When I started following the low fodmap diet 3 years ago, some of my initial experiences included feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information I needed to work with each day including what to eat, what to avoid, quantities allowed, remembering to keep the food diary, and so the list went on. My initial elimination stage was longer than expected, about 12 weeks, as I worked with my dietitian to eliminate foods that we thought initially might be OK (fresh dates) but turns out were continuing to cause symptoms. During that 12 week period I found myself starting to feel quite obsessive about food: thinking about it constantly, checking product labels, seeking more information on-line and feeling very anxious if I needed to eat out.
Luckily, after the initial elimination phase my obsessive tendency started to ease, but I still find myself getting caught up in the secure confines of my low fodmap world sometimes, especially when I experience a flare-up. Certainly I think some of us are more wired for control and perfection-seeking than others and I am certainly one of them.
This morning I read an interesting article in The Irish Times: Orthorexia: is an obsession with ‘healthy food’ the new eating disorder? (you can read the full article here). This article struck a chord with me as it reminded me of my experience and made me realise how readily this could happen for someone and that there many be many of you out there who may have had a fleeting interaction with food obsession, or perhaps this could be a daily struggle in your life.
Here is a small except from the article:
“In a world that is increasingly dominated by eating clean, green foods and posting pictures of meals on Instagram, it appears that eating healthily can have its limits. Orthorexia nervosa, a condition characterised by an obsession with healthy eating, was first coined by Californian doctor Steven Bratman in 1997, but as yet has not received a formal medical classification.
Doubtless, some people will hear the definition of orthorexia and dispute that there are any negative side-effects of eating “too healthily”. But orthorexia is indeed a condition – recognised by Bodywhys, the Eating Disorder Association of Ireland – and one that can have insidious and far-reaching effects beyond the physical.
“While obviously being conscious of what we are eating and trying to follow a healthy, balanced diet is a positive thing, I think the key word here is ‘obsession’,” says clinical dietician Patrice McNamara. “Orthorexia is essentially an extreme fixation with ‘healthy eating’ and can lead to an unhealthy relationship with food and ultimately an unbalanced diet.”
Orthorexia can become deeply rooted in a person of any body type, and the repercussions can be mental as well as physical.
“Individuals with orthorexia may spend hours daily reading food labels, worrying about what they are eating, restricting whole food groups, and may exhibit symptoms of depression, anxiety and social isolation,” says McNamara. “It can take over all aspects of their life. The food pyramid is a model for a healthy, well-balanced varied diet, and this does not ban any food. It allows all foods in moderation and without guilt, and recognises that, although some foods have no nutritional value or health-giving properties, they are pleasurable – and delicious – to eat.”
Unlike with anorexia or bulimia, the orthorexia sufferer’s goal is not necessarily to be thin; negative body image might not even be a factor. But, like most eating disorders, orthorexia is about obsession and control of food intake. It is about conforming to a perceived healthy ideal, but often the perception of what is beneficial for a person’s health can be warped beyond recognition. This can lead to extremely unhealthy choices that are often normalised by pseudoscientific justifications, constant media coverage and celebrity endorsements.
In the context of the low fodmap diet, I would argue that, if following the advice of a dietitian, that there should be minimal physical risks by following the elimination diet and eating a broad range of foods that are low fodmap. What concerns me though, is the impact to a persons mental health when obsession, and any accompanying depression, anxiety and social isolation, start to interfere with every day life and the activities that we usually get enjoyment from.
There have been times over the past 3 years when I have found it beneficial to get support from a professional counsellor to help me work through some of the emotional frustrations of life with IBS and a restrictive diet. They helped me find a much needed balanced perspective. If this is an area that you are struggling with I would strongly recommend that you also consider reaching out to somebody who can help: perhaps this might be a health coach, life coach, or counsellor. If you have a history of disordered eating than a qualified psychologist might be more suitable.
Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you feel you need it. You are not alone.
If this is a topic that interests you, perhaps you might like to read this related post: “Emotional roller-coaster on the low fodmap diet”.
All the best,