.
- Landolfi, E. (2013). Exercise addiction. Sports Medicine, 43(2), 111-119. doi:10.1007/s40279-012-0013-x
- Koven, N. S., & Abry, A. W. (2015). The clinical basis of orthorexia nervosa: Emerging perspectives. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 11, 385-394. doi:10.2147/NDT.S61665
- Berczik, K., Szabó, A., Griffiths, M. D., Kurimay, T., Kun, B., Urbán, R., & Demetrovics, Z. (2012). Exercise addiction: symptoms, diagnosis, epidemiology, and etiology. Substance Use & Misuse, 47(4), 403-417.