First Person: Clean Eating’s Unhealthy Secret Is Potential for Obsession

by Julie Emmett, guest contributor

Julie Emmett, Good Food on Every Table’s latest contributor, is another of our friends from SPINS a Chicago-based firm that is the leading provider of retail consumer insights, analytics and consulting for the natural, organic and specialty products Julie Emmett of SPINSindustry. Julie works at SPINS as the company’s on-site business consultant at the headquarters of the Safeway supermarket chain. She writes here about how clean, healthy eating is a goal worth pursuing — but not to the degree that it becomes obsessive or health-threatening.

Many people choose to modify their diets for “cleaner” varieties, for many well-intentioned reasons. For example, I choose to eat well as a form of self-respect and out of gratitude for the health I have.

Yet, at times, I struggle. What gets in the way of having a blissful relationship with food? All of us possess at least a sliver of vulnerability to a society that values appearances and showers approval on those who are models of fitness. How do we not fall prey to believing in external portrayals of ideal fitness for everyone, which can cause us to strive for a sometimes unhealthy ideal?

A June 2013 study conducted by Information Resources, Inc.  — and based on a survey of 90,000 shoppers and their grocery expenditures — found that “Natural Households,” or those who choose to eat healthy food, are 64 percent more stressed than “Non-Natural Households.” One reason for this may be facing the innumerable choices. Paleo? Plant-based? “Natural?” Super foods? Gluten Free? Non-GMO? What is truly “clean” and, as parents, what should we feed our family?

Let’s say you’ve made the decision to eat clean and you learn that fewer ingredients with less preservatives and more organics are your basic guidelines. You begin shedding unwanted pounds, feel more emotionally balanced, and have more energy. What could be better?

As with any good thing, clean eating is a great choice so long as it’s kept in perspective. It’s easy to begin rationalizing away the good in any choice. Do you really need all that salt in salad dressing? Why eat the egg yolk when the whites have no calories?

Gradually, your quest for perfection may give rise to another addiction: a sense of superiority, which begets another addiction — isolation. Without realizing it, social events become stressful and those around you may begin feeling judged for their choices. When eating healthy becomes so restrictive it turns life-threatening, it qualifies as Orthorexia Nervosa. Stanford University has stated that eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, and I had a chance to witness its trajectory firsthand.

Jessica was overweight from age three when she developed a taste for sugar that left her feeling different than her thinner friends, especially once the teasing began. At 12, she decided to change her lifestyle and began eating clean, whole foods, exercising more and generally feeling better. She had more energy, fewer mood swings (a feat for a pre-teen!) and her confidence blossomed.

So Jessica restricted more, and lost more weight. Since the change was gradual in an already health-conscious family, the problem wasn’t picked up at first. Not until the pediatrician checked on her changes did the 50-pound weight loss in six months snap her parents to attention. They went to the hospital the following day and were warned against further weight loss. When Jessica lost another five pounds the next week, the emotionally affected doctor sent her to Stanford for a six-month treatment regimen that took her whole family on a terrifying and life-changing journey that will likely never completely end.

According to The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), eating disorders are as prevalent as ever before, but now the age of onset is getting younger and early intervention and prevention are even more critical. [NEDA is the leading non-profit organization in the United States advocating on behalf of and supporting individuals and families affected by eating disorders.]

The fortunate news is that because her condition was caught early and Jessica wanted to avoid further labeling, she responded to treatment and signs of improvement quickly gave her family and medical team hope.

After weekly medical and therapy appointments involving EKGs, vitals, urinalysis, and a host of other shame-inducing procedures for Jessica, she was at last released back to her pediatrician promising to attend weekly therapy sessions with her family to treat the underlying anxiety, and to continue to understand how to live day-to-day in the world we live in — a world pumping out sweets and processed foods, yet coveting the thin.

Jessica now feels and is considered healthy by her doctors and her family. She doesn’t weigh herself, count calories, nor is she preoccupied with food. She eats clean food most of the time, stops eating when she’s full, and indulges herself occasionally and without guilt. Her family has learned to practice acceptance in the face of continued societal pressure.

How did they accomplish this? Jessica found an empathy for herself and others through therapy, and from there blossomed a garden of passions like yoga, poetry, group fitness, and a host of other vibrant outlets for managing anxiety in a productive way. She and her family have learned what healthy living truly is and the importance of social support in achieving health and happiness.

As Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” And although someone also said that “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” what I think they meant, for food and all of life is this: enjoy every bite.


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