There can be no doubt that what we eat affects our health, and there is a lot of talk in culture about it is important to eat healthily. As Registered Dietitians, our training is usually focused on how to help people “improve” their diets. In the Dietetics field outside of the Eating Disorder population, this typically means encouraging our clients to reduce their intakes of some types of foods known to have negative health consequences when eaten in very large amounts, and instead encouraging foods that are known to offer more beneficial health effects.

But with our ED clients, we often are asked how to find that fine line between “healthy eating” and disordered eating. At what point does a generally healthy eating orientation become an unhealthy, restrictive obsession? Clients struggling to accept desserts or other foods that are often given a bad rap in the media, are actually an important part of a healthy, balanced diet.

The trick is in the mindset of the eater. As with many ED behaviors, it’s not necessarily the act of the behavior itself, but the feeling behind it that signals a problem. For example, missing a meal or snack every once in a while because you truly aren’t hungry or just plain forgot isn’t necessarily disordered; that’s real life. On the other hand, skipping a meal or snack because you object to consuming the calories, or because you’re fearful of eating again later, or because you worry that eating will cause weight gain… that’s a different story.

The same is true for the foods you consume in your diet. Choosing to have a reasonable portion of fruits and/or veggies at most meals or snacks is sensible and healthy; it’s a tasty, effective way to meet your body’s needs for micronutrients and fiber. However, feeling a compulsion to have fruits or veggies absolutely every time you eat, feeling guilt or fear when you do not have them, or judging yourself or your meal negatively for including “unhealthy” foods –these are signs of disordered eating.

A key feature of any disordered eating is the amount of time and mental space being occupied by one’s thoughts or actions around food. Dr. Susan Albers, PsyD, of Cleveland Clinicsays, “the biggest red flag … is that you become really consumed – all of your time is about what you eat or what you don’t eat, and the majority of your day is spent thinking about this.”If you become consumed by what your consume, that represents a disorder in your eating.

Another warning sign of excessive “healthiness” is the inability or unwillingness to participate in food-related social activities, such as going out for burgers with friends, having a piece of birthday cake at a party, or going on a lunch outing for work. If your food rules are preventing you from living your life, they aren’t healthy…period.They are also not likely to be sustainable, either, thus opening up the doorway for guilt, shame, and more disordered eating.

In contrast, honoring one’s genuine food preferences without attaching judgment (e.g. “I really feel like a muffin today with my coffee” vs. “I’m so bad, I shouldn’t be eating this muffin”) is an important way to incorporate those tastier, richer foods naturally into your diet. Having general food values that allow you to enjoy the health benefits of fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins without feeling badly for the times when you don’t eat those things is a critical marker.

The safest mantra for a truly healthy diet is “balance, variety, and moderation” – your foods should be roughly balanced across all food groups (grains, proteins, fats, fruits, vegetables, and dairy), include a variety of foods within each food group, and practice moderation in portion sizes and frequency of “treats.” When taking stock of your food attitudes and whether your diet orientation is “healthy,” ask yourself how you feel about the foods that you want to minimize. When it comes to eating healthy, it’s so much about what’s on the plate, it’s about what’s in the mind.

– By Ashlee Gossard, RD

Ashlee Gossard is a Registered Dietitian at Cielo House. She helps clients work with what they put on their plate and in their mind, to find a functional balance of nutrition that provides what their body needs.

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