When Eating “Right” Becomes An Unhealthy Obsession
With so much information out there about food and diets, and so many conflicting opinions, it can be hard to sift through it all and separate fact from myth. What diet should you be on? Which foods are “bad?” Do you need to be eating more superfoods?
As many yogis are committed not only to their yoga practice, but also to an overall healthy lifestyle, questions like these frequently come up. A more useful approach, and one that’s more in line with the teachings of yoga, focuses on the simple habits that promote a balanced diet.
Superfoods and Diets
Magazines, blogs, and even gyms are full of information on the latest superfoods or supplements- promising that wheatgrass shots, pomegranate juice, or fancy vitamins are all you need to lose weight, sleep better, or even stop aging. Of course, none of these are the silver bullet they purport to be; belief in the powers of different superfoods are often based more on flashy marketing than on scientific evidence about their benefits.
While there’s no doubt some foods (like spinach) are healthy and others (like packaged cupcakes) are less so, those well-hyped “superfoods” aren’t really so special. They’re usually healthy, so absolutely do eat them if you like them, but don’t expect them to solve all your problems, and don’t fall into the trap of thinking one “super food” at breakfast negates junk food throughout the rest of the day.
Broader than specific superfoods, the Internet is also full of people promoting different and conflicting diets. You might even have role models who adhere to veganism, Paleo, the Ayurvedic diet, or other approaches to eating – and swear their way is the only way. If the principles of a particular diet resonate with you, and you’re getting the nutrients you need, maybe committing to a certain way of eating can work well for you (with your doctor’s approval).
As with superfoods, people are often drawn to specific diets by unrealistic promises rather than facts. Forcing yourself to stick to a strict diet can be extremely difficult and lead to deprivation as well. It’s also entirely possible to follow a particular diet and still overeat, miss key nutrients, or otherwise be unhealthy.
For example, a vegan diet that centers on fruits, vegetables, and plant-based protein can be very healthy. But vegans are also notorious for subsisting off packaged foods that, whilst containing no animal products, usually have lots of sugar and few nutrients.
Other more drastic attempts to get healthier include fasting practices and cleanses, which may require followers to eat an incredibly restricted diet, to consume only juices, or eat and drink nothing but water. Some proponents of fasting and cleanses point to studies that demonstrate the detriments of overeating; however, using them to justify not eating at all is jumping to another extreme.
People are understandably drawn to the concept of resetting, detoxifying, or cleaning out their body over a few days, but medical experts refute claims that this is necessary or beneficial. Rather, most scientists point out that the body detoxifies itself naturally through the liver, kidneys, lungs, and skin. Many actively warn against fasting or eating too little, arguing that it slows metabolic processes, deprives the body of key nutrients, and causes symptoms like fatigue, headaches, and irritability.
Another less specific dietary approach is the innocuous-sounding “clean eating.” Although this phrase is commonly used, it doesn’t have one agreed-upon definition. In general, it refers to avoiding processed and packaged foods in favor of whole foods that are closer to their natural form, which is an undeniably good principle.
But as with more specific diets, it’s entirely possible to eat clean and still overeat, or even convince yourself that sugary or fatty dishes are healthy simply because they’re made from whole foods. And just like other diets, clean eating can also become extremely restrictive.
The effort to eat clean or follow a particular diet, despite being well-intentioned, can also cause anxiety or even turn into an obsession. While it seems like a paradox, a commitment to a healthy diet can become an unhealthy preoccupation with eating. In fact, it is now considered an eating disorder, termed ‘orthorexia’.
While those who suffer from anorexia are usually focused on their weight and how much they eat, orthorexics are more concerned with general health and what they eat. But like those suffering from other eating disorders, orthorexics are obsessively preoccupied with their food.
Whether it’s by following a vegan diet, a Paleo one, or just a commitment to clean eating, the effort to get healthier can become an obsession with eating “right.” And given that many people first turn to yoga to lose weight or handle anxiety, yogis may even be at a heightened risk of developing unhealthy obsessions with their diet.
Yoga and Diet
In their pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, many yogis get caught up in strict diets or certain superfoods. It’s easy to believe that they go hand-in-hand with yoga, especially if you see your instructors or fellow students claiming their benefits however, practitioners should remember that yoga teaches balance and acceptance, not restriction and perfection, and those teachings apply to food as well as to asana. Anyone who practices yoga knows that progress and change comes from consistency over a sustained period of time – not from a silver bullet. Simple habits that promote a balanced diet are much more in line with yoga than a reliance on superfoods or extreme eating regimens.
So how can a yogi, or anyone, eat more healthfully? Michael Pollen’s famous adage of “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” is a great place to start. These 9 rules of thumb will help you put those principles in action:
- Eat mostly unprocessed foods.
Processed foods are notoriously full of sodium, preservatives, and chemicals, sometimes bearing little resemblance to natural foods. Of course, plenty of healthy foods have undergone a certain level of processing, like tofu or whole-grain bread – but they’re typically much closer to their natural form than packaged snacks or frozen dinners.
- Eat your veggies (and fruits).
The USDA currently recommends 5 to 9 daily servings of fruits and vegetables per day, numbers many people don’t come close to. While vegetables are often an afterthought, they should be a mainstay in your diet, especially those nutrient-rich dark leafy greens (one of the few types of food nearly everyone agrees on the merits of).
- Eat a variety of foods.
A fixation on specific superfoods can result in getting too much of certain nutrients and not enough of others. For example, if you eat acai berries twice a day every day because they’re a superfood, you’ll end up missing out on the nutrients contained in other fruits.
- Limit sugar.
While experts hold conflicting opinions about the merits (and dangers) of many things, like gluten and meat, the harm caused by eating too much sugar is widely accepted. One of the best tweaks you could make to improve your diet is to eat less refined sugar, whether it’s in candy, soda, or even surprisingly sugary foods like bread.
- Watch portions.
Even if your diet is perfectly balanced and nutritious, it’s still possible to overeat – especially in the U.S., where portion sizes are notoriously large. Get familiar with what an actual serving of different foods looks like so you can better keep track.
- Be aware of beverages.
It’s easy to discount the effects of what we drink. But sodas, juices, coffee drinks, and even smoothies can have as much sugar as candy and it’s easy to drink a whole meal’s worth of calories in alcohol on a big night out. Paying attention to beverages consumed and choosing less processed ones, like plain black coffee instead of blended concoctions, can help.
- Eat when you’re hungry.
While culture tends to dictate a particular eating schedule, it’s important not to force yourself to eat when you aren’t hungry just because someone else says, “It’s mealtime.” Different people prefer to eat larger or smaller meals at different times of the day, and it’s best to follow a schedule that works for you – and be free to deviate from it when that makes more sense.
- Stop when you’re (almost) full.
Similarly, most people are in the habit of eating whatever’s in front of them, regardless of whether they’re really hungry enough for it. Pay attention to how you feel during the meal, and stop eating when your satiation reaches about an 8 out of 10. Otherwise you’ll end up feeling stuffed shortly after the meal.
- Eat slowly – and mindfully.
Eating slowly helps you notice your satiation level and promotes better digestion, and meals are more enjoyable when you’re mindful. Pay attention to your food’s taste and texture, notice how it smells, and practice gratitude in recognition of having it. Being present at mealtimes is a wonderful way to live your yoga off the mat.
By Kosta Miachin
Kosta Miachin is the creator of VIKASA Yoga method – a unique, challenging and effective approach to yoga. He is also the founder of VIKASA Yoga Academy.