When it comes to your health, few things are more important than the foods you eat. Nutrition is one of the pillars of a strong body and brain.
Unfortunately, even with all the benefits of going keto and improving dietary habits, some people can overthink, overanalyze, and become stressed. No matter your lifestyle or nutrition choices, chronic stress isn’t good for anyone.
What is orthorexia?
Orthorexia is defined as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy, pure, and as free from pesticides and other contaminants as possible."
And let's be honest, being concerned with and aware of the nutritional quality of food isn’t necessarily a problem, but individuals with orthorexia become so fixated on what they believe is healthy eating that they can damage their own well-being.
What’s interesting here is that, by the above definition, a lot of modern dieters could be considered orthorexic. People on keto stay away from carbs, vegetarians and vegans don’t eat meat, carnivores don’t eat plants, and so on. Are they orthorexic? Do you have an eating disorder if you follow a diet that restricts certain foods?
Not necessarily. Most successful diets limit certain foods or food groups. It may also be necessary to have a restricted diet to tackle certain conditions. If you have celiac disease, for instance, you may have to cut gluten out of your life 100%, without exception.
It’s tricky though because orthorexia and normal, healthy eating look similar on the surface. The difference comes down to your psychological relationship with food.
Here are some of the warning signs of orthorexia nervosa:
- Anxiety about eating perfectly, coupled with guilt or shame when you eat something you’ve decided is off-limits
- Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels (“I won’t have that smoothie because the coconut milk in it contains guar gum”)
- An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
- Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
- An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’
- Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
- Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events (e.g. feeling you can’t eat anything at a restaurant because you don’t know the sourcing, whether the food is organic, what oils the chef uses in the food, etc.)
- Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
- Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on places like Twitter and Instagram
- Body image concerns may or may not be present
- Distorted ideas about your body, especially after eating “unhealthy” foods
- Feeling like food controls your life, or like you don’t have control over your diet
So, does all this mean keto is a bad idea?
First, let us make one thing clear: The ketogenic diet, done properly, can have some great fat-burning, brain-boosting, anti-inflammatory, and craving-crushing properties. What we do have a problem with, though, is how the ketogenic diet is often done today. It is also important to note that just about every way of eating can be done improperly. So no matter how we choose to eat, we have to make sure we have really nailed down the "why" and "how." Meaning why you're doing it (i.e., your goals) and how to accomplish that in a sustainable way—which we dive into below.
How to go keto in a healthier, more sustainable way?
Jumping into a new diet when you have an unhealthy relationship with food or your body is not a good idea. You can't heal a body you hate. So, your reasoning for going keto should not be to punish your body or "fix" things about your body that are broken or flawed, but rather, it should ideally come from a place of love and a desire to fuel your body so it has the tools it needs to feel great and function optimally for the long haul. Having the right motivation or reasoning behind adopting a new diet can help shift your relationship with food from one of avoidance and deprivation to nourishment and mindfulness.
One of the main things you can do to help ensure your keto diet doesn't devolve into an obsession is this: Shift your focus away from hitting specific macronutrient numbers and tune into how you feel. Why did you want to go keto in the first place? Was it to think clearer, lose weight, restore your energy, or something else? Focusing on your improvements, rather than the numbers, will reveal more about your success than numbers ever will. Even if you missed the mark one day, if you are feeling healthier and stronger overall, that's ultimately why you began this way of eating.
Here are some tips to help you take a more balanced, intuitive approach to your keto diet:
- Eat real food.
- Don't fear vegetables! Fiber is needed for a healthy keto diet, and non-starchy vegetables can be eaten in abundance.
- Keep your carbs low.
- Keep your healthy fats high.
- If you eat a non-starchy vegetable, add some healthy fats.
- If you eat healthy fat, add some non-starchy vegetables.
- Eat when you are hungry.
- Eat until you are satiated.
If you think you have a problem, ask for help 💪🏻
If any of these symptoms apply to you, you may have orthorexic tendencies. No need to panic. First off, keep in mind that disordered eating is a spectrum of mild to severity. Many people who get into health have hang ups about food at some level. And if you do have more orthorexic tendencies, the first step is being aware of it. The big emotions you want to watch out for are guilt, shame, anxiety, and/or fear about eating food you consider unhealthy.