I don’t know whether it has always been so, but it seems to me that what you eat has become as much as part of a person’s identity as their world view or belief system. Should you choose to give yourself a label such as vegetarian, pescatarian, or even raw vegan then you open yourself up to attention and scrutiny from anyone you share a meal with, or even just eat in the proximity of. I suppose it’s logical then, that people who share eating behaviours gravitate toward each other.
There are many places on the internet that people can go to find recipes as well as diet and lifestyle guidance. Sometimes these forums are really positive, engaging and supportive places. The problem is, that there are many people out there who are confused about what kind of diet they should be following, and end up taking on nutritional advice and information from complete strangers with no actual training.
Following the rules of particular diets can become an obsession and have a huge impact on a person’s mental health and self esteem. The internet is an incredible place, but it’s also dangerous. I wonder how many of the people with thousands of followers really, truly grasp the immense amount of power they have over how other people live their lives. All that seems to be required to reach this level of influence is having a slim body that looks great in yoga gear.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, along with the rise of the instagram fitspos and lifestyle bloggers has come Orthorexia. Orthorexia Nervosa is a medical condition that is defined as an obsession with eating foods that one considers to be healthy. I think this is the best way I can describe my experience as a 20 year old female trying to feel good about myself and my body.
I developed my own set of rules about eating that I collated from the various articles about “heathy eating” I read obsessively. I wouldn’t eat a meal that had more than 600 calories in it; I had rules about when I was allowed to eat my meals; I entered everything into a recipe calorie counter so I knew exactly how many calories I was eating; I was determined to not go above 1800 calories a day and would do exercise that burnt at least 400 calories so I could be sure I was ending the day at a deficit.
Needless to say, this behaviour severely impacted my social life. A lot of life revolves around food. Sadly for me, instead of it being a joy to share food with friends, it was a great source of anxiety. I started to avoid any event that revolved around food or at least skipped that portion of it. It makes me sad to think that I was depriving myself of enjoying some of the best things in life (eating and friends) for a self imposed diet that I had no need to be on. Fortunately with help from a nutritionist, I was able to replace my old rules with more healthy behaviours. Although sometimes even now, almost 4 years later, I find my old critical thoughts sneaking in.
Ironically, one of the major things that helped me was discovering I had IBS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome. I decided, with advice from a nutritionist, to try and treat my irritable bowel with the low FODMaP diet. It switched my focus from what foods would make me skinny, to eating foods that wouldn’t upset my stomach. I actually enjoyed the challenge of having to change my way of cooking and eating. The only downside was again the social aspect. Eating out was really difficult and I always found it awkward having to give generous hosts my list of things I had to avoid.
I am lucky that now I have nailed my IBS down so I know what sets me off and what I can get away with having a bit of. My approach is that if I’m strict with myself at home, then I can relax when I’m at a restaurant or a friends house.
I can’t pretend it was always an easy process. I was extremely fortunate to have a best friend who had already been following the diet who was able to help me (and cook for me). That’s where these online forums I’m talking about, can be really great. But diets like gluten-free and low FODMaP shouldn’t be trends. Otherwise you are cutting out whole food groups that for most people are perfectly healthy. I think it’s just comforting for a lot of people to have a set of rules or a formula when it comes to their diet. I can completely understand that, but it’s sadly quite a worrying idea.
Eating well has become a badge of honour, a full-time job and even a class signifier. There are also political standpoints and personal ideals associated with what you choose to eat (more on that another time). At times it can seem like a minefield but the solution has to be more simple than it seems. The human body is an amazing machine. It needs fuel a few times a day and to be moved around frequently.
No amount of dieting is going to change your overall body proportions or grow you luscious locks. And at the end of the day if you want to look like a fitness model then that is your choice but it is a trade off. Being able to relax, enjoy your food and not panic when you are not in charge of the menu is a pretty sweet way to live. But for some people, counting macros and spending hours in the gym is what gives them that buzz and what makes them feel confident in their skin. Neither is right or wrong but it’s about being realistic about what you want to achieve versus what you want your daily life to look like.
You can’t have it all, but you can have everything.