By Keri Gans
Author of The Small Change Diet
Is it possible for healthy eating to become unhealthy? Unfortunately, yes. There are individuals who become obsessed with eating to improve their health and take it to such an extreme that it does indeed become unhealthy. Orthorexia, a term that refers to a fixation on eating proper and pure food, has gotten some recent media buzz because of Steve Jobs and his “apple-and-carrots-only diet.”
It also seems you can’t turn the corner without hearing about some celebrity who’s either on a detox or cleanse diet because they strongly believe this will make them healthier and lose weight fast. Should we all jump on the bandwagon? As a registered dietitian I strongly advise against these drastic measures. Here’s why:
1) Too few calories. In almost every situation that involves detoxing/cleansing or extreme food measures, individuals are not consuming enough calories. Sure you’ll lose weight, but at what cost to your body and your health? Without adequate calories daily your body will develop nutritional deficiencies and increase your risk for disease not longevity.
2) Too little protein. Without enough calories per day, I guarantee you will not be consuming enough protein. Protein is essential to support growth and maintenance of body tissue. Detoxes and cleanses almost always do not include any protein, which would be OK for a day or two, but much longer than that can be a disaster. And unfortunately some people who become obsessed with eating a pure diet eliminate so many foods that they wind up running low on protein without realizing it.
3) Too little fat. Believe it or not, “fat phobia” still exists, especially in the health obsessed. Thinking that all fat is artery-clogging, these individuals miss out on the importance of this macro nutrient. Fat is needed in the diet to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A,D, E and K), and essential fatty acids have been associated with decreased cancer risk and lower depression rates. Many people also associate dairy with fat and forget a low-fat option exists, and therefore have difficulty meeting their daily calcium and Vitamin D needs.
4) Too few carbohydrates. High-fiber carbohydrates are an essential source of energy for our bodies. Sure, when you’re detoxing or cleansing you’re not eating any cookies, cakes, or candy, but you’re also not eating whole grains or beans. If you’re fixated on purity, you might not eat any whole grains because of their processing. So long-term, instead of feeling energized you’ll be walking around feeling moody, cranky, and tired.
5) Not realistic. If you want to become a social pariah then setting extreme, voluntary restrictions on your diet is the way to go. But for those of us who want to be able to eat out, travel, go to a friend or family’s house for dinner, we may not want to be so strict. Being healthy and losing weight doesn’t mean that you have to stop doing the things you love—and that includes eating. A more realistic approach would be to eat healthy 85 percent of the time, allowing yourself some leeway.
Taking things to extremes usually backfires. A healthy, well-balanced diet doesn’t exclude food groups or contain restrictions that are hard to adhere to. It incorporates all foods in a healthy, balanced way that includes lean protein (fish, skinless poultry, low-fat dairy, soy, beans), healthy fats (olive oil, nuts, avocado), high-fiber carbohydrates (oats, quinoa, barley, brown rice), and plenty of fruits and veggies. If weight loss is the goal, small changes—not severe ones— are needed to enable you to easily adjust and subsequently maintain your goal weight, not for a week or a month but years to come. Hopefully your ultimate goal is your health.