Sunday, January 17, 2021

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

October 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Body Image

Disclaimer: 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?

Guest post by Melissa


30 Responses to “When Does “Diligence” End and “Obsession” Begin?”
  1. KatieP says:

    Hi Lissa

    Having crossed over to the ‘dark side’ after innocently setting out to get healthy my advice would be to not do anything that you couldn’t imagine doing for the rest of your life. Imagine how you want to live your wonderful new life including how you want to eat and exercise and start practising those behaviours now.

    The most important lesson I have learned is to always take great care of my mind, body and spirit. Most of the time embarking on a short term monumental lifestyle change will usually result in giving up entirely because it’s too hard or devolving into the desire to achieve your goal at any cost.

    The good news is that we are much more resilient than we think and all things can be healed with unconditional self love, patience and practice (thank goodness!)

    • lissa10279 says:

      Hi Katie, that had been my approach all along … but then I found ways to squeeze in the double workouts … I’m in a much, much better place now than I was then, but it was scary to realize I COULD live that way; I just built my world around the gym, food. I don’t want to do that anymore.

      Patience is a virtue and that must mean I’m a sinner 🙂

  2. lizziellen says:

    It is ironic that the changes we make to get healthy can leave us unhealthier in certain ways. That’s what makes me really uncomfortable when people congratulate me on my weight loss. I’m the same way as you, type A perfectionist who has a history of falling into a disordered eating pattern. I tried to stop losing weight about 10lbs ago, but I couldn’t stop, I was totally addicted to it. I think I have the voice in my head– telling me to cut my calories more and exercise more bc then I could lose another 10lbs and be really skinny –at least a little bit more under control now, but I don’t want to live the rest of my life never feeling good enough. That’s what’s started me on the FA journey, and I think that has helped me get more balanced and less disordered.

  3. C says:

    I’m currently walking that line I’m back in school full-time, for the first time in ten years. I’m single again after a few years of marriage and two kids, and I’m dating. All of these things give me things to obsess about: I have to be a straight A student, I have to be thin like the other girls at school, I have to be pretty so I can feel confident in the dating world. It’s very hard not to go overboard.
    But I’m in therapy, and stepping it up to once a week, I called my family and admitted that I’m having a hard time staying healthy, and I even let my b/f in on my personal challenges. I hope I’m dealing with the the right way and early enough to stop from spiralling into sickness again.

  4. Meems says:

    I think the line is in a different place for everyone. Even though I no longer diet (and for a long time told myself that I was only trying to lose weight through “lifestyle changes” – though I now recognize that WW is a diet) and am not consciously trying to lose weight, I know that I still need to be aware of what I eat in order to eat healthfully. My natural – if you can call it that – inclination is towards foods that are salty and fatty, high in carbs and low in fiber and protein. At the same time, I know that I don’t feel good when I eat this way. It makes me feel sluggish and triggers headaches.

    I’m still in the process of learning how to balance my taste preferences with healthful eating. I see a nutritionist who is very focused – at least with me – on HAES and not weight loss. She suggests cookbooks for me and has encouraged me to learn how to cook for myself. I don’t think I’m as much of a perfectionist as you are, and have never maintained a pattern of disordered eating for a long amount of time – maybe 3-4 months at a time before it begins to take up too much of my time to maintain. What I do have to work on is not beating myself up when I don’t eat “perfectly.”

    I think, for me, it’s about remembering that I eat well for my health and well being – not to look a certain way.

  5. Lisa I do this in a very weird way. I have lost weight before and it did become all consuming trying to keep it off. I spent hours a day worrying about which workout I could do to burn the most calories if I wanted to go out to dinner etc. I finally just got to the eff it all point and gained it all back. I never did find balance while I was thinner.
    Now here I am today about 30 pounds heavier than my thinnest weight and 20 pounds lighter than my heaviest weight. Still very obsessive but stuck getting no where weight wise. It is very odd if you think about it. I spend all day every day thinking about exercise, and what diet I want to follow, how I better not bake for my neighbors or I will eat it. I better not eat that, oh crap I ate that, I wish I would have done better all of those things that are in my head each day all day long…exhausting!
    When we are in a habit of “dieting” for 20+ years it is so hard to find balance at any weight. I know I am not the only person who does this but I also know that I can change this pattern and I have been working on it for a bit. I actually recognized it while blogging. Funny what comes out on a computer screen 😉

    • lissa10279 says:

      It IS amazing what we can discover via blogging … hence, “blogotherapy” 🙂 It’s FREE and really has meant more to me than even traditional therapy. Plus, you meet some amazing people with amazing stories and feel … less alone in your challenges.

      • Meems says:

        Absolutely. My mom – a therapist – always suggests journaling when I’m trying to work through something. Blogging is kinda the same thing, but with a community.

  6. catgal says:

    I had to give up dieting. I realized that when I stumbled upon the FA and HAES movements. If I do any conscious tracking of any kind it instantly becomes all consuming to me. How many points are in this, how many calories in that, how much protien in something else. I end up searching books and the internet to find the “exact” of whatever it is that I am measuring. Then I am thinking about food all the time, not just what will I have for lunch today, but more like If I eat this now and that at 3:00, then I can have x for dinner and y for dessert. It’s exausting.

    I also lean towards the fatty/salty side of the food specturm, I have an added bonus of a sweet tooth.

    I don’t know what the right way for me to approach food is yet, but I know that I’m not there yet.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Catgal–it seems like one long journey, doesn’t it? I know I’m not fully there yet, either. It’s hard to turn the thoughts off … it’s so hard. Esp. now that I’ve gained a little weight over the past year; not much to some, but enough for me, that makes it more real and more difficult to muddle through. It’s not about vanity; it’s about feeling good in our own skin regardless and it’s not an easy battle to win when the biggest competitor is yourself.

      • catgal says:

        Lissa you are so right. I realized what was going on when I took some online depression test and one of the questions was “Do you have intrusive thoughts?” I was like all the time! I had no idea.

        I am in a similar position as you. I have gained and am now trying to loose without trying to loose. Acceptance is hard but worth it.

  7. Hil says:

    This is a great question and a hard one–one that I’m still in the process of fully figuring out.

    One key thing for me was learning to recognize that at certain points in my life, the healthy behaviors that I needed to prioritize the most were not the sort that would make me thinner–and that is okay. Last spring, I went through a busy phase in my life where I really needed to focus on stress management, adequate sleep, yoga and prayer. During those months, I simply didn’t have time for as much intense cardio and I gained a few pounds as a result. For me, obsessing is mostly only a danger when it is tied to weight-related activities, and it was a big step for me to realize that I can and sometimes should prioritize weight-neutral activities in order to be the healthiest I can be.

  8. Emily S. says:

    For me, the difference between diligence and obsession has to do with allowing flex room.

    I recently found out that my hereditary high cholesterol finally caught up with me, and decided that I needed to make some changes to my diet (not WLS, just what I eat in general) to see if I could manage it without medication.

    I did my research and decided to make a few key changes in things like snacks and lunches at work. Things that are easy to control. Then, when things come up that are less controllable, I know it is the exception and not the rule (to, say, have cake at a birthday celebration or a couple margaritas at happy hour with friends).

    This is a big change from my disordered eating in the past, where making changes meant logging every detail, counting every calories, and complex negotiations between time at the gym, food in my mouth, and my personal sanity.

    Basically, it doesn’t have to add up every. single. day.

    The other big thing is – NO GUILT! Guilt is not a productive emotion. Recognize when you made less-than-ideal choices, decide how you’ll address it differently in the future, and move on. Obsessing about how horrible and weak you are for eating a cookie is not helping anyone.

    • lissa10279 says:

      You’re spot on, Emily. Guilt only leads to more problems!

    • Meems says:

      Emily, I have a genetic tendency towards high cholesterol also (both – thin – parents are on meds for it) and have had a lot of success eating whole grains and upping my intake of monounsaturated fats (avocados, nuts, etc). The total number is still borderline, but my good cholesterol number is also high, which means I have a really good ratio. I’m sure you’re doing your own research, but I just thought I’d put my $0.02 in. 🙂

      • Emily S. says:

        Thanks Meems! That is actually exactly what I’m working on – higher fiber/protein intake, and significantly reduced simple carbs. Plus switching out processed office snacks for almonds in the afternoon.

  9. Hil says:

    I already posted above, but I find this topic really thought provoking, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the words you used. Diligence: constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken; persistent exertion of body or mind.

    By that definition, I don’t think that diligence works for me as a way to approach my weight or health. I don’t think I would be very happy if maintaining my health or weight required “constant effort” or “persistent exertion.” In fact, one of my personal criteria for my “happy weight” was that I could maintain it without constant effort.

    I prefer to think in terms of consistency, prioritization and time management. I try to prioritize healthy activities that I enjoy and that feel good to me. For example, I love vegetables, but it takes some planning to make sure I have enough time to prepare them; I always enjoy yoga class, but its easier for me to have a set routine than to try to decide every day whether I want to go or not. I find that my head gets into the wrong place if I think in terms of what I *should* do rather than making time for things that I *like* to do.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Hil, maybe you’re right–maybe using consistency and prioritization would help many of us, vs diligence as a descriptor.

      Because I can be a diligent shopper, but that would get me into debt!

      I think the approach matters a lot more than we might think… thanks for the input.

  10. ronisweigh says:

    Being a serial yo yo dieter who DEFINITELY crossed the line into obsession territory, especially when I was on Atkins.. it came down to motivation. What I mean by that was when I was obsessed with reaching some ridiculous number on the scale or dress size I skewed to the disordered side. Once my motivation shifted and I cared more about getting healthy for my son’s sake, I started looking at the weigh loss as a byproduct instead of the end all be all. That’s when I was able to learn balance.

    There was definitely a point where I decided my body was just fine and dandy even if I never reached my goal weight. That acceptance helped me. I don’t think I would have been able to find balance without the self acceptance journey I’m still working on.

  11. Shhhh says:

    I’ve never been a yoyo dieter, so when I got to goal I had a bit of a mindf*ck. I realized that food, nutrition, and fitness had been my obsession for two years, and I had no idea what to do now.

    I needed to be obsessed to lose the weight in the first place in a healthy manner. I worked hard to lose that sixty pounds over a two year period. I did it right (read: slowly).

    Now I work just as hard to NOT obsess, but still be conscious of my choices. And yes, a bit of weight has slipped back on (about seven pounds). And I try hard not to freak out. I find myself obsessing over the statistics of how many gain the weight back, and I don’t want to be one of them.

    I actually contemplated chewing and spitting, before I even read about it in blogland. I knew then that I was bordering on a real problem. I was able to talk myself back from the ledge.

    I don’t know which side of the border I’m on. I like to think I’m dilligent. But I do count my calories, and I do workout at least three times a week. Never more than five, though. Truly cuz I don’t like to excercise.

    The only reason I work out is to earn food. Because I’m so calorie conscious, I know that if I want that garlic cheese bread, I better move my ass.

    Yeah… I dunno where I’m at. If I’m on the obsessed side, I don’t think I’m TOO deep in.

  12. DaniJo says:

    I also can’t be diligent without being obsessive and it simply took years of expanding my palate and experimenting with foods to come to a place where I can instinctively want many and varied healthy foods. I have to care about my health and how my body moves and nothing else or I freakout mentally. Don’t worry about a platau(sp?) Don’t worry if you are eating all the lastest “superfoods”. And for me the Kiss of DE, don’t keep a food journal…nothing spirals me down quicker than a food journal.

  13. julie says:

    I used to be totally obsessed. I no longer allow it, though I’ve still got some more weight to lose. Maybe it’s cognitive behavior therapy, more likely it’s a strange kind of sabotage. If I am arguing with myself because I kinda want to eat something and I “shouldn’t”, and it’s enough to cause enough stress/distress that my conscious mind notices it, then I eat it. Since I actually want to lose weight, I want to only do this if I really want whatever it is, and then I don’t allow myself to feel bad either. OK, I’m not able to express myself very well here,but anyway, point being that I don’t allow mind games anymore.

  14. Priscilla says:

    This is such an interesting discussion. As someone who’d been dieting whether she needed to or not since the age of 12 (I am 40), it’s an ongoing battle, and it’s only in the last year that I felt something change inside me. Part of it–and I hope this doesn’t sound glib–is that I started focusing not on what my body looks like, or what weight it is, but what I could do. I could run farther, I could get through three sets of lunges without wanting to heave, I could do more weight on the leg press. I tried to think of this in terms of strength, a little bit at a time. For some reason, I don’t get obsessed when I think in those terms, the way I would if I were only concerned about what a workout would do in terms of numbers on a scale. It amazes me to think that I could outrun my 20 or 30 year-old self, even though I was thinner then and what I thought of for a long time as more “ideal.” The only thing I really do food wise is try to eat fruits and veggies, and I pay attention to how foods affect my mood and concentration instead of the scale. That’s the way I know I am getting what I need, as opposed to managing it the other way around. I hope that makes sense. Good luck figuring things out. You will!

  15. Lucas says:

    Love your vids! I am about the same place you are. Want to loose 10lbs and get more into doing wturokos. I can be soooo inert! Love you!

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