Can you be too healthy for your own good?
Obsession with health is an easy trap to fall into, writes nutritionist Elsa Jones
Published 20/01/2014 | 02:30
IF THERE was an organisation called 'Healthaholics Anonymous', it would probably be immensely popular. A growing number of people are becoming more than concerned about their health, they are becoming obsessed with it.
As a nutritionist, I'd be the first person to say that taking care of your health is a wonderful thing, especially when you consider that 18pc of people in Ireland are tipping the scales at obese levels and two-thirds of us are not doing enough exercise.
However, from what I can see, we are becoming more and more like our American counterparts in that we are adopting extreme approaches when it comes to our health, ie we're either 'super healthy' or 'super unhealthy'.
I can't help but wonder, whatever happened to good old-fashioned moderation? Have we lost sight of what a healthy balanced lifestyle really is?
We all know the risks of having an unhealthy lifestyle and the consequences are well documented. But what's less known is that taking your quest for good health too far can also be damaging and it's an easy trap to fall into. Below are several ways in which healthy intentions can go awry:
Eliminating food groups
In my profession, I'm seeing more and more people self diagnosing themselves with food intolerances and cutting out various food groups in a bid to improve their health or lose weight.
Of course, in certain circumstances, reducing or eliminating a particular food group can be very beneficial, as long as it's done under professional guidance.
However, the reality is that many people are choosing to eliminate entire food groups such as carbohydrates, red meat, dairy and all types of fat, without any awareness of the potential health consequences.
For example, if you cut out dairy and don't replace your calcium intake from plant sources such as green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, you could increase your risk of developing osteoporosis.
Ditch red meat without increasing your intake of vegetable sources of iron and you risk becoming anaemic. Take the low fat message too literally and you're likely to be deficient in essential fats, which could spell bad news for your brain, skin and joints.
In short, if you remove any food group without carefully managing your nutrient levels, you risk developing nutritional deficiencies that can have any number of health consequences, from infertility to hair loss.
Every year, without fail, a new fad diet creates a media storm and every year I put my head in my hands and wonder are we ever going to learn. There has been the Atkins diet, the Paleo diet, the Dukan diet, and more recently 'intermittent fasting' appears to be the current diet du jour.
Every week we see another celebrity endorsing diets that they claim are the Holy Grail, only to be replaced the following week by another new fad.
For example, the Atkins Diet had primarily faded away over the last decade due to the cloud of controversy that continually surrounds it. But, when Kim Kardashian recently announced that she used the diet to shed her baby weight, Atkins was brought back into the spotlight.
However, potential health consequences of fad diets are rarely highlighted. In addition, extreme dieting means the body sends itself into a starvation state, slowing the metabolism down, so when you return to normal eating patterns, you gain weight more easily than before.
Obsessing over purity
It goes without saying that we could all benefit from paying more attention to what's in our food, however, a small but growing number of people is becoming obsessed with the notion of a 'perfect diet'.
In fact, eating disorder charities are reporting a rise in the number of people who are becoming obsessed with their diets, with as many as 20pc of young women practising unhealthy eating patterns.
And it's not just teenagers who face problematic eating habits. Now a new disorder is emerging affecting older age groups called orthorexia nervosa, which is characterised by an unhealthy obsession with only eating 'healthy' and 'pure' foods.
Sufferers won't necessarily be restricting calories, but are more concerned with the quality of the food they put into their bodies. They will never eat anything without a thorough examination of the nutrition label first.
Orthorexics tend to be 'perfect eaters', systematically planning each meal and getting stressed if their meal plan gets disrupted. They are highly nutrition conscious and will spend most of their waking hours planning out their next meal.
There's a thin line, but the key difference between orthorexia and simply following a healthy diet is that orthorexia causes distress and interferes with everyday life. So, as the saying goes, 'a halo only has to fall a few inches to become a noose'.
It's estimated that more than a third of the Irish population takes a health supplement daily and more than half the population use natural health products on a regular basis.
Put simply, a food supplement is a preparation intended to supply nutrients, (such as vitamins, minerals, fatty acids or amino acids) that are missing or not consumed in sufficient quantity in a person's diet.
Of course supplements can be beneficial if prescribed by a health professional and taken in the right way for the right reason.
However, I'm seeing more and more people self-diagnose using 'Dr Google' and then self-prescribing themselves with a cocktail of vitamins and minerals that often don't even address their particular health needs.
Overloading on vitamins
Most supplements are relatively low risk, however, certain supplements pose greater health risks than others.
For example, the fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K) have the ability to be stored within the body so therefore have the potential to reach toxic levels.
Minerals like calcium and iron should be taken with caution as an overload of either can have detrimental effects.
A supplement's potential to interact with various medication is also something that needs to be taken into consideration.
Taking a magnesium supplement, for example, can interfere with certain cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Pumping up on protein
I see a lot of young men who rely heavily on protein supplements to bulk up. However, it's a lot easier than most people realise to overdose on protein.
If you eat protein with every meal and then consume protein bars and shakes, chances are you are consuming too much.
Long-term excessive protein intake can lead to kidney damage as well as calcium deficiencies. We need approximately 0.8g of protein per kilo of body weight, so do the maths before you start supplementing.
Taking your healthy lifestyle to the extreme doesn't even have to involve food. Obsession with exercise is also common.
Scientists from Tufts University in Massachusetts found that excessive exercise sparks a reaction in our brain that is similar to that caused by drugs such as heroin and can cause withdrawal symptoms.
And this addiction is becoming more common, especially among men.
Although this obsession may seem more beneficial than harmful, over-exercising can lead to serious health complications later on in life.
It puts you at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis and joint problems due to excessive wear and tear and can also put excessive pressure on the heart.
For women, over-exercising can interfere with menstruation and hence fertility.
If you begin to live for the gym or your 40 miles a week, if your personal relationships begin to suffer because your exercise routine always comes first, if you exercise in spite of injury or start climbing the walls when you can't work out, then your so-called 'healthy' habit may be doing you more harm than good.
The purpose of exercise is to enrich your life, not for exercise to become your life.
Getting the balance right
The bottom line is that taking a balanced approach to diet and lifestyle really is the safest route to long term health and wellness.
If you feel that you've lost sight of what that entails, don't be afraid to seek professional advice in terms of what is and isn't a balanced diet and exercise regime.
As boring as it may sound, your mother's 'everything in moderation' mantra really does apply to just about everything: especially your health.
Health & Living