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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.

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Ask yourself honestly: am I willing to put in the hard work that will be requi