When Does “Diligence” End and “Obsession” Begin?

This is my latest post over at WeAretheRealDeal.com. You can read it here or after the jump.

roadDisclaimer: I recognize that not everyone who reads WeAretheRealDeal is a dieter or even on a mission to lose weight, so let me get that out there up front that this post *might* not be applicable to some of our readers.

Having said that, I think a lot of our readers have a desire to live an overall balanced life (not just food/fitness wise), so maybe this will resonate with more people than I think?

For many people, there is a very fine line between “diligence” and “obsession” when it comes to healthy living.

You could argue orthorexia (an all-consuming obsession with healthy eating/living) is just as bad a problem as more traditional eating disorders such as binge eating, anorexia, or bulimia.

Having been guilty of straddling or crossing that faded gray line between diligence and obsession a bajillion times myself over the years since starting Weight Watchers in 2004, I can only speak from personal experience when I say that diligence led to obsession for me when it comes to weight/body image/exercise addiction.

The bitter irony is that succeeding at weight loss (positive lifestyle changes like journaling, exercising portion control, making good choices, counting Points, ramping up my workouts) drove me to obsession. And I know now that I’m not alone. Per a ground-breaking SELF study that led to the development of my blog, 6 out of 10 women are disordered eaters–many a result of dieting efforts.

Sure, I lost weight pretty effortlessly back then … but then the disordered behaviors began: exercise addiction, calorie-obsessing, Points-obsessing, body dysmorphia, midnight eating and, later, the most serious behavior I engaged in– chewing and spitting (which I’ve been clean of since March ’09).

So I can’t help but wonder … why are some people more prone to obsession than others?

Why can some people decide to get healthier and drop weight and never have an emotional attachment to the experience or the aftermath … and yet someone like me ends up suffering through years of disordered eating issues?

And how can we, as women, approach a healthy lifestyle without going down the orthorexic/obsessive route?

In therapy (July ’08-March ’09), I learned that my anxious, perfectionist tendencies are what drove me to the level of obsession I had … and my therapist urged me to “embrace my hardware”/perfectionist tendencies instead of loathing them; after all, what harm comes from eating well and exercising regularly?

We agreed that those things are positives (it wasn’t hard for me, as a perfectionist, to stick to WW), but how I later approached them wasn’t helping me any. I let thoughts of calories and exercise and food dominate my brain for years.

Over time, I’ve gotten less obsessive, mostly through blogging, becoming more self-aware, and, most importantly, making a conscious decision to stop obsessing (cognitive behavioral therapy tactics worked here) … this meant forcing myself into previously uncomfortable situations, learning to dine out as a “normal person” versus a “disordered eater,” cutting back on exercise a bit, trying to relax more in social situations).

But though it hasn’t been an easy road to walk, and at times, I find myself falling into old habits (mostly of the over-exercising variety).

Being diligent isn’t a bad thing for everyone, but depending on the kind of person you are, you might need to treat with caution.

Crossing that line into disordered eating is not hard to do if you’re hardwired a certain way (read as: anxious, TypeA, have perfectionist tendencies), and I’ve learned the hard way, through my recovery journey, that the benefits of being diligent can outweigh the costs — if you’re not careful.

Now I know better, and hope to continue to serve as an advocate for those, like myself, who fell into the dark, shameful, scary, hush-hush world of disordered eating that no one likes to talk about … but is very, very real.

So my questions to you are these: if you have managed to change your lifestyle, did you do it without any disordered eating issues occuring? How did you avoid falling into the disordered eating trap? What advice do you have for those embarking on their “get healthy”/”get balanced” journey (note I’m not saying “weight loss journey” since it’s not applicable to everyone) without crossing into that dark DE territory?

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13 thoughts on “When Does “Diligence” End and “Obsession” Begin?

  1. I have a really hard time not getting into the “obssessive cycle” when I am trying to lose weight. I go back and forth of eating too much and then b/c I feel terrible for doing that, I will eat hardly anything. When I’m in my “mindframe,” I can’t think about anything else, and seeing food at like, say a potluck, totally freaks me out, b/c it’s almost too much for me to handle. I’ve been seeing a Christian counselor for over 2 years, and this has helped me a lot, but there are still a lot of times where the “cycle” sneaks up on me, a lot of times when I’m stressed or PMSing.

  2. I don’t think there’s an easy way to go about changing your eating/ health patterns. Everyone is going to make mistakes, the problem is recognizing them and making adjustments. It seems to me that most people have a very narrow understanding of their goals. For example, people who starve themselves or vomit after meals feel they are “rewarded” by weight loss, because that balance is missing. The balance has to become the reward itself, or your simply trading one obsessive behavior for another. I used to work out at the gym and pool ALL DAY… I mean it wasn’t unusual for me to be gone 8 hours a day between classes and travel, but eventually I realized that I wasn’t getting anything out of life but GYM TIME… and that the balance was missing totally.

    1. Great point about balance being the reward. In the past when I lost weight I often struggled in maintenance because you no longer are “rewarded” with seeing the scale going down. Now I realize that maintaining the weight loss (which is so much harder than losing IMO) is the “reward” and I look at it as being an even better reward than seeing the scale go down during weight loss mode.

  3. Yes, I did manage to change my lifestyle….but it took years!

    From the age of 16 to the age of 28, I was a compulsive exerciser. It was basically my way of purging everything I ate. I was a normal, healthy weight, but almost daily, I would pig out and exercise for hours to work it off. After college I discovered marathons and triathlons, which allowed me to hide my compulsive exercise behind the title of “endurance athlete.” In my circle of friends, biking 70 miles and then going for a run was normal, not disordered! But all the exercise destroyed my knee, and in 2007 I had to have surgery.

    After surgery, I had to take 6 weeks off from exercise. I thought I was going to die. I’d worked out almost daily for the past 12 years, even when sick, hurt or exhausted. And suddenly I wasn’t allowed to do anything at all. It was so depressing at first, but honestly…it was my wakeup call. It changed my life for the better. I resigned to the fact that I had no other choice but to relax and wait it out. And amazingly, not only did I not gain 400 lbs. like I’d feared, but I actually LOST weight. I lost the urge to binge and started craving healthier foods. I did occasionally panic when I ate “too much” and couldn’t work it off, but I learned how to let it go and not ruin my eating for the entire day.

    Now I exercise 3-4 times a week but only do things I enjoy. I realized my joints have a limited life, so why waste time on the stationery bike? Blech. I also make sure to do lots of stretching and strengthing to save my muscles and joints, whereas for years I only did cardio. I recently gained 40 lbs. during pregnancy but didn’t stress out about it, and 3 months post-partum, I’m only about 5 lbs. from my pre-preggo weight. And if I never lose those 5 lbs., so be it! I may not be as skinny as I once was, but I’m healthy, fit and have a beautiful son!

    My advice to others? RELAX. A high-calorie meal or a missed workout is not going to kill you. Gaining a few pounds isn’t either. Just enjoy life; there are so many more important things out there than your jeans size!

    1. Alison, thank you so much for your thoughtful insight — it sounds like you’ve had a lot of powerful experiences (esp becoming a mom!) that have led you to the place you’re at now–and it sounds like a wonderful one!

  4. I have a very type A, perfectionistic quality to me. SO it is really hard to not get obsessive about weight loss. I stick with WW so well because I am like this. Even when I have a horrible day I still go back and track it all.

    I’ve probably stepped back into the orthorexia bit more than the EDNOS when I was in college. But I’m working on not being so obsessive and more healthy.

  5. I don’t comment on your blog that often but I read each and every single one and this one really struck me, as i’ve struggled with an ed for so long that i think stemmed from something like the subject on topic.

    i want to thank you so much for your writing and that i find so much inspiration in your posts!

  6. As someone who suffers from an eating disorder as well as OCD, I could relate to so much of what you said. The key for me, when trying to judge something that is presented as a “healthy approach” (be it weight watchers, biggest loser, the latest fat-burning product) – I ask: is this based on tuning into internal or external cues? Those that rely on external cues fall into the unhealthy category for me. Internal cues are essential for finding one’s natural weight as well as for detangling emotional needs from behaviors. Great post!

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