Updated: Nov 7
When trying to be healthy is actually really bad for you.
Happy Tuesday y’all!
Please enjoy my monthly guest post below by Stefanie Bonastia on a super important topic— how focusing on health and wellness can so easily spiral into disordered patterns, eating disorders, and other UN-healthy behaviors.
Let me know what you think!
Is Wellness Culture Duping You?
Before I was a binge eating and diet culture recovery coach, I was a health coach.
My interest in health had blossomed after the birth of my second daughter, when I developed symptoms of Lyme Disease and my once-manageable anxiety skyrocketed into realms beyond my capacity to tolerate it. Desperate for answers, I turned to a friend of mine who had recently joined a Functional Medicine practice. I was tired of being seen by doctors who only wanted to throw medication at my symptoms instead of seeking the root cause, and functional medicine seemed like the way to go.
She suggested I eliminate gluten and dairy from my diet as the starter-pack to decreasing inflammation in the body that may be contributing to my Lyme symptoms (which, at that point, were undiagnosed). Like the compliant perfectionist that I was, I entered the rabbit hole of elimination diets that, while well-intended, catapulted me into a World of Wellness that took over my mental real estate.
When a gluten and dairy-free lifestyle didn’t work, I extended it to a soy, corn, and sugar-free lifestyle that promised to do the trick. When that didn’t work, I enrolled in an Integrative Nutrition program to earn my certification as a health coach because I wanted to cure myself with food and, eventually, help others do the same. Surely, health coaches had the answer.
My symptoms and anxiety got worse over the course of the next year. I threw everything Wellness had at my condition—maca powder, spirulina, raw food, charcoal powder, coffee enemas, bone broth fasts, and an arsenal of the purest, most expensive vitamins and supplements available to me. I stopped spending money on social events and clothes and dedicated most of my income to Wellness endeavors and multiple-times-weekly Whole Foods trips.
According to the wellness industry, I was healthier than I had ever been. Processed food became a thing of the past, like a cringe-worthy old boyfriend I had once naively dated, and I refused to eat anything that wasn’t “clean.” I meditated in between daily barre workouts and seven-mile runs, and had regular appointments with holistic specialists who encouraged gut-cleansing rituals and monthly vitamin infusions.
I don’t think my stress levels had ever been so high. The demands of keeping up with this lifestyle were suffocating, and the fear of not meeting Wellness Culture’s increasing expectations took up more brain space than motherhood.
It was at about this point that I started bingeing again.
Interestingly, my 20-year history of the binge-restrict cycle had gone dormant during this period of Wellness, which I credited to “cleaning my gut” and purifying my system. What is so clear to me now is that the mental energy required to maintain an eating disorder born of Diet Culture (which centers around controlling food and body in the name of thinness) had simply rerouted into the mental energy required to maintain orthorexia, the eating disorder born of Wellness Culture (which centers around controlling food and body in the name of health).
Although I didn’t recognize it at the time (and would have vehemently denied it, anyway), I was struggling with a growing condition called orthorexia, an obsession with healthy eating. Rather than focusing on food quantity, people with orthorexia focus on food quality.
Orthorexia is sometimes referred to as the newest eating disorder, and often goes undetected because it is easily regarded as just being “really healthy,” and is actually admired and applauded rather than seen for its detriment to mental health and well-being. Orthorexia is another way that disordered eating passes as the cultural norm, because it is virtue-stamped by wellness culture.
When the binges returned, it threw me for a loop. I responded with further restriction, initiated in the name of intermittent fasting or a cleanse, but was ultimately driven by the fear that I might gain back the weight I had lost through so many elimination diets.
My body, not one to be fooled, responded by increasing my binge urges, as bodies are designed to do.
For the next couple of years, I maintained the front of a Health Coach guiding people through 21-day sugar detoxes while secretly battling the inner demons of bulimia, binge eating, and orthorexia. What I can assure you of here is that I was not alone. Many of the health coaches I trained with and worked with throughout my wellness journey were struggling with the same disorders, all while showing their Instagram followers what they “eat in a day” to maintain their golden health halo.
Slowly, I began to recognize my obsession with health and wellness as another manifestation of my obsession with weight, living under the same disordered umbrella. What had once felt like a “way out” of disordered eating unveiled itself as another diet dressed in fancy clothing. The bottom line was the same: rigid rule-following, good vs bad mentality, cult-like followings, moral virtue associated with high levels of discipline and control, and oppression of the haves vs have-nots. From that lens, healthism was no different from sizeism, ripe with racist and classist roots that elevate one group over another.
The realization alone wasn’t enough to “cure” me, but once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. For a while I straddled the fence between embracing Wellness and just rejecting certain parts of it, because there were some nutritional benefits that still made sense to me beyond its oppressive culture. Eventually, I came to see that my entanglement with Diet and Wellness culture was too messy to stay inside of in any capacity, and in order to free myself of its web so I could differentiate my actual lifestyle values from its influence, I would have to abandon both altogether.
It took me about a year to go through the process of rejecting both Diet and Wellness Culture, and come out on the other side. After a year of allowing all foods, without consideration of their caloric or health virtues, I finally began to experience what it feels like to be well.
Wellness, now, is something I understand in a different way than is currently marketed to us as vulnerable pawns of a body-obsessed culture. While some level of nutritional awareness and movement remain part of my preferred routine, I have also learned to appreciate the importance of rest, convenience food, joy, socializing, community, and creativity as pieces of a much larger Wellness Package. There is no “look” to being Well. You do not need visible abs or green juices to be healthy.
As a culture, I believe we have lost touch with the human capacity to be well via basic routes like eating when we are hungry, stopping when we are full, moving joyfully, resting when we’re tired, and finding joy in the moments we share with one another. There is a simplicity involved that is, in my opinion, overlooked.
Laughing is wellness.
Doing what you love is wellness.
Enjoying your food, accepting your body, and finding self-compassion are wellness.
If nutrition supports your physical and mental health, it can be an appropriate avenue to feeling well. However, if you think that your interest in nutrition has turned into an obsession that feels more like fear, it’s probably worth getting curious about.
You can heal from orthorexia in the same way that you can heal from eating disorders and disordered eating, without compromising your health and wellness. NEDA has outlined warning signs and symptoms of orthorexia as:
Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
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
Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on Twitter and Instagram
If you identify with these symptoms, please don’t hesitate to reach out to anti-diet informed doctors, therapists, RDs, and coaches to explore your symptoms further and get support.
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