7 Signs Your Obsession With Health Is Unhealthy

by JR Thorpe
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

It's fantastic to be healthy, a message we're getting everywhere as January, month of New Year's resolutions, gets underway. But certain people can take this opportunity, for juice cleanses, yoga retreats, detoxing, radical restriction diets and other health-focused ideas, and run far too far with it. Health has many aspects, from exercise to nutrition, and it's possible to have an unhealthy relationship with almost all of them.

Obsession with health may be more common than we think. One manifestation of this? Something called "orthorexia nervosa," or an obsession with eating clean, to the point where eating "unclean" foods cause panic, guilt, and misery. The psychological community is as yet unwilling to accept orthorexia nervosa as a diagnosed condition; it's not in official guidebooks. But, particularly in the age of Instagram-sheened, Gwyneth Paltrow-approved glossy health trends from green juicing to raw food, signs we have an unhealthy relationship with our health may creep up on us. If you have a tendency to need control over your life and find health is a good way to do it, it may rapidly spiral out of control.

Health is about balance, as every TV health guru worth their Himalayan pink salt will say, and while it's an excellent idea to live your best, healthiest life, there are recognizable signs that you may have taken your obsession with health too far.

1. You Feel Panic And Guilt If You Do Something "Unhealthy"

People with more relaxed attitudes to health and wellbeing are able to cope with the occasional treat: a day off exercise, a slice of cake or three at a friend's wedding. If you find that concept seriously challenging, though, you may be in the grip of an obsession. You may find yourself getting angry, having an anxiety attack, breaking down in tears, or feeling unassailable sensations of guilt or depression, particularly if it's out of your control (your gym has closed, for instance). That severe emotional reaction is a pretty good barometer that something's not right.

2. You View Health In Moral Terms

Your body is a temple, but it's also a judgement-free zone. Cells don't care what you do to them; they just deal with it. However, dividing your world into "good" and "bad" — investing certain activities and foods with "virtue" and others with associations of evil or "wickedness" — is often a sign that you've taken things a little too far. A piece of chocolate fudge is not bad and does not make you a bad person if you have it. If you're evaluating your self-worth and goodness as a person using your ability to "resist temptation," things may be out of hand.

3. You Radically Restrict Your Life To Fit Your Health Requirements

For the health obsessive, other priorities may start to clash with the hold of wellness, and those priorities will start to fall by the wayside. Relationships can't withstand the trips to the gym? They'll fail. Friendships strained by your (very real) anxiety attacks over menus or unplanned evenings out? They'll go by the wayside too. You may find your life centers around your health and exercise routines, in ways that significantly begin to erode other aspects of your existence, from work to family. And as for taking a vacation or being spontaneous? If it makes you feel like you're losing control if you're away from your workout or juicer, you may have a problem.

4. You're Missing Your Period

The absence of a menstrual cycle in women is a pretty clear sign that the body is out of whack and enduring too much, whether it's too much restriction in calories or an excess of exercise. Menstrual cycles stop when the body determines it's no longer healthy or safe for you to try and keep a pregnancy, and amenorrhea, as it's called, is a classic signal that you're pushing your body far too much. It's also, unfortunately, linked to drops in oestrogen levels and a higher risk of osteoporosis. This is not something that you should ignore.

5. You Experience Paranoia About Foods

Paranoia in health obsession can take several forms. One is that, as it is for exercise bulimics, you make sure you exercise in huge quantities to "match" everything you take in; another is that you avoid certain foods with a vigor that comes from fear. It can actually, in some cases, become a food phobia, where you're irrationally terrified of eating gluten, sugar, or anything else on the "no-go" healthy list. It's OK to want to avoid certain things for health reasons, but if you've noticed that your sense of "clean eating" seems to have a component of fear, as if you're avoiding poison, it's a point of concern.

6. You Keep Exercising Despite Injury Or Illness

Another element of health obsession is, ironically, a refusal to listen to what the body is telling you. If you persist in living on smoothies or going to spin classes until 4 a.m. even though your body is sending messages that enough is enough — through injury, for example, or by consistently becoming ill or suffering an upset digestive system — then your ideas about health have become too rigid. Proper health awareness needs to respond to the body's needs and serve it properly, not punish it and risk intense damage by "pushing through" serious warning signs.

7. You Become Defensive If Anybody Thinks You're Going Too Far

Obsession about health is very easy to slip into, and because of its overtones of "goodness" and "virtue," exceptionally hard to argue against. How can anybody say you're doing the wrong thing when you're ensuring you're the healthiest you can possibly be?

If people are starting to raise worries about your routines, weight, nutrition, single-mindedness, or sacrifices for health, and your immediate response is angry dismissiveness that seems out of proportion with the issue, you may have an issue. As we've discussed, health obsession seems to have a strong component of fear and control, and concern (which implies that you can have a healthy life without doing what you're doing) plays on that insecurity.

Editor's Note: If you're struggling with these symptoms or an eating disorder, you're not alone, and help is available.

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