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When Does Healthy Become Too Healthy? 5 Warning Signs of Orthorexia

You wander through the grocery aisles, sizing up the newest trends on the shelves. Although you're eager to try a new energy bar, you question a strange ingredient and decide to leave it behind. Your afternoons are consumed with research as you sort through endless stories about "detox" miracles.

What started as an innocent attempt to eat healthier has turned into a time-consuming ritual with little room for error, and an underlying fear surrounding your food choices.


As a registered dietitian and a dancer, I'm here to tell you that it might be time to deviate from your "healthy diet."

While it's not officially recognized as an eating disorder, orthorexia is widely accepted as a problematic obsession with healthy eating. It's defined as disordered eating behaviors that occupy one's existence, standing in the way of social, emotional and physical growth.

Dance is an aesthetic sport that makes us vulnerable to obsessive control over our food choices. As we try to balance the need for fueling performance with the desire to "look the part," we risk unrealistic expectations of body image. The key is to identify these warning signs that healthy habits have turned into unhealthy restrictions.

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Red Flag: Overwhelming Concern Over Food Quality

While being aware of food labels is essential to a healthy lifestyle, don't restrict yourself only to foods with ingredients deemed "healthy" or "clean." Ask yourself: Do you feel anxious about eating something without knowing every ingredient?

Red Flag: Food Consumes Your Thoughts

While an interest in nutrition is a great way to lead a healthy lifestyle, problems arise when thoughts about food overwhelm your ability to experience unfamiliar environments. For example, someone with orthorexia may spend hours each day worried about what food might be served at an upcoming event.

Red Flag: Inflexible Eating Patterns

Those with orthorexia might be unable to eat food they don't prepare themselves. Due to a severely rigid diet, they may avoid meals completely if not presented with a choice that has been deemed "healthy." They may feel it necessary to prepare and bring personal food to events.

Red Flag: Emotional Distress When "Food Rules" Are Broken

Food rules are created as one begins to cut out an increasing number of food groups (examples include all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all non-organic options). If someone with orthorexia veers from these rigid eating patterns, severe anxiety, distress, guilt and/or depression typically follows.

Red Flag: Severe Concern Over Your Health and Performance

A person with orthorexia is unable to enjoy food for its experience, tastes or flavors. Rather, the sole purpose of eating is only for the nutritional benefit that a food can have on one's health or performance.

If your anxiety results in you avoiding certain foods or social situations, then you may want to reassess your health goals. The cost of food- and social-avoidance can outweigh any potential health benefits. If you feel that you can relate to any of the above red flags, consider speaking to a clinician who specializes in disordered eating behaviors, such as a registered dietitian, a psychologist or a psychotherapist.

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I'm a Professional Dancer With Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Here's Why Dance Companies Need to Start Prioritizing Mental Health

My name is Abi Stafford, and I have generalized anxiety disorder.

I've had this "hook" in my mind for how I'd open an important essay my entire dance career, but I was never ready to talk about it, until now.

I might be the only dancer to say this, but the best change to result from the coronavirus shutdown is company class moving to Zoom.

As a kid, my teachers encouraged competition between students. While it undoubtedly helped push me, all these years later I still struggle with unhealthy levels of competitive feelings in class. But on Zoom, I don't have to compare myself to anyone, and it feels great. I can dance freely because no one is watching and critiquing my abilities.

When the shutdown started, I was preparing to return to New York City Ballet after a hiatus. I had taken a leave of absence since December 2019, the middle of Nutcracker season, to focus on my mental health.

As NYCB underwent leadership transitions during the last few years and the culture among the dancers shifted, I had developed new feelings of anxiety. Some dancers felt more emboldened to ask for roles they wanted, envisioning exciting career possibilities. Others quietly wished casting choices would remain the same and sensed a more uncertain path. With my brother as artistic director, workplace dynamics collided with my personal life. Casting disappointments jabbed me painfully, and it became hard to find a corner in the theater where my soul felt safe.

It was difficult to officially inform the company that I needed to take a leave because I'd been burned when I'd shown my anxiety before. Back when Peter Martins was in charge, I had an anxiety attack backstage prior to Theme and Variations. I felt too insecure, too scared, too tired, and I couldn't fathom performing. He offered me en­coura­ge­ment at the time, but, several years later, he brought up the episode unexpectedly, pointing to that painful moment to explain why I wasn't reliable. The experience solidified that I should never show emotional vulnerabilities or weaknesses.

Fast-forward to December 2019. When I finally let myself stop dancing, literally mid-rehearsal, some colleagues tried to talk me out of it. While well-intentioned, their words made me feel worse because I started to question my choice. But it was the right decision for me. I have been focusing on my mental wellness, family and pursuing my law degree to heal my spirit as quarantine carries on.

I have lived and performed with (sometimes crippling) anxiety for my entire career, and I'm nowhere near the only one who's struggled. I know of a dancer who picked up her bag and quit in the middle of a rehearsal. One time a young dancer timidly asked a group of older dancers whether ballet company life was hard for them. Upon emphatic replies of "yes," he said, "I thought it was just me. Everyone walks around like they are just fine."

Dancers feel immense pressure from management to constantly be perfect onstage. Yet, we are at the mercy of our bodies. Those two factors are an excellent recipe for anxiety. Some dancers cry a lot. Others call out sick when they're too anxious to perform. Some even choose to retire altogether—far too young.

There needs to be more mental health support within dance companies. Psychological services should be made available to all dancers and artistic staff—including ballet masters. At my company, they're under an intense amount of pressure to prepare the vast repertory, and all are former NYCB dancers who shared similar experiences, stresses and pain during their own careers.

Overall, everyone needs to listen more. Artistic management could send out anonymous surveys to assess what areas need improvement. Companies could hold talk-back sessions with dancers to open up the lines of communication about what's working and what's not. We need to make it acceptable for dancers to take care of their mental health. We need to stop training dancers (explicitly and implicitly) to hide their anxiety for fear of losing performance opportunities.

It is time to begin the conversation, because I worry about the ongoing suffering of dancers if this is not addres­sed. I worry that company leadership will continue to view my very real struggles with my mental health as a weakness. Most of all, I worry that the next generation of artists will continue to suffer as too many of their predecessors have.