Healthy Enough

Today it seems like just opening your social media is enough to be flooded by health-conscious messages. One might get the impression that the very goal of life is to maximize your exercise routines or eat as nutritiously as possible. However an excessive focus on living healthy can become unhealthy in itself. And in this blog, we’ll dive into how to navigate orthorexia towards moderation.

The risk of developing a problematic relationship with food or exercise is higher if you grow up feeling different without understanding why. And if you can’t trust your gut feeling because you’ve learned to go against it since childhood. If you are neurodivergent.

One of the main goals of Letterlife is to help girls and women with ADHD, ADD and autism to develop and refine their own intuition. To get to know their bodies and what they actually need, what is good for them. 

In short, to avoid ending up in extremes and to find the way to a healthy “just enough” in relation to all the important lifestyle factors.

How do I know if I’m too extreme?

Even though not a formal diagnosis, orthorexia, characterized by an excessive focus on eating and exercising healthily can cause a lot of suffering and ill health. 

A sign that a fundamentally healthy focus on wellbeing is getting out of hand is if more and more time is spent thinking about, planning, and executing specific routines for exercise and eating. And that these activities have become so important that you start prioritizing strict routines over other things that are important in your life. Like meeting friends, being with your children, pursuing your hobby, or just relaxing. 

Maybe you’ve started to feel anxious when you occasionally eat something unhealthy or if you get sick and miss a scheduled workout. Or even if you need to interrupt your workout early because your child needs your attention? 

You have every reason to pay attention to early signs because an unhealthy fixation on healthy eating and exercise can lead to both nutritional deficiencies and mental health problems.

How does it usually start for most people?

Orthorexia often starts with a genuine desire to improve one’s health. That might for various reasons escalate into an unhealthy obsession with diet, body, and exercise. 

And hey! 

It’s actually not at all strange if you have ADHD, ADD or autism! Life is not fair, and you don’t need to know much about either ADHD or autism to understand that the risk of tipping into unhealthy habits for food and exercise is ever-present. 

All the ingredients ending up in extremes are there. Research clearly shows that both anorexia and obesity are more common for neurodivergents throughout life. 

Additionally, hormonal periods in the menstrual cycle and certain contraceptives can both increase and decrease our vulnerability to relapse into old eating disorders or binge eating.

How do I know if I’m at risk?

The earlier you pick up signs of an unhealthy focus on diet and exercise, the better. Because the more time toxic thoughts must dig into your mind, the more time you will have to spend freeing yourself from them. 

It’s of course highly individual, but here’s a list of some warning signs to be aware of:

  • You feel extreme stress or anxiety when occasionally eating something “unhealthy” like chips, fast food, or candy.
  • You become more and more inflexible when it comes to planning what you eat and don’t allow yourself any exceptions.
  • You stop joining social activities that involve you having to eat with others or changing your food or exercise routines.
  • You spend more and more time following social media accounts about exercise, diets, and health cures.
  • You are suspicious of dietary advice that promotes variety and moderation.
  • You spend a lot of time checking what different foods contain, where they come from and what they are “good for”.
  • You get anxious if your exercise routine is disrupted, if you’re interrupted and can’t complete a workout exactly as planned.
  • You exercise even though you’re sick or need to recover because you need to follow your schedule.
  • You receive appreciative or concerned comments from others about how “fit or healthy” you are a bit too often.

Is it possible to turn an obsessive focus on food and exercise into healthy routines?

Of course! 

But if you have ADHD, ADD or autism you’re probably already aware of how easy it is to end up in one or the other extreme. Things become black or white. That you just as easily can become a hysterical gym freak or a couch potato. Eat carrots until your fingernails turn orange or fries until grease is squirting out of your ears. 

Landing in a “just enough” relationship to food or exercise will probably require more of you than a neurotypical person.

It’s probably also true that much of what you do has started as really clever strategies for dealing with restless snacking, difficulties in reading the body’s signals for hunger and satiety or comfort eating. The welcome endorphin kicks after exercise or a perfect body as compensation for declining self-esteem. 

Here are some tips from others who have started their recovery journey from an excessive focus on the body, food, exercise and health:

  • Become curious about what your unique AuDHD profile looks like and what makes you particularly vulnerable to excesses. 

    Is it deficiencies in your brain’s control tower that make you compensate for lacking executive functions or difficulties in controlling your brain’s volume button and settle for just enough?

  • Create routines for diet and exercise that allow for flexibility. Maybe you need to “write rules to break rules”? Maybe you should have a fixed exercise routine and an agreement with yourself, to always skip a workout if your child wants to do something with you?
  • If you suspect that your focus on food and exercise has tipped over into something unhealthy, admit to yourself that you have a problem and that you may need professional help. 

    Seek support from a psychologist, occupational therapist or a licensed dietitian. CBT focusing on changing distorted thoughts and behaviors can be a time-effective way forward before it goes too far.

  • Turn off social media accounts about diet, appearance, exercise, or various restrictive diets. Develop a sensitive radar to avoid reading or listening to people who preach their own homemade health methods or miracle cures. 

    Be alert to misleading marketing and learn to recognize the language used by the health industry. Remember that this focus only leads in one direction, into the health prison!

  • Surround yourself with friends and family who understand what you’re going through and what you need to do. 

    Tell them that your challenge right now is to practice “moderation” and that, strange as it may sound to them, it’s the hardest thing for you.

  • Challenge your food-related fears by gradually introducing new foods into your diet. Practice being “moderately unhealthy”!

So, in summary, a fundamentally healthy focus on food and exercise that is important for everyone and especially important in AuDHD can develop into an orthorexic prison. 

Even if you’ve lived a whole life with the realization that other people’s “good advice” doesn’t apply to you, you need to be honest with yourself if your lifestyle routines start to go overboard.

An overly one-sided focus on health, body, and diet can have serious consequences for both physical and mental health. And the risk is greater of going wrong if you struggle with ADHD, ADD and autism without you or your surroundings understanding your underlying difficulties. 

But it’s not impossible to create moderately healthy routines for those of us with AuDHD. Whether you manage it yourself or by seeking help. It’s a sign of strength to see and acknowledge when you’re heading out onto thin ice. 

You are not alone on your journey to recovery!

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