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When Clean Eating Becomes Unhealthy

I’m standing in the grocery store staring at a bar of dark chocolate—90%, my favourite! A series of automatic thoughts surface in my brain: Ugh, I love dark chocolate. But if I get it I’ll eat it. I don’t need it. But I do like it. Ugh. Have I been ‘good’ this week? Do I deserve this chocolate? Will it make me gain weight? But it’s dark chocolate so it’s healthy, right? On and on I went.

It then occurred to me: Kristina, you are talking about 90% dark chocolate for cryin’ out loud! And yet, my self-talk was making it sound like I was debating if I should eat a bucket of fried chicken to myself. It got me thinking: at what point does healthy eating become unhealthy for our mental wellness?

The Spectrum of Clean Eating

I believe healthy eating habits exist on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, you have people who are conscious about health and wellness, but also are happy to let loose. In terms of their appearance, they generally might not have the most “lean” bodies you’ve ever seen, but they eat well and exercise somewhat regularly while also indulging regularly without feeling guilty.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have people who count every calorie, go to the gym 5 - 7 times a week, closely monitor their macronutrients (that is, the proportion of calories they’re getting from fat, protein, and carbs), and refuse to eat anything other what’s on their meal plan. In some cases, this happens because one’s livelihood depends on them having a strong, lean appearance(i.e. personal trainers or body builders). In other cases, this is simply the result of someone being obsessed with the way calorie-counting and frequent exercise makes them look, which is usually thin, lean, and “tight.”

When this is taken to the extreme, you have the person with orthorexia, an eating disorder characterized by being obsessed with “proper” or “healthy” eating. Though this topic could be its very own blog post, it’s worth noting its symptoms here, which include: compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutrition labels, concern about the health of ingredients, cutting out an increasing number of food groups (i.e. all sugar, all carbs, all animal products, etc.), an inability or strong resistance to eating anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed “healthy” or “pure,” showing high levels of distress when “safe” or “healthy” foods aren’t available, and more.

The infographic that does the best job of epitomizing what Im trying to say is this one by Precision Nutrition, which I encourage all of you to check out. Here’s a snapshot of one side of the spectrum:

Where Are You on the Spectrum?

I’ve noticed that distress often surfaces when one’s appearance and position on the Health-Habits Spectrum do not align. Here’s what I mean: let’s say you want to have a very toned-looking physique. You want to be able to see ab definition, eradicate any love handles, and basically have very little body fat. But to be honest, you don’t know if you’re ready to give up your weekly girl’s night filled with wine, cheese, and baked goodies. You don't really want to have to say “no” to desserts or calculate how much sugar is in that cocktail when you go out. People in this realm often experience a lot of distress over their appearance because there’s an inner conflict—part of them wants to look fit and lean while another part of them simply wants to indulge. Compounded with this are frequent feelings of shame and guilt, as every indulgence signifies to them that they “haven’t been good.”

1. Give Yourself a Reality Check

To get a six pack, have arms with lots of definition, or anything along these lines, you need to have a low body fat percentage. For women, your body fat percentage would have to be in the range of 15 - 20% (or lower for body builders) and for men, it would have to be at about 10% (or lower for body builders).

Source: Built Lean

I’m going to say it again: to look “lean” or “toned,” you have to have a low body fat percentage. Period. There is no such thing as “spot treating” when it comes to training; you have to lose overall body fat to see overall definition. And let me be clear: those Victoria Secret models who brag about eating burgers while being a size zero are LYING. They are watching their calories and macronutrients very closely, working out consistently, and basically never eating anything that isn’t on whatever meal plan has been meticulously created by a personal trainer, chef, and nutritionist.

2. Accept where you are on the Health-Habits Spectrum.

gia rupauls drag race all stars

Ask yourself honestly: am I willing to put in the hard work that will be required to look very lean and toned? If the answer is no, firstly, please know that this is okay. You do not have to look lean, thin, toned to be beautiful or attractive. You can look however YOU want to look!

If you have genuinely come to the conclusion that you aren’t willing to count your macronutrients, aren’t willing to cut out sugar, aren’t willing to go to the gym regularly and say “no” to food- and wine-related temptations most of the time, then it’s time to accept this and make peace with it. Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like it; it’s about having a “this is how it is” mentality and using your energy elsewhere versus fighting reality.

For some people, there is a feeling of grief that occurs here. Some need to grieve the fact that their body might not naturally look the way that society has told them it “should.” They must grieve the fact that being a size 4 (or whatever arbitrary number society has told us is “beautiful”) would take a hell of a lot of work, willpower, and maintenance—all of which they just don't feel like doing. Once again, know that this is totally okay! Your body is your body. While it’s 100% easier said than done, don't let anyone dictate to you that it “should” look a certain way.

3. Remind yourself that being healthy is NOT about appearances!

There are some people who look “heavier” but are extremely strong and fit. There are also thin people who might fit the stereotypical ideal of beauty in this culture but can’t do a single push-up. I’ll never forget when I attended my partner’s triathlon and saw the variety of body types that were crossing the finish line. Some appeared to be traditionally “overweight” yet were doing a triathlon.

I encourage everyone to find a health-related goal that has nothing to do with their appearance. For me, I like trying to improve my resting heart rate using my Fitbit. When I see that my cardiovascular health is improving, it’s incredibly validating and encouraging, yet it has nothing to do with my weight or appearance.

4. Understand that your body and health habits go through ebbs and flows.

Reese Witherspoon legally blonde gif have faith

For the past three years, I worked out for four days a week every single week, which was a huge accomplishment for me. And then about a month ago, I hit a wall of exhaustion. Work was getting busy, I was feeling lethargic, and I started to absolutely dread working out. What once was a form of self-care became an absolute chore. As much as my brain told me to “keep up my streak,” my body knew I needed to take a break. So, I didn't work out at all for a couple weeks and focused on other forms of self-care. Did I lose a ton of the muscle I had spent years putting on? Unfortunately, yes (the body is annoying like that, isn’t it!?). Did I start looking a little less “toned”? Also yes. But to be honest, I don't have any regrets about it because it was what my body needed. During moments where I started to panic about losing muscle definition, I reminded myself that I was simply going through an ebb. I continually told myself to have faith that I would get back to a “flow" period if I practiced patience and compassion with myself. And I was right! Eventually, the motivation came back, as did my desire to start exercising more regularly again. In other words, I accepted that my position on the Health Habits Spectrum had changed and just allowed it to be that way for awhile rather than trying to fight it.

The Bottom Line

Although the benefits of eating well and exercising cannot be understated, the ways that someone adopts a healthy lifestyle depend on a ton of different factors like their schedule, goals, preferences, abilities, and more. Know where you are on the Health Habits Spectrum and practice some acceptance here. Accept that if you want to look a certain way, your habits might need to change as well. And if you aren’t willing to do the work that’s required, that’s totally fine, but stop using your energy complaining about how unhappy you are with your body. Accept the way that your body is or make a commitment to change your habits and follow through. Finally, recognize that everyone’s body goes through ebbs and flows and that this is totally normal and okay.

If you are struggling with body image, motivation, and other health-related issues, book a psychotherapy appointment at my Markham or Vaughan location today by emailing


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