A recent Roy Morgan survey shows that around 39% of us are stressed about the need to be healthier, with this figure disproportionately affecting women. That’s a lot of people who are anxious about food, exercise and overall health. The survey’s most startling finding was that 72% of women under the age of 25 wish to lose weight, despite only 36% of them being medically overweight. This is serious cause for concern because personal dissatisfaction can leave you vulnerable to unhealthy behaviours that may cultivate stress.
Compare this with men of the same age – only 39% wish to shed weight, with 35% being classed as medically overweight. While men certainly aren’t immune to anxiety around health and body image concerns, it is women who are clearly more vulnerable to developing stress-related issues around health behaviour, and in particular, young women.
Enter exercise obsession and self-styled internet gurus intent on building a “healthier you”. It’s easy to get caught up in the cycle, especially when you’re being sold the promise of optimal health. But isn’t the stress around health a little bit counterproductive?
How stress damages your health
We all need some level of stress to keep us focussed and motivated, and alert to danger. If we weren’t concerned about deadlines or meeting expectations or staying safe, our lives could unravel quickly. These stressors are usually well-controlled around meeting goals, and dissipate when they’re met. In contrast, when stress becomes chronic, the health effects are noticeably unpleasant, and include irritability, fatigue and poor concentration. It might also advance to:
- Gastrointestinal upsets
- High blood pressure
- Chest pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Worsening of existing illness
- Depression and anxiety
The effect of chronic stress is cumulative, and is unfortunately associated with cardiovascular disease, inflammatory conditions and a reduced quality of life. It doesn’t matter what you feel stressed about, only that the stress is persistent and preoccupying.
According the NEDA, the National Eating Disorders Association based in the US, Orthorexia Nervosa described the growing phenomenon of being fixated on “righteous” eating. This is a fixation that is being actively encouraged by people with something to sell, even if they insist that the message is altruistic. It encourages shunning entire food groups, classing certain foods as toxic and others and clean, and leaves the audience unarmed with the common sense they probably started with.
Although orthorexia is not yet formally recognised as a separate eating disorder, the presentations are similar, and follow a path from being interested in one’s health to becoming more and more driven to achieve dietary perfection. NEDA describes the underlying motivation of turning everyday choices into unhealthy obsessions:
- Protection from poor health
- Control issues
- Managing fear
- Striving for thinness
- Improving self-esteem
- Seeking spirituality through diet
- Creating an identity
These are deep and highly personal motivations, and collectively become very difficult to manage on a psychological level. For someone with a full-time job, a home to run and a family who relies on them, a new layer that demands time, energy and preoccupation can only add to the stresses of everyday life.
De-stressing for your health
You don’t need to be anxious in order to be proactive about your health. Anxiety stems from a place of fear, depriving you of any real pleasure that you might receive from exercising and eating a healthy and balanced diet. Consider taking a different approach that preserves your feeling of wellbeing without adding unhealthy and unnecessary stress to your life, here are a few tips to get you stated:
- Reconsider the words “clean eating” and “superfood”, and refocus on nutrition and taste. Only 5% of Australian adults eat the recommended servings of 2 fruit and 5 vegetable per day. Aiming to reach these targets using fresh, seasonal ingredients in a way that is delicious and rewarding is a great way to hit health targets and feel good.
- Try and exercise incidentally as well as in a structured way, and make it something you look forward to. Walking to and from the office, dancing up a storm, slogging it out at the gym, cycling on the weekend, or a regular yoga class – we all have a preferred method of movement. The most important thing is that we are moving, not how disciplined we are in running a certain speed for a certain length of time. Try setting your own goals, and ignore the hype around celebrity bodies – almost no-one has the time or money to maintain visual perfection, even if they have won the genetic lottery.
- Listen to your body – it’s wiser than you think. The signal may take a while to come through, but eating a nutritionally-poor diet and engaging in minimal exercise will start to feel bad pretty quickly, particularly if you are used to being in good health. Likewise, starving yourself, exercising obsessively, spending far too much time reading food bloggers and trying to understand the latest health headline bombshell could leave you uptight, hungry, defiant and miserable. It’s a different kind of stress, but stress nonetheless, and you could probably do without it.
- Strive for moderation. Don’t mistake being moderate for being second-rate or undisciplined. There is a growing movement of sensible, scientifically-sound, no-nonsense health advocates who are urging us to keep calm and not to fall for diet fads and advice from unqualified personalities.
- Seek help when you don’t feel in control. This can be when you’re confused by the available health advice, or right at the other end, when a drive became an unrelenting obsession. If you are stressed about the state of your mental and physical health, a clinical psychologist is a great place to start. If you’re not sure that the health advice you’ve been reading is really accurate and you want a more strategic approach to your diet, perhaps seek the services of a registered dietitian.
These professionals can be invaluable to reducing your stress levels, and with a comprehensive health insurance policy, you may be able to seek rebates on their services.
Whenever you feel doubt, there is often someone ready to take it away. Try to remember that easy answers aren’t always the right answers, and that feeling stressed and unhappy by a preoccupation with your diet and exercise regime is a warning sign. Our best mantra you can carry with you? Health isn’t about being good – it’s about feeling good.