When I first started out in private practice, clients came to me because something was wrong. Most of them struggled with their weight, or were newly diagnosed with a condition like high cholesterol or elevated blood pressure. Today, healthy, fit clients schedule appointments with me simply to pick my brain. Many describe themselves as health enthusiasts who want to learn all they can about optimal nutrition, the hottest superfoods, and latest trends. I love that nutrition is now considered exciting—even sexy.
But I sometimes see healthy eating and weight loss taken to extremes, which can actually worsen physical and emotional wellbeing and negatively impact quality of life. (Case in point: a recent study highlighted how obese teens trying to lose weight are in danger of developing eating disorders.) This topic is especially timely given the social media uproar following Tuesday’s finale of The Biggest Loser, where winner Rachel Frederickson lost so much weight that Time.com reported she wouldn’t be allowed to model in some countries based on her BMI, and in advance of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week from February 23 to March 1.
While this post is certainly not meant to diagnose anyone, here are five indications that your healthy efforts may have morphed into detrimental patterns.
You’ve become scale-obsessed
I actually believe it’s perfectly okay—and for some people, even healthier—not to weigh themselves. But if you do, treat weighing in as a simple reality check to help you understand your body’s patterns and to see if you’re moving in the right direction. It’s also important to put the numbers in proper perspective. Weight fluctuations from day to day, and even hour to hour, are completely normal, because when you step on a scale, you’re weighing not just muscle and body fat, but also: fluid, food inside your GI tract that hasn’t been digested and absorbed; waste that hasn’t been eliminated; and glycogen, the storage form of carbohydrate you carry in your liver and muscles. The latter three can shift considerably and quickly, whereas changes in muscle and fat tissue happen more slowly. Also, you can be retaining water or building muscle as you’re losing body fat, which means the number on the scale might stay the same, even though you’re getting leaner.
For all of these reasons, weight alone doesn’t tell you much. Yet many people become fixated on the number and they feel angry or depressed if it doesn’t go down, or if it’s not declining fast enough. If you find yourself weighing in more than once a day, or if your mood is seriously affected by the number, or if you undereat or overexercise because your weight hasn’t decreased, your relationship with weight has likely become unhealthy. Consider letting go of the scale and focusing on how your body feels instead—and talking to a health professional about reasonable weight expectations.
You’re secretive about your diet
When you’re trying to eat healthfully and lose weight, there’s no reason to tell everyone and their mom about your personal regime. But if you feel the need to avoid the subject because you’re afraid you’ll be judged for being too strict, you may be crossing into disordered territory. This is especially the case if your own gut instinct is telling you that you’re overly restricting but you can’t or don’t want to stop.
In my experience, a big red flag is a willingness to stick to a restrictive plan despite unhealthy side effects like fatigue, moodiness and irritability, sleep disturbances, poor immunity, and constant hunger. Even if you are losing weight or you’re eating ultra healthy foods, if you aren’t keeping yourself nourished, I promise you’re doing a lot more harm than good. Throughout my 15+ years working with clients, I’ve found that creating more balance (and often adding food to a plan) leads to much better results, not just for weight control, but also for emotional well-being and a healthy social life.
Your self-esteem is tied to your weight or eating habits
Even clients who know I’m not at all a food cop are sometimes afraid to tell me what they’ve eaten. It’s typically because they’re judging themselves: they’ve developed a pattern of feeling happy and empowered when they’ve been “good” and beating themselves up when they’ve been “bad.” Unfortunately, these associations can stall your progress, because they don’t allow you to examine why you get off track. And when you don’t know why you’re doing something, it’s very difficult to change.
The truth is, you may slip up because your diet is too strict and your hunger hormones are raging. If that’s the case, the fix lies in balancing out what you’re eating, not berating yourself. Or, if you tend to eat due to stress or anxiety, addressing your emotions is the key to ending the cycle, not trying to have more willpower. So if you gained a pound or two this week, or your kale rotted in the crisper while you ordered takeout again, banish the harsh self-talk and criticism. Instead, take an objective look at your triggers, focus your energy there, and remind yourself that health is about progress, not perfection.
Most of your mental energy is spent thinking about your diet or weight
Some of my clients love food apps and other tools that help them record what they ate and track their weight. Others don’t. But one thing’s for certain: for some people, these tools can become an obsession. If you find yourself constantly thinking about what you’ve eaten (or what you’re going to eat) and worrying about your weight to the point where you’re distracted from other activities, your weight-loss goals may have eclipsed your healthy lifestyle goals.
In my years of counseling clients, I’ve seen this pattern lead to burnout and trigger a rebound right back to old, unhealthy patterns. Fortunately, you don’t have to be preoccupied with your diet and weight in order to see results. Simply focusing on the basics—like eating at consistent times; eating balanced meals that include plenty of veggies, along with lean protein, healthy fat, and small portions of “good” carbs; and stopping when you’re full—can allow you to see real and lasting results, while also having the time and energy for other parts of your life. If you’re afraid to let go of thinking about or recording your every effort, ask yourself if you can honestly envision continuing to do so six weeks or six months from now. If the thought makes you cringe, make an effort to create some balance. Letting go a bit doesn’t have to mean sacrificing results.
Your diet distances you from your family and friends
I’ve had clients tell me that they stopped spending time with friends and avoided family functions because their devotion to their diet outweighed their desire to engage in social situations. Some of this is normal for anyone who’s adopting healthy habits because the cultural norm is to overindulge. But if you find yourself becoming isolated and avoiding the people you care about, things may have gone too far.
If you’re on a quest to eat healthfully and the people in your social circles aren’t healthy eaters, there are ways to enjoy getting together that won’t require you to eat junk food. For example: at a party, bring a healthy dish to share, to serve as your personal go-to; choose restaurants where you know you can get a healthy meal, and opt for non-food centered ways of spending time together, like going for a walk or a hike, rather than meeting for drinks or frozen yogurt.
If you feel like you’re not getting the support you need and you want to have a heart-to-heart, check out my advice on how to deal with food pushers. But if you’re finding yourself prioritizing your diet before your loved ones completely, consider talking to a health professional. To find a psychologist, visit the American Psychological Association. And to find a nutritionist, go to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, click on Find a Registered Dietitian on the upper right corner, choose Expertise Area, and check Eating Disorders.
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.