Adrenal fatigue isn’t an accepted medical diagnosis and involves much more than the adrenal glands, including the thyroid, but I am using the term because it’s common and well, a lot of people have it. Adrenal fatigue involves impaired cortisol rhythms (higher at night lower in morning), lethargy, brain fog, falling out of hair, low libido, low blood pressure, vitiligo , and poorer sleep. Extreme exercise especially with dieting can cause these symptoms like clockwork. As more and more gym junkies are starting to emphasize compound movements such as squats and deadlifts, or circuiting them as in crossfit, or challenging themselves to train for tough mudder competitions, more people are getting adrenal fatigue. I don’t know what the exact numbers are but it happened to my girlfriend recently and I thought it was time for a post on the subject.

I have been trying to improve my vertical leap and explosiveness for six years. The training I do has involved heavy and explosive training that is tiring to the central nervous system. When I was on a raw vegan diet I could feel more acutely the depression in my nervous system days after my most intense training sessions in the gym. My mood, energy, and motivation was just a step lower than usual. I thought this was normal until I started eating more meat and dairy and I didn’t notice any adrenal fatigue after intense workouts any longer. Over the years however I noticed very subtle changes in my mood and energy levels that caused me to rethink my addictive training regimen. I was performing heavy weighted dips and pullups, squats, deadlifts, bench, and rows every week without any deload or rest week. Typically strength trainees take a week off every now and then to deload and allow their nervous system to recover. I didn’t feel the need to so I tried to progress linearly, maxing myself out every week. I also sprinted two times a week on the track: I would usually do short sprints but I would go up to 150m sprints and rarely 300s, rain or shine.

Although I got a lot stronger (and leaner), around senior year of college (just over a year ago), my eyes were burning throughout the day and felt much groggier than usual in the mornings. This eye fatigue started a couple years before that at least, but it was getting to the point where it affected me almost all day long. After my squat doubles or triples (two or three reps) my eyes were visibly red. My hairs were turning gray prematurely and this scared the sh*t out of me. The outer third of my eyebrows were nonexistent (a sign of hypothyroidism). My feet were colder. My sensitivity to light was greater and I was squinting outside. I wasn’t as aggressive as usual because I felt tired. My motivation was lower and I felt burned out.

This took place when I was maxing out during my squat sessions in my effort to get to a 2x bw squat. I did get there (squatted 335lbs at 160lbs with a narrow stance in vibrams), but I didn’t get the athletic results I wanted. I decided to stop squatting but my next obsession became heavy lunges and heavy single legged deadlifts. With a 100lb dumbell in each hand I would go for sets of three or four on lunges. The next day I clearly felt the eye fatigue in the morning with greater light sensitivity as well.

My girlfriend similarly without changing her diet noticed her hair falling out and grogginess in the morning which was unusual for her as a morning person. She also noticed a decrease in libido. She started to think she had excess fat and did the workouts I recommended a while back: circuited compound lifts. It took her a month or so of intense training to achieve these remarkable changes in health.

Recently I took over a week off from training (including lunges and other heavy stuff I have still been struggling to tone down) and my light sensitivity improved dramatically: I could practically stare at the sun if I wanted to whereas before I would need to squint all the time in bright light. My brain felt more wired and I felt chirpier. This always happened when I took rest but only recently have I decided that I need to maintain that state of health regularly instead of smashing it with iron in the gym.

So how is this possible? Critics of my adrenal fatigue workout will say that I didn’t eat enough: but I have been eating more than enough for the past year while maintaining my training. Previously I may not have eaten enough, but that’s what allowed me to stay fairly lean while increasing my strength and thinning my eyebrows . Over the past year I have been eating more processed foods, white rice, restaurant food, sugar, salts, and anything I wanted to in the effort to restore thyroid function. It hasn’t helped as much as taking time off from the gym, although the outer third of the eyebrows did improve considerably.

The reason taking off has helped me feel more visible improvements in energy, light sensitivity, and other symptoms of low thyroid or adrenal insufficiency is because strength training requires the body to release a lot of cortisol and can make it worse every single session imo. Cortisol is released in response to ACTH form the pituitary gland, which is released in response to CRH from the hypothalamus. The adrenal glands become less responsive to ACTH and produce less cortisol resulting in fatigue (Brooks and carter, 2013). This progression is common in endurance athletes. I have been hard-pressed to find the mechanism of adrenal fatigue in anaerobic/power athletes but it’s probably the same. Heavy lifting requires the body to secrete a lot of cortisol. It’s clear to me that as I became overtrained, my desire to clench my teeth together aggressively became dampened. I suspect this is due to two things: a lower cortisol release but also perhaps a tolerance of some sort to the heavy training.

Anyway: most people don’t lift maximally all the time but when you become obsessed with achieving a certain goal, you might, in order to reach your goal faster. Smart strength training never involves maximal lifting or lifting to failure regularly (except in the case of olympic lifters who use very low volume). Weight training isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but too much is. I used to think the workouts the average person does in the gym are wastes of time, but now, I see it as people preventing themselves from burning themselves out. Doing an overhead press with 15lb dumbbells seems a lot more difficult to the untrained woman of average fitness than doing light curls or skullcrushers with 5lbs, her natural predisposition in a gym. Going to the elliptical on a low intensity for twenty minutes then going to the stairmaster for another twenty and then jogging slowly for another 20 on a treadmill according to fitness professionals including myself previously is much less effective than HIIT. HIIT however takes a toll on the nervous system and common sense tells us that too much makes us feel tired. Becoming “dedicated” in the gym can thus become very dangerous.

In the next post I will share the actual adrenal fatigue workouts.

It’s funny to me that the fitness industry doesn’t sell fitness. Fitness means fertility, and thus health, from a biological standpoint.

I’m on instagram a lot . . . I see IG accounts with hundreds of thousands of followers by ripped fitness junkies who may not fit the bill of true fitness. This is a huge problem because what people are being sold on (something I was sold on as well) is something that potentially reduces their health and vitality, or biological fitness.

Of course it depends on the person as some people can exercise and diet and improve their health and fertility; however, the role models of the fitness industry don’t deserve to be the icons of true fitness because they never are pictures of optimal health. Optimal health doesn’t look extremely lean with augmented breasts; yet, that’s what the “fitness” industry sells.

Yea I know . . . not everyone on a magazine cover showing off their body and breasts is super-lean; I’ve seen plenty of people who are lean but still have a healthy level of body fat like me. Also some people are leaner genetically. However, if you have to diet to get there, and have trouble maintaining it, it’s questionable if your body actually loves you back from the torture you put it through.

So today, I’d like to turn people’s attention to something we all think about: attraction, fertility, and sex. The fitness industry sells sex first, then health; although, like I said, they f***ed up the part about health. If you look around though you will find circles discussing health in the fitness industry: they’re just more underground. But anyway, it’s not attractive to be infertile.

It CAN’T be because infertility opposes sex. However, due to some simple classical conditioning (fapping to leaner and leaner bodies on the internet) and habituation (leaner and more ripped bodies are needed to make us say “wow”), we can make less-fertile but leaner physiques achieved through dieting and stupid cardio look more attractive in our minds.

So if you didn’t get that, habituation occurs when a stimulus produces a weaker response with time and a stronger stimulus is needed to create the same response as before. As an example, consider Marylin Monroe with her curvy, feminine physique. If she were here today she would likely feel shameful for flaunting that body. She would look around and start to think she was fat because her body-shape is not up to the standards of the fitness or fashion industries anymore. The conditioning just occurs when we associate the leaner and “better” body with some sort of reward; in the crude example I provided it was an orgasm.

Marylin Monroe

The point is that our sex appeal and attractiveness involves a lot more than a body fat percentage; that number may have nothing to do with it even. In this post I won’t specifically cover the details of body-fat percentages and fertility (I’ll look into that for another post), but here I would like to draw our attention to other factors that signal attraction just to help us again realize that worrying about getting leaner for “aesthetic” reasons is less important than being healthy, but it’s also completely misguided. Here are just a few of those other factors.

Hunger: Hungry men find heavier women to be more attractive, possibly because it signals that she is better at obtaining food. There is that one saying about how the path to a man’s heart is through his tummy, so this makes sense. The heavier women though weren’t that heavy, it’s just that the satiated men preferred women with a surprisingly low BMI, of 20, whereas the hungry men rated women between 20-30 BMI as being highly attractive. This phenomenon seems to be common across different cultures as well.

Limbal Ring The limbal ring is a dark ring surrounding the iris. It decreases with age and is supposed to be beautiful. In one study, participants were presented with two faces of the same person, one with a more pronounced limbal ring than the other one. Partiicpants clearly preferred the face with the limbal ring, even when the face was presented upside-down. However, there is tremendous variation in limbal ring width among all ages so it’s hard to say if there is an ideal width. Here is a picture of Sharbat Gula though, the famous “Afghan girl” whose picture you may have seen. On the left she is 12 and on the right she is between 28 and 30 after she had had four childbirths. Her eyes definitely look less youthful in the right image.

And these are pictures from the study.

Images from limbal ring study

Images from limbal ring study

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any science explaining how a limbal ring contributes to fertility. When I do I’ll update this or make another post.

Waist to hip ratio and Waist to shoulder ratio: A low waist to hip ratio in females is not only more attractive, it is associated with greater health.  This number correlates strongly with lower risk for diabetes, heart disease, and all-cause mortality. Men with low WHRs, or wider hips, have poorer health. A lower waist to shoulder ratio however, contributing to the V-shaped body, is more attractive for females.

Christina Hendricks, from television series Mad Men, has a low WHR.

Digit ratio: Men with a lower 2D:4D ratio (shorter index finger, or second digit, than ring finger the fourth digit) may be more fertile with higher testosterone levels, have greater musical ability, greater spatial ability, and better heart health. The 2D:4D ratio indicates prenatal testosterone exposure and it’s unclear if it’s related to adult male levels of testosterone. Females with high 2D:4D ratios, and thus less testosterone exposure and more estrogen exposure in utero, may have higher fidelity, whereas females with more testosterone exposure may be more promiscuous. The low ratio in men and higher ratio in women is also associated with having more children, which means more fertility.

Golden ratio: Beauty may not be completely in the eyes of the beholder. It takes a fraction of a second for us to decide what we like and what we don’t like. Faces that fit Marquardt’s mask, and the golden ratio, are considered more beautiful. Faces that deviate from the golden ratio tend to be related to more health problems. Not everyone is convinced though that the golden ratio is more attractive as most people don’t have a golden ratio in their face.

Stubble: A full beard indicates paternal instincts more so than light stubble, which females find the most attractive in males.

The color red: Red is somehow more attractive to both females and males, influencing reproductive-relevant behavior. Oooo sounds sexy.

Body symmetry: Symmetrical faces and bodies are also more attractive. Manning and Scutt showed in 1996 that body symmetry is the highest when females ovulate, when they’re the most fertile and attractive. Females tend to orgasm more frequently with symmetrical male partners.

Smiling: This seemingly positive trait was ranked the least attractive in males and most attractive in women whereas pride was ranked most attractive in males and least attractive in women.

Well there you have it. Human attraction is complex and involves many other cues such as odor, but as you can see, there are many other qualities we may or may not possess that influence our attractiveness other than body-fat percentage. Dieting to lose weight and eventually lower our fertility isn’t more attractive. Unfortunately overly-lean male and female physiques have been accepted as new standards of beauty that confuse people and cause them to do weird and possibly health-deteriorating things with their life.

I guess the point is that although our digit ratios or body symmetry may make us more or less attractive than others, we can’t change those things. We can change our body fat percentages though, and maybe that’s why it’s more popular than Dr. Catherine Shanahan’s approach in Deep Nutrition. Dr. Shanahan says that beauty is influenced by maternal nutrition. Healthier moms produce more beautiful, and thus healthy, babies. In order to do this we must eat more ancestrally, keeping refined and processed junk to a minimum. She provides several examples of the second sibling effect, where the second sibling is less attractive than the first due to poorer maternal nutrition caused by the first childbirth. This approach to beauty takes generations, but may be worth it in the end.

So we’re not all perfect beautiful people, but that doesn’t matter because we don’t have to be. Part of this anti-diet crusade is to help people develop better images about themselves, and if we associate too much of our self-worth in our body shape or how much weight we can lift we will be miserable and may develop unhealthy habits. However, many of us have beauty that we don’t recognize. I provided Marylin Monroe as an example earlier: although at her time she was one of the most beautiful women known, if she were alive today she may not have been considered as beautiful because she wasn’t skinny. There are potentially millions of young women now who have normal healthy fertile attractive bodies who think they’re fat and are on diets to lose weight and like eating salads for lunch and want to see their ribs eventually. Males aren’t immune either.

Not ALL dieting is bad; dieting to lose some weight when needed can be good, but people are going way past that. Fitness models have to be strict about their diet and exercise plans in order to look a certain way. People then are sold emotionally by the flashy images and decide to do the same thing. It’s not about health. But fitness is supposed to be about health. So here, the discussion will be about improving fertility, or health, and thus, attractiveness. Whether or not we need to make bone broth and drink collagen to eat a more ancestral diet to achieve that is up for debate, but I’m much happier to recommend that than recommend an intense workout program with a structured diet that may cause you to fight against your body.

The solution for now is simply to listen to what your body is telling you and aim to achieve optimal health. Being in a good mood, feeling great, feeling warm, having a healthy appetite . . . these are good. Slaving away at the gym and feeling tired while dieting is not a path to better health obviously. So, what will you do to improve and embrace your health and fertility today? I will exercise less, because I really need to; and so far, it’s working quite well. Whenever I take days off I have much more energy, my brain works better, my motivation is higher, and I’m more focused. That means I needed it, but I must continue this positive trend.

Work smarter. Relax.

In this post, I will briefly cover the ugly in orthorexia. Many people develop a narrow-mindedness in their efforts to lose fat or look more muscular that they become biased, causing them to reject ideas that contradict their philosophies. Ex-orthorexics who are focusing on recovery however will eat up words like these as if it’s therapy, so please do share this post among those who you think could benefit.

I’m covering the ugly of orthorexia today because it’s important to realize what the obsession with eating healthy food does to people. It’s beyond just orthorexia; it’s anorexia, bulimia, ednos, disordered eating, partial-syndrome eating disorders, and orthorexia. Orthorexia can cause death (any of Dr. Bratman’s posts are a must-read). Before death, there are things that can happen to your health that bring you closer to death. Obviously, taking steps closer to death isn’t healthy, thus orthorexia is not healthy, when it takes you there slowly. No one is recommending we eat a standard american diet; these words are written to educate.

My worst health problems due to orthorexia and obsession with exercise and food was premature graying of hair. It started when I was twenty when I noticed just one hair, but now it has increased and there are a few that I can spot without too much effort. This isn’t healthy, and it comes with adrenal issues and a lowered body temperature. In my case, I believe excessive maximal exercise for the past six years (which involves a lot of adrenaline, intense music, caffeine or other pre-workout supplements, and feeling amped up all the time; all of which are stressors) started to hurt my health. The mantra of squats, deadlifts, and HIIT led me to pursue the most intense exercise, which definitely helped me stay lean while eating whatever I wanted, but took more recovery which I failed to take.

I also ate very “clean” for the first few years before realizing I needed to eat more. Only within the past year have I started to truly eat more food of all kind and only over the past few months have I deliberately exercised less, forcing myself to stop. Orthorexia is painful to reverse from my experience because it becomes an addiction. Orthorexia is defined as being obsessed with food but many may have obsessions with exercise as well. Their health will decline once their body is unable to adapt to the stress they place on it. It’s only a matter of time. That’s my experience but here is what one group of researchers (Goldfield et al., 2006) has to say about it:

“Large-scale surveys reveal that male body dissatisfaction has increased dramatically during the last 3 decades, from 15% to 43%, making current rates almost comparable to those found in women (1). There is converging evidence from cross-sectional and experimental research that exposure to the exceptionally thin beauty standards for women as advertised in the media, as well as exposure to the lean and muscular male ideal, increases body dissatisfaction and negative affect in both women and men (2-6). Female body dissatisfaction typically manifests in feeling too heavy or fat with a concomitant desire to be thinner (7), while most young men seek to be leaner, yet larger and more muscular (4). These expressions of body dissatisfaction are consistent with standards of attractiveness for each sex. The high prevalence of body dissatisfaction is concerning, given that body image issues are often the driving force underlying disordered eating, compensatory bulimic behaviours, full-blown eating disorders (8), and use of AAS (9).

In response to this hypermesomorphic somatype portrayed as the masculine ideal, many adolescent and young adult men are engaging in serious weight training or bodybuilding (10). This may have important implications for psychological health, given that activities or sports that require overinvestment in body shape and physical appearance have been noted as a risk factor for developing disordered eating or eating disorders (11)” (Goldfield, et al., p. 161).

They bring up a great point: body dissatisfaction often causes disordered eating. Accepting your body the way it is, even if it isn’t the way you’d like it, and being happy, is the hallmark of recovery imho. Ceasing the pursuit of extremely low body fat levels, ripped abs, the thigh gap, or other goals related to a low body fat is important for the health-obsessed individual who became obsessed due to body dissatisfaction.

The best way to get over those desires imo is to feel attractive from within (accepting your body however it is) and to realize that extremely low body fat isn’t attractive. If it was, why would it take so much effort and discipline to get there? We can be lean and have some abs and muscle definition without much effort and maintain that, but to be super lean like a fitness model or worse, like a bodybuilder, takes so much effort that after the diet period ends, the individual gains weight back rapidly, sometimes resulting in a higher body mass than ever before. That isn’t healthy either.

Attractiveness is tied to fertility. A very low body fat usually means lower fertility. Some people are leaner naturally and those cases are different, but for people who had to diet extensively to get there, lower fertility results in less attractiveness. Fewer pheromones will be secreted and sex drive will be lower. For whatever reason I thought that being super lean would make me more attractive; I had gynecomastia (I still do) and wasn’t confident in my own skin. This led me to pursue extreme diets advocated by people with similar issues.

What I’m saying here is that being super lean is ugly, physically. It’s a tough thing to say but I’m going to get it out there. The lean fitness models, the square-shaped-crossfitting females: unattractive from a biological standpoint. The health problems that ensue, which I’ll cover in a separate post, display the ugliness in the stressed orthorexic’s physiology as well. Having some fat on the body is sexier and indicates a higher fertility.

So that’s all I have to say about orthorexia for now. What do you think? In the next post I will cover biological attractiveness in more detail so stay tuned.

References:

Goldfield, G. S., Blouin, A. G., Woodside, D. B. (2006). Body Image, Binge Eating, and Bulimia Nervosa in Male Bodybuilders. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 51(3), 160-168.

 

In my last post I discussed the bad of orthorexia, and I cited a few examples of orthorexia alive today in 2014. I’d like to discuss the degrees of orthorexia in this post however to answer a pressing question: how much is too much when it comes to thinking about the health consequences of food? If orthorexia exists on a continuum, where on the continuum is it healthy to be concerned with the health consequences of eating? Here we go.

When orthorexia is not bad

I believe in the next fifty years we will be observe the fate of orthorexics clearly. We will observe if their health deteriorates at a slower rate than average, and if they can live to one hundred and twenty years as many of them wish to. If they are able to do this, then you can argue that orthorexia is not bad, because greater health is achieved.

But how can we know now if orthorexia can be good in some contexts? The National Eating Disorders Association’s (NEDA) article on orthorexia mentions how there are more important things to life than food . . . but SO WHAT? So what if someone wants to be obsessed with their food in the attempt to live to a hundred and fifty years old? In the biohacking community, greater health is associated with greater productivity; so a longer life means that they can accomplish more and get more out of life than someone living “normally.” This rationalization however only applies to a small population of orthorexics however, as most of them experience worse health.

This is when it all gets really philosophical. Everything is “bad” when it ruins your health or impairs your life in other ways, but they can be good in other ways right? A bodybuilder who lowers his testosterone and body temperature but achieves the physique of his dreams may believe it was. With this mentality you can argue that any thing is bad for us. I’d like to share a story of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, and a workaholic, as an example. From Destiny of the Republic:

“Even when he had fallen in love with Mabel, her family had assumed that he was nearly ten years older than he was. Six years later, as he hunched over the induction balance, his face seemed to be set in a permanent scowl of concentration. No one would have guessed that the dour scientist had only recently celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday” (Millard, p. 219).

I admire Bell’s workaholic spirit, but this quote brings up really important idea. Bell invented a device that was met with great enthusiasm at the time, and he worked very hard to achieve it. He made “no excuses” and took “no days off” and was never satisfied. When he did rest, he played the piano late into the night with the same ferocity in which he attacked his work. These traits are exactly what orthorexics aspire to, without looking ten years older than they currently are (that would be the worst nightmare ever). They want to eat the perfect diet to be the best they can be and, and, and . . .

Well that’s the difference. Bell worked hard because his head was teeming with ideas and he couldn’t stop. Orthorexics “work hard” to achieve something that may not be their original idea (low body fat or live to 120). I argue that society has inadvertently programmed into the orthorexic his or her mission, destroying free will (although humans have been interested in immortality for a long time). But that aside, it’s up to the orthorexic to answer what the point of taking “no days off” and “making no excuses” really is. In my frank opinion, there is no damn point, because that mentality usually involves dieting strictly to lower body fat to below attractive levels. But if the point of paying strict attention to food involves improving sleep quality, improving mood, productivity, etc., it doesn’t seem bad at all. Also, some people pay strict attention to their diet for medical reasons. In this case, it’s still arguable if the changes were justified.

So here are some guidelines I came up with for evaluating where you or other orthorexics you know lie on the scale of orthorexia. I came up with these guidelines based on my personal experiences with orthorexia, and observation of others. On one end of the scale is “healthier orthorexia” and on the other end is “unhealthy orthorexia.” There will be an overlap between the unhealthy and the healthier orthorexia’s, but in general someone with clearly unhealthy orthorexia will not be doing what the person with healthier orthorexia is.

Unhealthy orthorexia:

  • Adamant: Refusal to admit that beliefs may be unsubstantiated and eating normal foods may not cause the problems they are believed to cause. Individual has stubborn, rigid beliefs.
  • Psychosocial stress: Stress is caused by being in an environment not conducive to the orthorexic’s food plans, such as at a dinner party. This stress prevents the orthorexic from being able to live healthfully.
  • Feelings of superiority: The orthorexic feels superior to others for following a healthier eating plan, refusing to admit that his or her ideas may not be completely substantiated.
  • Denial: Refusing to admit that something is wrong with his or her health. Refusal to admit that beliefs are unsubstantiated as well.
  • Desire to control: Many orthorexics and anorexics feel positive when they have control over their diet. This psychological aspect of eating has nothing to do with health.
  • Defensiveness: The orthorexic may rationalize his or her beliefs immediately without considering possibilities that implicate the diet to be faulty.
  • Body dissatisfaction: Having unrealistic perceptions of the body: too skinny, too fat, etc. This orthorexic may go on a diet despite already being slim!
  • Selfharm: If goals are not met, the orthorexic may hurt his or herself as a form of punishment. At this point, orthorexia may start to turn into a real eating disorder.
  • Time-consuming thoughts and habits: If practices related to eating healthy and thoughts about eating healthy take up a significant portion of the day, the orthorexic may be overdoing it.

Healthier orthorexia:

  • Spirit of experimentation: This orthorexic is on a strict diet out of experimentation. Biohackers fit in nicely here.
  • Ability to let go: The willingness to experiment often requires the ability to let go of previous beliefs. If this ability is present, the orthorexic may be healthier mentally and physically.
  • Not defensive: The orthorexic will be able to admit that further exploration is needed before coming to a conclusion. When presented with an opinion that contradicts the orthorexic’s beliefs, he or she will listen, because experimentation and continually learning is key.
  • Healthy body image: This orthorexic isn’t dieting to maintain a super-low body fat and doesn’t look at himself in the mirror and think he’s not lean enough every morning. The goal is health rather than thinness as in anorexia nervosa.
  • Social, without stress: This orthorexic can politely decline offers of “unhealthy” food or drink and still be comfortable in social situations without experiencing psychosocial stress from his or her strict habits.
  • No guilt: If a food rule isn’t followed, or in the spirit of experimentation a Krispy Kreme donut needs to be eaten to raise the metabolism, guilt will not be experienced.
  • Acceptance of others: This orthorexic will not judge others for eating “unhealthy” foods.
  • Acceptance of uncertainty: This orthorexic will be comfortable knowing that his or her approach isn’t certain to result in perfect health, and that it’s ultimately just a fun experiment. Being able to accept that his beliefs are uncertain, the orthorexic will be less likely to get defensive or experience psychosocial stress
  • Medical condition: strict diets are often prescribed to treat certain medical conditions. In these cases orthorexia isn’t present, because the strict diet was prescribed to improve health and thus doesn’t fulfill the criteria of orthorexia (an unhealthy fixation on eating healthy). Sometimes people who are interested in healing themselves with food go to extremes however become orthorexic in the process.

I cannot call any level of orthorexia healthy, because we simply don’t know yet if paying strict attention to food will confer the health benefits the orhorexic believes it will; that’s why I called it “healthier” orthorexia. And well, healthy orthorexia doesn’t exist; a strict diet that is healthy however may. Honestly, I’m in the latter group, although my experimentation involves eating a lot of foods the average orthorexic would not be able to fathom consuming (refined sugars, pastries, white rice, etc), in which case I don’t have orthorexia. I’m still experimenting though and want to be able to be as productive as possible in a day, minimize stress during stressful tasks, recover faster from stressful events like intense exercise, sleep optimally, think better, and age gracefully. Eating these forbidden foods is my form of experimentation. I want to do this because I believe that if I can be healthy, I will do more of the things I love in my life. I have realized however that many of the foods the orthorexic, such as my former self, believes are unhealthy, aren’t unhealthy: eating starches and sugars, meat, pork, peanuts, donuts, soda, may not be as bad for us and may even promote health . . .

Wait so can orthorexia be worth it?

Well, there’s a difference between being overly obsessed with your health and making small changes in the diet to improve health for a specific reason. But that’s at the heart of this idea: understanding how much is too much. If we can observe biohackers living exceptionally long, high-quality lives, paying strict attention to their diet, I might listen. The problem is our diet isn’t the ONLY thing that affects our health or the aging process. Genetics, exercising, the environment, and our mental health can be equally if not more important. Some people with worse genetics or environment growing up may have to focus on their diet more in the future due to the health problems they’ve accrued, while others with healthy genetics can stay slim and just live normally eating whatever they want in moderation and live long happy lives. One common problem that Dr. Bratman explains in his must-read essay on orthorexia (remember this is the guy who coined the term) is an exaggerated faith that their diet is the ultimate factor driving our health. This is what the NEDA may be referring to when they say there is more to life than food; there is also more to health than what we eat.

See, there are many interesting things people can do to be healthier, through food and other lifestyle modifications but it’s difficult to quantify what difference it makes long term. I know that the research shows bright light before bed can hurt sleep quality but what if I just go to bed later and still look at bright lights after sunset? The problem may arise when we get stressed out over a bright light in the evening that disrupts our control over our circadian patterns. When this desire to control is thwarted, the added stress could arguably negate benefits we hoped to achieve. I went to bed super early and did the no lights thing for a while, but my sleep quality wasn’t optimal because of adrenal issues I faced from being orthorexic.

Conclusion

Orthorexia in my humble opinion is unhealthy when it consumes us to the point where our preoccupation with food prevents us from living our lives in the way we want and causes poorer health. I guess this definition can be understood both objectively and subjectively. If you are orthorexic by someone else’s standards, but you are living the life you want, and you feel great, and aren’t seeing your health suffer, then who cares? You won’t have the social life that society may wish you had in order to fit in, but you will have the social life you want. You also may be able to live to 256 years of age like Li Qing Yuen, who drank goji berry juice and took chinese herbs and lived in the mountains (joking, but same idea).

In conclusion, I think orthorexia is dangerous for a few reasons: it can hurt people’s health, cause orthorexic health gurus to “inspire” a younger generation of orthorexic and eating disordered individuals, mislead already healthy people about “healthy” eating with unsubstantiated beliefs, and it can lead to an unsatisfying life. I can’t stress this enough but the perfect diet just doesn’t exist. Orthorexics are often perfectionists, so I think this realization can help them and normal people avoid going to extremes. But dietary changes can improve our health, and even improve medical conditions, so some cases of orthorexia may seem more warranted than others.

In the final post of this series, we’ll cover some of the ugly aspects of orthorexia and disordered eating. Stay tuned.

 

How bad is orthorexia? The simple answer is this: any planning, thinking, worrying, counting, tracking, biohacking, etc. involving food that does not hurt your mental, physical, and emotional health isn’t bad for you. But in most cases, it does hurt, and understanding when that happens is the point of this discussion. In this post we’ll cover mostly the bad side to orthorexia.

Henceforth, orthorexia, disordered eating, and partial syndrome eating disorders will be synonymous, but I will only use orthorexia, even though there are some major differences. People with orthorexia don’t binge and purge or maintain an extremely low body weight, but they have similar traits to people with eating disorders and may be playing the same mental games with food; so in discussing orthorexia we’re also discussing other eating disorders. I will also discuss health obsession in general, which involves more than just an obsession with food. Let’s get started.

What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia is a term coined by Dr. Bratman in 1997 that means “correct diet.” He was an alternative medicine doctor who praised healthy eating like it was gospel. He realized though that most people just didn’t know what they were talking about, and that it was possible to have an unhealthy outcome from trying to eat healthy foods. He named the condition after the unhealthy relationship with food that people developed, which often involved attempting to eat “clean” or “pure” foods. The reason it’s unhealthy is because it can interfere with people’s social lives, interfere with their own lives, and ironically result in poorer health. People with orthorexia tend to interpret research on healthy eating with a bias, due to several reasons: body dissatisfaction, the desire to be immortal and achieve superhuman health, or to be in control of their lives, among other reasons. Unlike anorexia nervosa, people with orthorexia openly voice their lifestyles. From my personal observations of myself when I had orthorexia and of others today on social media sharing their orthorexia with the world, I strongly believe body dissatisfaction and a desire to be thin for women and lean but muscular for men is the most significant reason normal individuals become orthorexic. In contrast to anorexic patients however, a greater emphasis is placed on health and the quality of the food rather than the quantity. The mentality drives people to think that only the cleanest and best foods will result in “optimal” health, when in reality their bodies may have optimal functioning in a variety of environments.

Different manifestations of orthorexia in today’s online health communities

  • The biohacking circles display a lot of orthorexia, and from just my observations, they tend to follow a ketogenic diet, which may not be sustainable long term. These individuals want to maximize their quality of life by maximizing their health. Cold showers, hormetic theories of ageing, grassfed butter, and minimizing advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in their bodies are a few of their passions. Most of these people don’t exercise that much, as they believe too much exercise can increase free radicals in the body and accelerate aging. They’re not just obsessed with food, but with everything that affects their health. Like patients with eating disorders, high self-oriented perfectionism may be common.
  • Paleo: Often devout low-carbers, paleo dieters overlap with the crossfit and biohacking circles. They usually don’t follow a diet that would be considered paleolithic by our paleolithic ancestors, but they still eat lots of bacon, eggs, sausage, and low carb products anyway, while believing that carbohydrates are unnecessary in our diet.
  • Veganism: Not all vegans are orthorexic, as many are more concerned with the ethical and sustainability aspects of our diet, but many vegans from my observation, like the biohackers, want to live long and healthy lives, while maintaining a slim physique. They tend to believe that all animal products are unhealthy for humans, and all protein can be obtained from plants. Their heroes are endurance athletes like Brendan Brazier and any vegan who decides to workout and has a decent physique. I started in this crowd with the raw foodists, the ultimate clean eaters, who only ate algae, seaweed, B12 supplements, raw fruits, vegetables, and nuts, while becoming more and more gaunt.

Traits among the orthorexic

  • Perfectionism: this is actually a trait found in all eating disorders. It involves setting very high standards and becoming upset when standards are not met. Unrealistic expectations ultimately lead to these people’s downfalls. I’m a perfectionist, but only recently stopped looking for the perfect or optimal diet. There is none.
  • Ability to rationalize any belief: orthorexic individuals may sound very knowledgeable, but they may be searching for information that confirms their hypotheses. Biohackers will argue that sugar consumption increases advanced glycation end products which can increase diabetes risk or the oxalates in spinach can wreak havoc on your teeth, and vegans will try to show that saturated fat causes insulin resistance and cite Dr. Dean Ornish’s research as evidence.
  • Food rules and avoidance: common in other eating disorders as well, this trait involves avoiding “forbidden” foods that one believes may hurt their health or other rules regarding the consumption of food, such as filling up the stomach only 80% during meals like the Okinawans. Some people are very good at explaining why certain food rules are beneficial, but their views may not consider long term effects that have any basis in longitudinal studies (many of which don’t exist and won’t ever thus the discussion is pure speculation).
  • Impaired social life: Orthorexics may still have a social life, but not in the same way as other people. When I had orthorexia I never felt as if my social life was impaired, but in reality, I couldn’t do a lot of things that people do. I didn’t want to do them, so it worked out fine. Others however may feel tempted to socialize and may feel awkward denying ice cream, pizza, and other foods at parties and other social events.
  • Logical fallacies involving fat shaming: Orthorexics may discount nutritionists or other health professionals with real credentials for being overweight, and be more likely to believe a hippie’s advice if they have a more attractive physique. They may also be more likely to trust someone who displays impressive feats of athleticism, like a fruitarian doing an L-sit, something that five-year olds can do with some practice.

When orthorexia becomes bad:

Socially: For Dr. Bratman, the man who coined the term, orthorexia became an undesirable way to live when he realized that he was thinking about eating sprouts during normal conversation. When food becomes so important that you miss out on living the way you want to, it obviously signals that something needs to change. When I studied abroad in Peru freshman year of college when I was on the raw food diet, I consumed less food than usual because I tried to eat only fruit. I lost some weight and was hungry because I couldn’t deviate from my raw food plans and enjoy the local cuisine. I never went out to eat either during my diet, except once at an overpriced raw food “restaurant.” Let’s call it a health-freakaurant instead. Not being able to do what others did however did not bother me one bit. For others however, social life is an important part of health and being unable to have a healthy social life with fellow human beings may cause psychosocial stress. I have a feeling though that most orthorexics don’t really care what others think and are committed to making adjustments in their social life to maintain their focus.

Poorer health: Just as obviously, when your hair is thinning or you feel as if your health is suffering, you may eventually realize that your diet isn’t perfect after all. Some people hurt their bodies so much from dieting that they need a recovery plan to restore their health back and are often put on hormones carelessly by their doctors. Hypothyroidism, amenorrhea, low testosterone in males, weight gain, lethargy, brain fog, cracked lips, cold hands and feet, and low body temperature are just few of the symptoms that people who diet excessively often develop. Of course it’s up to the individual person to accept that their health is deteriorating and change. Oftentimes, orthorexics will rationalize a symptom as being a good thing and ignore reality. Raw foodists for example believe that their amenorrhea means that the body is completely detoxified and no longer needs to eliminate toxins from the body through regular periods.

Misguided beliefs: People should be free to do what they want, I guess, so it’s hard to argue against a fruitarian mother who seems to be starving her child. Misguided beliefs are a core element to the diverse orthorexic lifestyles out there however. This is a huge point of contention to any orthorexic, because the orthorexic can rationalize most of his beliefs, but when he fails to do so, he’ll ignore what he does not understand anyway. It’s so difficult for me to explain this, but I haven’t met a single orthorexic or biohacker, vegan, or any health-obsessed nut who can convincingly explain to me that their lifestyle is going to improve their health. I thought I knew it all when I was vegan, and even my future self wouldn’t be able to convince me that I was a moron. Sure, some people will have reasons for doing things that are warranted, but when it comes to diets, usually they’re extreme, and these are never warranted. In addition, the extreme dieters have subconscious reasons for continuing their diet that aren’t easy to identify.

Ketogenic diets (essentially zero carb diets except for vegetables) for instance are popular among the biohacking and anti-aging enthusiasts because they believe a lot of age-related diseases are related to impaired insulin signaling; thus by reducing insulin in their bloodstream as much as possible, they may avoid those diseases and live much longer. This belief is unsubstantiated because weight gain can still occur in these diets easily, which can increase fasting insulin levels and prediabetes. Oops.

And of course, as I mentioned, excessive “clean” eating eventually can result in adrenal fatigue, infertility, lower thyroid function, and other health problems that shorten peoples lifespans. The misguided beliefs were the cause of that.

Well, that’s the bad and part of the ugly. In the next post I’ll cover the (potential) good of being orthorexic, but more realistically, the benefit of being concerned with diet at all. Changes in diet can improve our health in many ways; the problem is that going to an extreme as in orthorexia can hurt it. So how much is too much? That’s what we’ll ultimately get to in the next post, and where things will start to get complicated and philosophical. Cheers.

 

Calories in minus calories out. This follows the first law of thermodynamics. You cannot lose weight without restricting calories and you cannot build muscle without being in a caloric surplus. Thus, to lose weight, restrict your calories and to gain weight, increase them.

Although this makes sense, I just find the idea odd, and unnecessary. I have a better solution. I also find calorie counting to be a product of Western thinking that aims to reduce things to its parts and focus on finding causes and effects rather than looking at things holistically and seeing the interactions of all the factors at play. I grew up in Western society and learned to adopt a Western mind, but perhaps my genes cause me to want to view the big picture at all times. That part of me says that calorie counting isn’t enough: there’s better. There are also some serious downsides to it, and that’s the part I hate the most, because I hate seeing people who want to become healthy become obsessed with calories and hurt their bodies from trying so hard. It makes no sense, and it can really hurt our hormonal health to the point of causing infertility, and even death in the worst cases. Those most susceptible to this are type A health enthusiasts, perfectionists, and athletes who must maintain a low body weight such as fighters, track and field athletes, weightlifters, dancers, bodybuilders, and fitness models. One step in the wrong direction is a misstep.

Maybe I’m going overboard; most people won’t run into these problems from simply counting their calories you might be thinking. You’re somewhat correct: it’s not that big of a deal if you want to count your calories or try to control your portions and such, because you can lose some weight and perhaps keep it off; it’s the obsessive trap of tracking everything that can cause problems. Most people try for some time, achieving some success, but then go back to following their instincts anyway. Can calorie counting work and make people happy? Yes.

But here are five reasons why you definitely don’t need to count them or pay any attention to them; I will discuss only points one and four below this list:

  1. You don’t need to count your calories to restrict them. You also don’t need to restrict your calories to achieve the purported benefits.
  2. The way we measure our metabolisms is inaccurate: basing your requirements off of that is a shot in the dark.
  3. There aren’t 3500 kcal in a pound of fat unfortunately: it can vary quite a bit
  4. Eat less, burn less: the less you decide to eat the harder it is for you to create a negative energy balance and the more weight you are likely to gain back.
  5. Eat more, burn more: overfeeding studies have clearly shown that we store much less fat than we’d think based on the myth that there are 3500kcal per pound of fat. You won’t become obese from eating 30kcal extra per day either, or even 100 extra kcal.

1. Neither calorie counting nor restriction is necessary to restrict calories. If you have a fair amount of processed foods in your diet, foods that in general aren’t as satiating as foods with more fiber and better nutrition, you will automatically eat less by consuming less addicting and more wholesome foods. A lot of diets that involve calorie restriction sell low-calorie food products like protein bars and such: it can be a sales pitch as well, so beware. Advocating intuitive eating isn’t a sales pitch for any food product that I’m aware of. But also, most people don’t need to count their calories. I think it’s best to eat until we’re FULL, unless there’s a problem with this system such as a genetic predisposition to obesity that involves a failure to regulate hunger and satiety in which case restriction will cause even greater problems.

You also interestingly don’t need to restrict your calories to achieve the purported benefits of caloric restriction. Caloric restriction turns on thousands of genes, and a few things have been shown to activate the same pathways: resveratrol supplementation, intermittent fasting, restriction of methionine or the addition of glycine into the diet, and exercise. It’s a neat idea to want to live to a hundred and twenty, or beyond, but variability in the lifestyles of the long-lived make the exact method to get there seem unclear; and the preoccupation with food can once again cause poorer health, because your body is smarter than you are.

5. That aside, let’s move to our final point here, that our bodies tightly control energy balance. See, when you restrict your calories, your body restricts its metabolism, and you will stop losing fat. The longer this vicious cycle continues, the more likely it is you will gain weight back upon eating normally again. Ever seen the biggest loser contestants a few months after the show? Many of them gain back hundreds of pounds. Many people on low carb diets who stress their bodies out even more by restricting carbs gain back a lot of weight too. Could I get leaner and look more like a fitness model with a structured approach? Sure! But why would I want to? I enjoy the way I look regardless and don’t care that I’m a little fatter than I was last year (um, barely, and let’s get rid of that negative connotation). It’s natural, and it’s a good thing for me compared to having cold hands and feet and a lower functioning thyroid.

Conclusion:negative energy balance is involved in weight loss, but deliberately restricting calories by counting them isn’t the only way to achieve a negative energy balance. A chronically negative energy balance simply isn’t good for us either: metabolic damage is a big concern of mine and a lot of people who might look good on the outside have a messed up thyroid and hypothalamus from excessive dieting and exercising. Not everyone does, but I’ve seen too many people with already normal, healthy, attractive looking bodies decide to restrict themselves further to achieve something even more, something unnecessary and not even biologically attractive. People who already have a flat stomach, think they don’t have a flat stomach: it’s ABSURD. People who’ve come from this disordered eating background tend to understand this instantly but others who are in the zone slaving away in the gym with no free will whatsoever don’t care to understand. Others who really do need to lose weight for health reasons can still follow their instincts: initially these people may feel great eating a bit less, but once the high goes away, it’s time to start a maintenance rather than restriction routine.

As far as longevity, the idea that having fewer toxic metabolic byproducts from eating is a good idea that has plenty of evidence to back it up in animal models, but showing that humans can achieve that simply by eating a lot less has not been shown yet. There are other factors that contribute to longevity and you don’t need to restrict calorie intake to achieve them. Obese humans who exercise live longer for example than lean humans who don’t. Why are we interested in looking young and lean anyway? That’s a topic for another time.

You don’t need to think about calories, so stop. It’s completely unnecessary. Instead, let’s eat real food, local food, and tasty food, develop a more positive body image, and break free from the restrictive traps the fitness industry causes people to fall into with their deceptive advertising. Cook food. Be you, and enjoy this kinda blurry picture of blueberry, chocolate chip, chia seed pancakes made with whole wheat sprouted flour. There are some baklava crumbs on top.

image

Blueberry chocolate chip pancake with maple syrup

 

Just because someone has disordered eating habits or an eating disorder doesn’t mean their beliefs on health, exercise, nutrition and so on will be incorrect; but that is indeed more likely due to strong biases to be slim or super healthy and avoid as many advanced glycation end products (AGEs) as possible. People with eating disorders have several traits in common, traits that the general population can develop as well; you may even have some. Disordered eating has no specific definition, but generally it involves having symptoms of eating disorders but not a complete diagnosis. I had disordered eating habits for three to four years; I would go to whole foods and open up a package of 85/15 ground beef and eat it raw (with some barbecue sauce on some days) because I believed that was healthier than eating regular food in the store and more cost-effective. I did that on multiple occasions. It wasn’t that bad, but I could convince myself of anything if I twisted the facts enough. I was simply following in the footsteps of others who came before me, without realizing it.

The information in this post is important because it discusses a big picture idea. I could be discussing the health benefits of chia seeds for instance and how the magnesium and fiber help to regular blood sugar (well they do; I feel focused when I drink chia seeds and it seems to help avoid a carb coma after high carb meals like chocolate chip pancakes) but here I’ll be discussing WHY people are discussing these things and HOW they’re discussing them to help us better extricate facts from biases. The specific biases here are important because they often lead people down a path to poorer health than if they just ate normally and didn’t think about anything related to health. Unfortunately, in the process they “inspire” many others to follow in their footsteps, continuing to reinforce stereotypes about hard work and body image which aren’t true. So, eating disorders.

What is an eating disorder?

Eating disorders should not be taken lightly: they are often comorbid with depression, anxiety, social phobia, and obsessive compulsive disorder and have the highest mortality rate out of any psychiatric condition. They exist on a continuum, but there are four different diagnoses: anorexia nervosa (AN), bulimia nervosa (BN), eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS), and binge eating disorder (BED). AN has the highest mortality rate, because it involves being significantly underweight with amenorrhea. Extremely low bone mass may be present as well such as in the female athlete triad. Bulimia nervosa involves repeated bouts of uncontrollable binge eating concurrent with purging or other extreme methods to lose weight. Both AN and BN involve judging self-worth almost exclusively by shape and weight. EDNOS is the most commonly diagnosed eating disorder; it involves characteristics of both AN or BN with the same level of severity but differs in some way. BED involves uncontrollable binge eating, without the attempt to lose weight afterwards. So, eating disorders are pathological ways of eating that involve extreme attempts to lose weight.

What is disordered eating?

An excessive preoccupation with food or exercise to achieve a certain goal is very characteristic of of disordered eating. Obsessive or odd habits that people form may often cause them to develop an eating disorder. The hard part here is deciding what is “disordered.” Someone with disordered eating will think everyone else has disordered eating because they’re eating burgers, wheat, inflammatory casein proteins, refined sugar, cooked food, etc. The psychologists who eat “normally” and may not know the last thing about nutrition may not understand all the reasons the disorderedly eating individual has to back up his or her diet. People with disordered eating habits never think there is a problem. I doubt any of them would make it past a few sentences of this post.

Who develops eating disorders or disordered eating?

About 24 million people: females mostly, but around 10% of men have eating disorders as well. BED is more common in men than in women. Longitudinal studies over two decades ago found that 35% of normal dieters develop pathological dieting, a fifth of whom develop an eating disorder (Shisslack et al., 1995). Who knows where that statistic is now. Often it starts with an innocent attempt to lose weight, and then it progresses into an unhealthy obsession. For more info go here

I was definitely in the 35% of people who develop pathological dieting. The reasons scientists believe so many young women and some men attempt to lose weight in unhealthy ways is a pressure to be slim in society. Being slim somehow has been associated with better work ethic and morals than someone who is fat. It’s definitely not that simple, as eating disorders have a biological basis as well but that’s the consensus, among the sociologists and psychologists at least. For me, the desire to obtain a six pack was the cause.

How to tell if someone discussing nutrition, health, or fitness has disordered eating habits

We can tell when someone wants to be lean or live to a hundred and twenty years, but the underlying reasons are often masked. Traits that often manifest in these individuals and are discernible from their behaviors however are the following:

  • Perfectionism: the quest to find the perfect diet, or perfect health. Hint: there is no ONE perfect diet, there will be MULTIPLE perfect diets for the SAME individual imho. Perfectionism may cause people to weigh out their food, count calories, track their eating and exercise habits, track calories burned from exercise, eat “clean” foods only, and sell snake oil. Perfectionism can be healthy as a trait, I certainly have it, and it may seem like these people work very hard and are very motivated, which they are, but in the context of health, the pursuit of a perfect diet never has good unbiased evidence behind it. There certainly are diets we do better on, but there is a point where small changes won’t make any difference.
  • Obsession: They’ll say that obsession is a word the lazy use for the dedicated. HINT: it’s pretty easy to become obsessed with your diet when the motivation to lose weight and be sexy or live to a hundred and twenty is so strong. They may sound very passionate, provide uplifting spiritual messages, make perfect sense, smile a lot, and make you want to do what they’re doing.
  • Dedication: Despite the rainy weather, or having a cold, or other excuses, no excuses are allowed. Even if you pulled your hamstring, you still complete the race. Crossfit has a lot of dedicated people who are likely shortening their life spans. Hint: it’s not difficult to become dedicated either; it’s actually mindless imo.
  • Food rules: Sugar for example, a topic I covered in my previous post, could be dangerous if you believe it is. Sugar avoidance, among other food rules, are generally wrong. Even if I say, okay, trans fats are DEFINITELY bad for you, I’m sure there’s variation in people’s abilities to digest and metabolize them. Naturally occurring trans-fats in grass-fed dairy and meat however is health promoting. Are ALL food rules bad? No; it’s just that in today’s society, the vast majority of people believe in unsubstantiated ones due to the reasons mentioned above, especially perfectionism. As long as you don’t become obsessed with it, some food rules are okay.
  • Forbidden foods: Not just food, but other lifestyle habits are frowned upon due to evidence that gets twisted to fit the preconceived notion. Chronic cardio for example: yes too much cardio is bad for us, but a thirty minute aerobic jog is not. Often times these forbidden activities develop due seeing things as black and white. It’s fun I guess to develop an extreme attitude? I’ve done it plenty of times and have to stop myself these days when I become too excited about a health-related topic.
  • The pursuit of aesthetics – Fat nutritionists are frowned upon. Good looking ones are trusted. The disorderedly eating individual will attribute the success of their own diet to changes in body shape and/or increased physical fitness. Their before picture may not be that bad, and their after picture may be worse: too lean for example.

And there you have it. I’ve seen a lot of people who once had strict food rules realize their instincts were telling them to stop, consequently developing a more positive body image and flexibility in their thinking. I’m one of these people. However a past version of me did all the above and more. I didn’t just make these things up by the way. It was actually a big epiphany for me when I read an article discussing perfectionism among people with disordered eating habits. I read that and thought: “that’s me!” Even though I had gotten over many food rules, I was still wanted to perfect my diet in some way. I like the idea of attaining perfection and still aim for it in as many areas of my life as I can. I’ve realized however that with lifestyle and exercise there is a lot of variability, so there is no one perfect lifestyle for anyone imo. If you want to learn more on perfectionism and disordered eating see Brown et al., 2012. Check out the perfectionism and eating disorders questionnaires on Psychology Today to learn more about yourself as well.

Conclusion

Eating disorders and disordered eating exist on a continuum. Even if an eating disorder isn’t present, someone with disordered eating habits could develop one and may have a problem. A disordered eating habit is one step in a possibly dangerous direction. Labeling something as disordered is subjective however: I don’t eat as normally as others do, but is normal healthy? Defining what’s normal or disordered is at the heart of this issue. A Western diet isn’t “normal” for our species: is one step in that direction dangerous as well?

Not at all, and forming some food rules isn’t necessarily either. Going to an extreme, as healthy as it may seem, usually doesn’t have any evidence to support it and often causes us to fight our instincts. Preserving the yin and yang of our bodies’ rhythms while having food rules is okay, even though the perfectionist part of me wants to say all food rules are now bad based on this research. It is so easy however to take a food rule too far or exercise too much and this is where the problems arise. Having a positive body image, letting go of unhealthy perfectionism, and having an open mind to experimentation can help you avoid disordered eating, especially after seeing someone else display its traits. I hope this post helps people put others’ health advice into a more holistic perspective. I created this blog to help people avoid confusion; and good marketing tactics featuring slim attractive bodies is unfortunately one good method by which people develop unhealthy eating habits. How will you be body positive today?

References:

Brown, A.J., Parman, K.M., Rudat, D.A., Craighead, L.W. (2012). Disordered eating, perfectionism, and food rules. Eating Behaviors, 13 (4): 347-353.

Shisslak, C.M., Crago, M., & Estes, L.S. (1995). The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 18 (3): 209-219.

 

Bananas and whipped cream, with maple syrup.

Bananas and whipped cream, with maple syrup.

First it was fat, but now sugar consumption is believed to be a major cause of obesity and the metabolic syndrome. But I think people are taking things out of context.

Fear of getting fat is a strong motivator for forming rules about our food; getting over them is the cornerstone for helping patients overcome eating disorders. Whether or not people will admit it to themselves, many who discuss health have an unhealthy relationship with food and lifestyle, displaying traits that patients with eating disorders have, as I’ll discuss in the future. Not all food rules are bad; we need some rules when food industry giants are stocking shelves with frankenfoods, but we have to be rational about weighing the risk to benefit ratio: something difficult to do when a society is increasingly concerned with looking good naked and preserving its youth. For example, an increase in sugar consumption per person since the 1970s has been blamed as a cause of weight gain. These extra calories have purportedly been stored as fat. Since the 1970s however, more people exercise and burn more calories as well due to a fitness boom. Since I started exercising, I ate more calories and more sugar, and I actually lost fat in the process. This n of 1 provides personal valuable insight that helps me guide my decisions and is a valid counterpoint to the idea that sugar promotes obesity.

Whether one wishes to lose fat, avoid fat gain, or just be healthy long term, there are some major unarticulated thoughts about how consuming sugar affects us. See, people with a disease process in their cells, such as insulin resistance and prediabetes, will have different consequences from consuming sugar than someone who is healthy. The cause of obesity isn’t sugar consumption per se, but it’s likely a mix of genetic predispositions and having a positive energy balance. Concentrated doses of sugar in sodas and sweets are more likely to increase the energy balance when consumed than sugars from fruit or honey for instance, increasing the chance of gaining fat mass, the precursor to insulin resistance. Perhaps this also explains why sugar consumption has risen in the past several decades; it’s prepared in tasty and addictive ways. Avoiding sugar seems warranted, but will this take us out of “balance?”

We’re hardwired to love sweets, naturally occurring or not. When we consume addictive combinations of sugar mindlessly, emotionally, and when we aren’t necessarily craving it however, sugar may lead to the negative consequences. What hasn’t been answered yet though, is how this balanced diet affects our physiology: is any processed sugar worse than no sugar? I don’t have the data to answer that question, but my guess is a big and emphatic NO. In fact from my experiences, some of which I’ll highlight further in this post, sugar can be health-promoting, especially for those obsessive health enthusiasts depriving themselves by food rules, while exercising intensely.

My goal here on SBCAH is to promote instinctual eating; instincts however can change based on what we put into our bodies. For some, eating more sugar may increase sugar cravings, and create an unhealthy pattern of sugar consumption. Those in the low-carbohydrate communities experience a reduction in sugar cravings following an elimination from their diet. This may have positive consequences, as foods start to become sweeter, and those previously addicting sugars now taste too sweet. For others, such as myself, consuming more sugar felt very “natural” after three to four years of consuming almost no added sugar of any kind. So how do you know if consuming sugar is right for you? Although there aren’t any studies on this, I believe if we try to follow our instincts with this, being in tune with ourselves, we’ll slowly develop a better grasp. Instead of restricting ourselves, fearing weight gain every time we crave an unhealthy treat, we’ll stop when our bodies tell us to. Although a “balanced” diet or one where we consume everything in “moderation” seems inferior to a strict diet that eliminates all seemingly unhealthy foods, there’s no science showing that, and it won’t ever show that in my opinion. Of course, nothing is ever certain, but here is a way for you to be in better tune with your instincts when it comes to sugar:

  • Reintroduce sugary foods that you once liked, or new foods with sugar that you want to consume
    • My favorite for example is Virgil’s Root Beer (I have no affiliation with the company). The first time I drank it was the first time I had consumed soda since I was a kid. It felt like heaven, and I felt stress melt away instantly. It was available at a local food co-op; I had never consumed it before. It’s pure sugar without any fat, digesting rapidly.
    • The purpose of doing this is to associate the sugar consumption with the response you get from sugar consumption. Initially, if you’ve avoided sugar for a while, you may not even have an instinct to consume it. That doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from it.
  • Pay attention to how you feel
    • How do you feel during and immediately after consuming it? One hour after? A couple?
    • How is your energy affected the next day?
    • How does your brain feel? Mood, cognition, alertness?
    • How is your digestion? Processed junk sugary foods may be more difficult to digest than homemade sweets.

Unfortunately there are no studies I’m aware of looking at how consuming sugar based on an instinctual eating approach affects health (there is no need for these studies anyway). Why isn’t consuming sugar in healthy people seen as a healthy thing? I agree with author Matt Stone that we need a robust and warm metabolism for optimal health, rather than a slower one, and this cannot be achieved by restricting calorie dense foods in our diets. The problems those on extreme diets develop include a low body temperature, low thyroid function, lowered fertility, and other metabolic problems. For these individuals, consuming sugar will likely be health promoting, improving fertility, thyroid, and cognitive function. For the nine to five sedentary man or woman with an office job, the excess sugar may lead to blood glucose imbalances, fatigue, and all the other problems; yet, if the instincts are followed, I have a strong hunch the vast majority, if not every single negative health implication of sugar can be avoided.

The takeaway here is that it’s perfectly fine to consume sugar when you’re hungry, as long as you can follow your instincts with it; something that most human beings do effortlessly. People who believe in “everything in moderation” already know this. These are the people who are less prone to creating unsubstantiated food rules in their life, because their instincts prevent them from doing so. My mother for example, she tells me she will start dieting tomorrow every day, but she enjoys eating her favorite sweets in moderation while staying slim and having no need to go on a restrictive diet. The fact that I need to write about it is unfortunate as well; people have misinterpreted research on sugar consumption, falsely applied it into their life in order to lose weight or be “ripped” and “shredded” and misinformed others about what to eat, causing severe consequences for their health and for others. Much of the research on sugar’s negative health effects have tested unrealistic amounts of sugar. Many people have improved their health by reducing sugar and may have substantiated reasons for doing so, but it’s the unwarranted sugar-phobia based on reductionist research methods that we must take with a grain of salt. Few people do a good job of restricting their sugar, because it just seems so natural and hard-wired, yet people seem to think they have to restrict sugar, salt, and eat “clean” to be healthy.

I reintroduced sugar back into my life almost a year ago, and my thyroid certainly improved since the sumer of 2013, when from my heavy lifting schedule and still strict food rules, I developed mild adrenal fatigue symptoms. I have gained two percentage points of body fat, going from around eleven or so with a six-pack to a still lean body with visible abs, staying pretty weight stable. I look great, and am perfectly happy with myself, but the question is: I gained body fat from consuming sugar, but my thyroid and other symptoms of a low metabolism improved, so what should I do? I can’t answer that question without more lab tests which I don’t need or have access to at the moment: tests to measure my coronary calcium score, visceral body fat, CRP, HbA1c . . . see where I’m going with this? These endless speculations are fun and interesting to ponder, but I doubt they’ll reveal much. I used to eat only fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds on a raw vegan diet but was higher in body fat than I am now. This fear of being fat as I mentioned in the beginning is just such a strong motivator. I shouldn’t even discuss it, because it gets people thinking. “Oh this woman has a great body, she must know what she’s talking about, whereas this dietician is fat and ugly, therefore her diet must be very poor;” I’ve had similar thoughts before as well, but now I’ve realized that it’s just so so complex that I don’t even know how to explain it; being at a lower body fat doesn’t mean greater health. There are forms of obesity where insulin resistance is not present and these individuals live normal healthy lives whereas metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance can affect lean people! Confusing!

But anyway, I try to be in tune with my cravings, consuming sugar when I feel I can handle it. I can tell when I’m full, and not in the mood for as many carbohydrates or sugars, and sometimes I really want starches over sugar. During the first few weeks when I began drinking the root beer I mentioned, I had an entire bottle, 40g of sugar, right before bed and slept more deeply than I had in a long time. I haven’t been able to replicate that experience but it was lovely. I often only drink half of the root beer too, consuming only 20g of sugar because that’s all I want to consume. I feel satiated and don’t form an addiction. Sometimes I go a week without any added sugar as well and have fewer cravings. I often only consume eggs for breakfast, which contains no sugar or carbohydrates, and notice steady blood sugar and energy for the rest of the day. Things are variable! When I decide to go back to my chocolate chip pancake routine, I happily will. This may sound confusing, but when I follow this instinctual pattern, it’s second nature and little to no thinking is involved. I’m hungry, I eat. Remember, it’s high blood sugar that’s dangerous for us, and this is caused by weight gain, especially in the abdominal region. Eating sugar won’t necessarily raise your blood sugar in the long term or cause weight gain if you can get better at following your elusive instincts. Being obsessive about diet is also dangerous, because people never have the full picture and restrict too heavily. If you’re healthy and consume a balanced diet with nutrient dense foods and adequate micronutrients, consuming empty calories when you’re hungry is not likely to cause any health issues and may keep you in “balance;” a term which I will continue to work towards more adequately defining. If you have strict food rules, slowly begin to introduce foods you once feared back into your life and pay close attention to the results; you just may not become obese or feel horrible. It might on the converse satiate you, and put you in a sweeter mood instead.

I know this explanation may be lacking in references, but there aren’t any adequate studies to my knowledge studying sugar composition in the context of a balanced and active lifestyle. If there are I’ll happily read them and revise my hypothesis. Using more of our common sense however is important here on SBCAH because I believe too much reliance on nutrition science is hurting people’s abilities to follow their own hunger cues. Of course, I’m not recommending a diet consisting of the types of processed foods found in the aisles of supermarkets; I think real food is a great foundation, but after that, there is so much variability that it leads me to conclude that it’s okay to eat oreos, to drink some Coke, and do other things that have become curse words among health-minded folk. The lack of holistic evidence also leads me to happily say that as well: that sugar phobia is unfounded, and much more than processed and refined sugar has caused the obesity epidemic. Letting go of dogma and being able to experiment is your friend. Being stuck up about food rules is a path to an enlightened place that probably does not exist. So once again, if your instincts feel inclined to do so, if you are willing to break through mental barriers and food phobia, if you’re active and haven’t eaten much sugar in a while, it may be time for you to get back in touch with that sweet tooth I know you have. Cheers.