Tuesday, 7 July 2020

The psychological dimension of healthy eating

There are probably as many definitions of 'healthy' eating as people trying to follow a 'healthy' diet. In fact, in the age of the internet and social media, we are bombarded with often contradictory advice about food and nutrition. Health blogging has become a popular (and sometimes lucrative) endeavour and platforms such as Instagram brim with tantalising food pictures and recipe suggestions posted by professional or self-declared health gurus. 

The NHS and other established health organisations' guidelines around healthy eating reliably encourage variety and balance in our diets – beware of (certain) fats, sugars, too much meat, and processed foods and eat more fruit and veg. Most of us will have some idea of what eating a 'healthy' diet involves. However one aspect of healthy eating that is talked about less often is the psychological dimension. In light of the steep rise in eating disorders in the past few decades, how we feel and think about food and eating needs to be given some attention. Our relationship with food can have a significant psychological impact on our physical and mental wellbeing.

If we focus on the nutritional side of eating, we miss important emotional and social aspects of food. Adherence to a strict 'health' focussed diet (in absence of any medical or physiological imperatives that necessitate this) may mean that you get your '5 a day' but it may also leave you deeply unsatisfied, constantly overthinking about your eating habits, and unable to partake in the social sharing and preparing of food that doesn't fit with your particular 'regime'. It might start to make you feel alienated from others as well as anxious and worried about what you can and cannot eat.

In extreme cases, an 'obsession' with eating healthily can take the shape of an eating disorder. Though not officially recognised in diagnostic manuals to date, Dr Steven Bratman, an American physician, coined the term 'orthorexia nervosa' in 1996, describing an 'unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food'. An orthorexic attitude to food is characterised by an intense fear of 'impure' or 'unhealthy' foods (however this is defined by the individual) and a near constant preoccupation with 'healthy' eating.

Bratman makes it clear that he does not mean to pathologise healthy eating habits, but he stipulates that people can start to develop an 'unhealthy obsession with healthy food'. At its extreme end, orthorexia can lead to malnutrition or death and this resemble anorexia nervosa, a recognised and dangerous eating disorder which causes sufferers to strive for weight loss when they are not in fact overweight.

However, even on the less extreme end of the spectrum, an unrelenting and rigidly controlling attitude towards 'impure/unhealthy' food can seriously undermine a person's physical and psychological wellbeing, as well as compromising their ability to socialise, be spontaneous, or try new things. Therefore it is important to consider what our diet feels like to us – not just in a physiological sense, but also in terms of our thoughts and emotions. Do we allow ourselves to enjoy food, eat with others, experiment with new flavours, get excited about going out for meal? Or does the thought of food fill us with a feeling of pressure, anxiety, or dread?

Food is an inevitable and crucial part of our lives and plays an undeniably important role in our wellbeing. It is worth remembering that 'healthy' eating is not just about physical health but also has a psychological dimension and sometimes we need to find a balance between the two. 

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