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Obsession vs Diligence: You Decide

Posted Jan 22 2009 6:31pm

By Lynn Haraldson-Bering

A RTR reader and good friend of mine, CrispyRice, wrote to me the other day and I wanted to pass along what she said:

“Hey, I wanted to send you a link I thought you might find interesting.

“The writer’s talking about the rise in ‘Orthorexia,’ which is an obsession with eating healthy. People who refuse to eat anything they deem ‘unhealthy’ and they find their definition of ‘healthy’ keeps getting smaller and smaller. They cut out more and more foods until they' re eating very few things, which makes their chosen diet very hard to maintain.

“So the question becomes – where is the line between being careful and watching what you eat and being obsessed with it? Several of the people who commented said that it' s better to be "obsessed" this way than to be overweight and unhealthy. I thought it was an interesting discussion, particularly because I' m curious if it' s possible for those of us who have lost a great deal of weight to maintain it without having some degree of obsession about it.

“I do have a ‘naturally’ thin friend who is a vegan who fits some of this. They skip things like picnics for her DD' s gymnastics team because, ‘It' s too much of a hassle to pack all our own food.’ They don' t invite people for dinner because, “No one will like what we eat.’ She spends hours every day chopping veggies.  But she' s thin and fit, and you' d be hard pressed to say they aren' t eating healthy. But is it too much?

“Or, on the flip side, (which is a question for me still, though maybe not so much for you ladies at goal) – is it better to stop and maintain a slightly higher weight without such a high degree of obsession? I don' t have an answer for that. I guess I don' t know how much "obsession" it will take for me to maintain at a lower weight.

“I posed the question to my weight-loss support group and one gal, who had been down to goal and has gained back about 80 pounds, said that she WAS obsessed at goal, and she had to be. As soon as she wasn' t, she gained, and at even 10 extra pounds, she felt awful. But at the same time, she wasn' t sure she could live like that forever, either. Which makes me wonder - what kind of a choice is that? Isn' t that screwy that life could be like that?  *sigh*  Or do you think as time goes on, you can be less obsessed?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about what CrispyRice said and have pondered a few of the questions the nutritionist asked to determine if I’m susceptible to orthorexia. I certainly have narrowed my definition of foods I believe are healthy for me, but I don’t think I’m obsessed with it. Here were my thoughts to the blog writer’s questions:

1. Does food preparation and planning occupy a disproportionate amount of your time?

I believe food preparation and planning should be a priority in everyone’s life. As a nation, we’ve become lax in our food preparation, opting for faster and faster meals that often have high fat content and low nutritional value, thus one of the reasons we’re facing this obesity crisis.

I make sure to have my regular foods on hand at all times: vegetables, fruit, beans, rice, soy milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt and a variety (albeit smaller number) of other items I prefer to eat. Sometimes it takes awhile to chop and cook a meal, but I can also throw together a spinach omelet in less than 10 minutes. I don’t believe it takes a disproportionate amount of time. Spending an hour preparing chili or a paprikash is worth it to me and doesn’t take time away from more important things like my husband or grandchild. Besides, I usually have enough leftovers for two more meals (or more), so averaging out the prep time per meal is about 15-20 minutes. Hardly obsessive.

2. Do you feel isolated from your friends and family by your dietary requirements?

I used to feel uncomfortable and a little embarrassed with the way I ordered food in a restaurant or when I’d say no to foods at a party or family meal. Then I realized that I’m eating the way I do for me, not anyone else, and I accept the fact that not everyone is going to understand why I eat the way I do. But is this being obsessive or is it being diligent in maintenance?

I’ve not avoided outings or parties like CrispyRice’s vegan friend, but I agree that there are times when packing a cooler for every meal away gets to be a hassle. I spend a lot of time planning what I’ll eat when I spend the night at my daughter’s house on the days I watch my granddaughter. I’m getting better at it, but it still takes longer to prepare and pack food than it does to pack my overnight bag.

3. Have friends or loved ones suggested that your interest in healthy eating has become an obsession?

No. If anything, people have asked me for advice on how to prepare healthy food. My motivation comes from within, how I feel physically and emotionally when I keep my eating simple and don’t stray from my established norm. I was reminded of that last Saturday when my daughter, husband and I went to eat at a restaurant I’d never been to before.

It was a microbrewery and so we ordered a sampler of six beers. I tried a little of each and probably drank a total of eight ounces. No problem, although it did make my stomach feel a bit full. For lunch I ordered the homemade hummus. A serving of hummus is two tablespoons. What they gave me was more than a cup. And they served it with 30 black olives, eight white flour pita wedges, at least six ounces of feta cheese, and eight green apple wedges. Craziness. I ate two pita wedges, two tablespoons of hummus, maybe a half-ounce of feta and all the apple wedges. I also ordered a salad with artichokes, green beans and candied walnuts. I thought I’d get a few walnuts, but the entire salad was covered in walnuts, at least six to eight ounces of them. I ate two walnuts and the rest of the salad without dressing.

Who or what’s obsessed in this scenario? Me, who eats correct portions? Or is it the restaurant that tries to pass off eight servings as one?

I was satisfied, not full, when we left the restaurant, and I felt good about my choices, even though they were a bit outside my normal parameters.

I can certainly see how some people become obsessed with healthy eating, but I suspect this obsession has less to do with the food than it does control. I freak when the scale goes up and I wrack my brain to think of what I did “wrong.” But when I calm down and think rationally, I work it out and can see where I’ve been lax. It takes great diligence to maintain a healthy weight, but obsession is crossing over to a more emotional issue. 

What are your thoughts? Are you obsessed or diligent? Is there a difference? What does it take for you to stay on track in maintenance? I look forward to your responses.

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