Nearly 50 percent of Americans who make New Year’s Resolutions aim to lose weight. Chances are that the start of 2017 is making people think of new accomplishments they want to achieve in the next 12 months. Most goals will have something to do with physical appearance.
Accepting that there will be bumps along the road and not striving for perfection is key for sticking with resolutions beyond February, but some very determined people refuse to accept that.
Starting out with what seems like small changes in eating or exercise habits may not seem like a warning sign that something is horribly wrong, but when they become compulsive and start to interfere with one’s day-to-day life, they can be dangerous – even deadly. People who have a more perfectionist personality or have set routines are more vulnerable.
Eating healthier and working out more often are common resolutions. When consuming “clean,” healthy, and only the right “foods” becomes obsessive and a preoccupation – especially with quality vs. quantity – you should see a professional because you may be developing Orthorexia.
“The ‘holiday season’ is often a difficult time period for people who struggle with eating disorders,” Dr. Rebecca Wagner, Clinical Director of Eating Recovery Center, Houston, says. There are numerous gatherings that involve lots of socializing and copious amounts of food that most people would consider unhealthy.
“People typically face a lot of pressure to cook and clean for incoming guests, buy gifts for others, and generally they are expected to be ‘merry,” she adds. “However, all this stress can trigger or exacerbate an eating disorder, thus leading to more people being diagnosed and seeking treatment for an eating disorder around this time of year.”
No such thing as a “strict healthy diet”
The line between following a strict healthy diet and developing an eating disorder can be thin.
“When we set strict rules on what we can and can’t eat, most of us are setting ourselves up for failure, “ Dr. Wagner says. Inflexible “diets” lead to intense cravings for foods that are “forbidden,” which often results in eventual over-indulgence in “forbidden” foods.
“In addition, research shows that diets do not work,” Dr. Wagner adds. “Instead, treatment providers suggest working with a registered dietitian to develop a meal plan that incorporates a variety of foods and does not leave us craving prohibited food items.”
Signs there is a problem
Goals are great to set as long as they are SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely), according to Dr. Wagner. “However, some goals, even ones that are intended for good, can turn problematic.”
For example, sometimes someone may set a goal to lose 5 pounds. Once they lose that weight, they think the loss is “not good enough,” so they lose another 5 pounds, she adds. “This pattern of continual weight loss that is ‘never enough’ can lead to an eating disorder.”
Who is at risk
From a temperament standpoint, perfectionists are at risk because by nature they often set unachievable goals and feel like a failure when they do not achieve those goals resulting in them feeling “not good enough,” Dr. Wagner says. “However, eating disorders do not discriminate and can develop in anyone, male or female, at any age, and from any race.”
There are some known factors that make some people more vulnerable than others, such as having low self-esteem, difficulty in relationships, and poor coping mechanisms.
In addition, eating disorders can run in families, so having a relative with an eating disorder can put you more at risk, Dr. Wagner says.
It is important to work with treatment professionals who understand eating disorders, Dr. Wagner says. “There are small steps that people can take to protect themselves and move toward recovery,” she adds.
First, it is important to develop healthy coping strategies to deal with stress. Second, it is important that these skills are consistent with things that are important and valued by the individual. “For example, if I value connection with others, I will reach out to my supports when I am struggling with desires to engage in the eating disorder.”
Be careful how you word your resolution
“The wording of a goal can make a huge difference in achieving it,” Dr. Wagner says. “Again, it is best to define SMART goals that involve flexibility to increase your chance of being successful at achieving the goal.”
For example, the goal may be to walk 3-5 days per week for 20-30 minutes. It meets all criteria of a SMART goal by being specific about the behavior, is measurable because it involves numbers, is attainable because it has flexible ranges that are realistic, and give a time frame in which to complete the goal.
Exercising and eating disorders
Like many behaviors, exercise can fall on a continuum from non-existent to extreme, both of which can be unhealthy, Dr. Wagner says. “There is nothing inherently wrong with exercising in order to enjoy ‘forbidden’ foods. However, a healthier mindset is to exercise to take care of our bodies, not so we can eat donuts and cake.”
Other warning signs
Other than obsessive eating and training, other warning signs people should be on the lookout for, Dr Wagner says. They include rapid weight loss or weight gain, significant change in eating habits, such as eating too little, too much, or cutting out certain food groups (like sugar, meat, dairy, fat, carbohydrates, etc.), isolation and refusal to eat meals around others, repeatedly using the bathroom during and immediately after meals, and exercising despite being injured or at odd times of the day (e.g. running at 2 a.m.).