When healthy eating and weight loss are taken to extremes, they can actually worsen physical and emotional well-being. Here are five indications that your well-intentioned efforts may have morphed into detrimental patterns.
When I first started out in private practice, clients came to me because something was wrong. Most of them struggled with their weight, or were newly diagnosed with a condition like high cholesterol or elevated blood pressure. Today, healthy, fit clients schedule appointments with me simply to pick my brain. Many describe themselves as health enthusiasts who want to learn all they can about optimal nutrition, the hottest superfoods, and latest trends. I love that nutrition is now considered excitingâeven sexy.
But I sometimes see healthy eating and weight loss taken to extremes, which can actually worsen physical and emotional well-being and negatively impact quality of life. (Case in point: a recent study highlighted how obese teens trying to lose weight are in danger of developing eating disorders.) This topic is especially timely given the social media uproar following Tuesday's finale ofÂ The Biggest Loser, where winner Rachel Frederickson lost so much weight that Time.com reported she wouldn't be allowed to model in some countries based on her BMI, and in advance of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week from February 23 to March 1.
While this post is certainly not meant to diagnose anyone, here are five indications that your healthy efforts may have morphed into detrimental patterns.
Youâve become scale-obsessed
I actually believe itâs perfectly okayâand for some people, even healthierânot to weigh themselves. (Find out why in my previous post 5 Reasons Why You Can Skip the Scale.) But if you do, treat weighing in as a simple reality check to help you understand your bodyâs patterns and to see if youâre moving in the right direction. Itâs also important to put the numbers in proper perspective. Weight fluctuations from day to day, and even hour to hour, are completely normal, because when you step on a scale, youâre weighing not just muscle and body fat, but also: fluid, food inside your GI tract that hasnât been digested and absorbed; waste that hasnât been eliminated; and glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrate you carry in your liver and muscles. The latter three can shift considerably and quickly, whereas changes in muscle and fat tissue happen more slowly. Also, you can be retaining water or building muscle as youâre losing body fat, which means the number on the scale might stay the same, even though youâre getting leaner.
For all of these reasons, weight alone doesnât tell you much. Yet many people become fixated on the number and they feel angry or depressed if it doesnât go down, or if it's not declining fast enough. If you find yourself weighing in more than once a day, or if your mood is seriously affected by the number, or if you undereat or overexercise because your weight hasn't decreased, your relationship with weight has likely become unhealthy. Consider letting go of the scale and focusing on how your body feels insteadâand talking to a health professional about reasonable weight expectations.
Youâre secretive about your diet
When youâre trying to eat healthfully and lose weight, thereâs no reason to tell everyone and their mom about your personal regime. But if you feel the need to avoid the subject because you're afraid youâll be judged for being too strict, you may be crossing into disordered territory. This is especially the case if your own gut instinct is telling you that youâre overly restricting but you can't or donât want to stop.
In my experience, a big red flag is a willingness to stick to a restrictive plan despite unhealthy side effects like fatigue, moodiness and irritability, sleep disturbances, poor immunity, and constant hunger. Even if you are losing weight or youâre eating ultra healthy foods, if you arenât keeping yourself nourished, I promise youâre doing a lot more harm than good. Throughout my 15+ years working with clients, I've found that creating more balance (and often adding food to a plan) leads to much better results, not just for weight control, but also for emotional well-being and a healthy social life. For more about diet strategies that can go awry, check out 5 Common Dieting Mistakes, Solved.
Your self-esteem is tied to your weight or eating habits
Even clients who know Iâm not at all a food cop are sometimes afraid to tell me what theyâve eaten. Itâs typically because theyâre judging themselves: they've developed a pattern of feeling happy and empowered when theyâve been âgoodâ and beating themselves up when theyâve been âbad.â Unfortunately, these associations can stall your progress, because they donât allow you to examine why you get off track. And when you donât know why youâre doing something, itâs very difficult to change.
The truth is, you may slip up because your diet is too strict and your hunger hormones are raging. If thatâs the case, the fix lies in balancing out what youâre eating, not berating yourself. Or, if you tend to eat due to stress or anxiety, addressing your emotions is the key to ending the cycle, not trying to have more willpower. So if you gained a pound or two this week, or your kale rotted in the crisper while you ordered takeout again, banish the harsh self-talk and criticism. Instead, take an objective look at your triggers, focus your energy there, and remind yourself that health is about progress, not perfection.
Most of your mental energy is spent thinking about your diet or weight
Some of my clients love food apps and other tools that help them record what they ate and track their weight. Others donât. But one thingâs for certain: for some people, these tools can become an obsession. If you find yourself constantly thinking about what youâve eaten (or what youâre going to eat) and worrying about your weight to the point where youâre distracted from other activities, your weight-loss goals may have eclipsed your healthy lifestyle goals.
In my years of counseling clients, Iâve seen this pattern lead to burnout and trigger a rebound right back to old, unhealthy patterns. Fortunately, you donât have to be preoccupied with your diet and weight in order to see results. Simply focusing on the basicsâlike eating at consistent times; eating balanced meals that include plenty of veggies, along with lean protein, healthy fat, and small portions of âgoodâ carbs; and stopping when youâre fullâcan allow you to see real and lasting results, while also having the time and energy for other parts of your life. If youâre afraid to let go of thinking about or recording your every effort, ask yourself if you can honestly envision continuing to do so six weeks or six months from now. If the thought makes you cringe, make an effort to create some balance. Letting go a bit doesnât have to mean sacrificing results.
Your diet distances you from your family and friends
Iâve had clients tell me that they stopped spending time with friends and avoided family functions because their devotion to their diet outweighed their desire to engage in social situations. Some of this is normal for anyone whoâs adopting healthy habits because the cultural norm is to overindulge. But if you find yourself becoming isolated and avoiding the people you care about, things may have gone too far.
If youâre on a quest to eat healthfully and the people in your social circles arenât healthy eaters, there are ways to enjoy getting together that wonât require you to eat junk food. For example: at a party, bring a healthy dish to share, to serve as your personal go-to; choose restaurants where you know you can get a healthy meal, and opt for non-food centered ways of spending time together, like going for a walk or a hike, rather than meeting for drinks or frozen yogurt.
If you feel like youâre not getting the support you need and you want to have a heart-to-heart, check out my advice on how to deal with food pushers. But if youâre finding yourself prioritizing your diet before your loved ones completely, consider talking to a health professional. To find a psychologist, visit the American Psychological Association.Â And to find a nutritionist, go to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics,Â click on Find a Registered Dietitian on the upper right corner, choose Expertise Area, and check Eating Disorders.
Cynthia SassÂ is a registered dietitian with masterâs degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen onÂ national TV, sheâs Healthâs contributing nutrition editor, and privately counselsÂ clientsÂ in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller isÂ S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches. Connect with Cynthia onÂ Facebook,Â TwitterÂ andÂ Pinterest.