I love kale sauteed in garlic and olive oil. It sounds crazy, but I’d choose this healthy snack over a bag of potato chips any day. I probably fall into the category of “clean eaters” — the moniker given to people who cut back on processed foods, favoring whole foods, such as vegetables, whole grains, beans and nuts, instead.
But I know my limits. My penchant for leafy greens will never displace my love of chocolate or take away from pizza night with my kids. It’s all about balance.
At a certain point, a strict diet — even when it seems healthy — can become dangerous. It doesn’t matter whether you eat clean, follow a vegetarian diet or eschew carbs; when choice and flexibility turn into obsession and rigidity, an issue is brewing.
Here are some warning signs that your rigid eating plan is becoming a problem.
Clean eating is about making nutritious choices most of the time but leaving room for some indulgences. The trouble with the phrase “clean eating” begins when foods outside your approved list are considered “dirty.” You should not feel guilty about enjoying apple pie or movie theater popcorn once in a while. In a balanced and healthy eating plan, there is no shame in enjoying something delicious.
Maybe you cut out sugar in an effort to eat better. Because it made you feel good, you continued to build a long list of no-nos — no grains, no fruit, no dairy, etc. When the number of foods you avoid surpasses the list of foods you eat, you’ve gone too far. Reality check: It makes sense to skip foods you dislike or that make you sick. But if there is no real reason to shun certain ingredients, ask yourself why you’ve made such rigid choices. You should select foods that taste good and nourish; you shouldn’t shun foods based on bunk science, unsubstantiated celebrity diets or the detox trend of the moment. When you cut entire food groups, you eliminate nutrients that your body needs.
Did you skip your best friend’s birthday dinner to avoid eating cake and drinking beer? If your eating habits are getting in the way of family functions, social events or workplace lunches, it’s time to rethink your limited menu. A balanced eating plan means you can eat clean but still enjoy dinner with friends without feeling guilty. Can’t do that? Red flag.
Maybe you’re not avoiding social situations, but are your friends avoiding you? Healthy eaters can be preachy about their beliefs. And that can be annoying. If you brag to everyone about your new juice cleanse or insult your friend’s Instagram photo of cupcakes, you’ll risk alienating people. Your food choices should not define who you are as a person, and you should not judge others based on what they eat. There is more to life than food! Choose to eat well because you want to feel good, not so you can gloat about it.
I recommend clients keep a snack in their desk drawer and write grocery lists to prepare for the week’s recipes. Planning ahead can help you make better food choices. But if you spend more than three hours a day shopping, chopping, prepping, planning and feeling anxious about meals, eating is becoming an obsession. It’s no longer a healthy habit but an internal struggle for control — a classic sign of an eating disorder.
If you recognize these warning signs, it might be time to make a serious change in your eating habits. If you find yourself having trouble stepping back, it’s best find a registered dietitian and psychotherapist who specialize in treating this type of dietary perfectionism.
Heathy eaters recognize that food is nourishing, pleasurable and social. Once those ideas become the norm, it’s easier to have healthy relationships, make peace with food and discover joy in every bite.
Registered dietitian Cara Rosenbloom is president of Words to Eat By, a nutrition communications company specializing in writing, nutrition education and recipe development. She is the co-author of “Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nuts and Beans.”