I’m a Nutrition Professional: The Obsession to Be Healthy Broke Me Down
When I learned I had orthorexia, I began taking steps to balance out my life.
As a health professional and food expert, I always thought the biggest issue my clients faced around food was a lack of knowledge—about what foods to eat, about why to eat them, about why to avoid others, about how they impact health. The list of reasons goes on.
But I realized that I actually got it all wrong. Here’s why: At the start of my career as a dietitian and nutritionist, learning about food and its effects on health made perfect sense. Eating healthy was obviously a no-brainer. In addition to this, working in the health industry and watching the rise of social media as a means to get information gave me a boost of inspiration to be a good example.
My own eating habits became more than perfect, and I found myself obsessing over eating well, counting calories, not having any processed sugar or refined foods, alcohol, soft drinks or any other crap I deemed demonic to my well-being.
I lived like this for over three years. I was running and training at the gym everyday, I planned my meals, filled my cupboard with supplements and had a nonexistent social life. I felt extremely disappointed at my friends who ate crap and even at my clients who couldn’t give up the junk food. I’d constantly think to myself: “What is wrong with you people?”
Being Overly Healthy Was Actually Hurting My Body
But then my body started to break down. I woke up one day and couldn’t get out of bed. My muscles were so sore, my knees hurt, my back was wrecked and I couldn’t stand up straight. My hair started falling out; my nails were splitting. Mentally, I was a mess.
During this time, I attended a nutrition seminar about the effects of social media on the health of young adults, and I realized I had something called orthorexia. This is an eating disorder characterized by an obsession with eating healthy, where the quality of the food is more important than anything else. There I was, thinking I couldn’t eat too healthy, when orthorexia was, in fact, detrimental to my health.
Upon reflecting on my eating habits, it all made sense. I was becoming obsessed with my body image, with training, with eating fresh and overly healthy. And social media was only fueling my need to be perfect with all its readily available “health advice.” I was only 24 years old at the time, and the realization that my obsession made me so ill and miserable was hard to take. My “healthy” lifestyle hurt me deeply, both physically and emotionally. And on top of it all, I was supposed to be the example to my clients. How?
I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect and eat the best possible food that I lost connection with what being healthy actually means.
Individual Willpower Is a Difficult Thing to Harness in Today’s Climate
Letting go of my strict eating patterns was hard at the start. I needed help. After a while, I learned to enjoy a scoop of ice cream or a bowl of pasta without feeling guilty or sick. At the same time, I felt so disappointed in myself. After all, I’m the only one responsible for my health…or am I?
Looking at my own experience and at my clients’ struggles, it became clear to me that the problem ran deeper than what I initially thought. Working in health and looking after people’s nutrition, in my case, has proven to be a challenge—a personal challenge. I obsess over it, all day, every day, but it’s been a real struggle to compete with the constant push for overconsumption and the dead-set pressure to be a certain way.
Our social structure and public health systems put much of the responsibility for being healthy on the individual alone. It is my choice to eat something or engage in a certain activity. No one is forcing me, right? But how can I or my clients rely solely on our willpower to “do the right thing” when:
- Social media platforms enable influencers and celebrities to promote fad diets and give unsound nutrition advice without consequences?
- There is so much pressure on us to be “perfect.” But what does it even mean when most of what is shared on social media is edited and cherry-picked to portray a reality that is not?
- We are no longer involved in the food preparation process?
- The food and supplement industry continues promoting and selling magic pills and “health foods” that are extremely bad to our health?
- National dietary guidelines are so damn confusing and are still getting it wrong?
The list goes on. Being healthy, whatever that means, is bloody hard! I got out of this vicious cycle because there was no other option. I was a wreck.
There Needs to Be a More Holistic Approach to Health Promotion
After turning down all the noise (I took a social media cleanse) and working to reconnect with myself, I can finally appreciate the present moment. By letting go of comparing myself to others, I’ve discovered who I really am.
I now understand the role food has in my life, particularly its cultural and social aspects. I understand that having the perfect body means nothing. And I can finally enjoy food with my family and friends again, gathering around a table of home-cooked dishes made from fresh ingredients, followed by a delicious cake from grandma’s traditional recipe.
Today, I eat not only to nourish my body but also to nurture my soul. Sometimes, I still feel guilty and shitty, but that’s OK. I’m only human. I know it’s not my fault and that I am being constantly influenced by higher powers.
I do believe that our social systems need to support and enable us to live healthier lives. To become more aware of who we are, of how we feel and how to treat ourselves with kindness and love. There has to be a change in policies for food regulation and advertising (of all kinds). Public health efforts must consider a shift towards disease prevention. A more wholesome approach to health promotion has to integrate the workspace, public spaces, schools and the education system.
And I wish for people on social media to share less vanity and narcissistic content, but rather use the platforms to spread ideas, to connect with others and normalize help-seeking behavior. Looking for help was hard, but it changed my life, and to be honest, I realized that less is more. Today, I feel amazing in my skin and in my head (mostly). And while I know this is never going to be a constant feeling—let’s be honest, we all have ups and downs—I am aware, I am awake and I have learned to enjoy the ride.