Can you really recover from eating disorders with “clean eating” or exercise?

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Just about every day I speak to or read stories from people who have successfully recovered from their eating disorders. Most of the time it warms my heart, gives me a sense of hope, and brings a smile to my face. Unfortunately, sometimes it makes my heart sink.

Almost every story of recovery involves some sort of hobby or activity that helps motivate a person to fight through the trials of recovery, whether it be art, writing, or even playing board games. Sometimes, though, these hobbies can seem healthy while really being dangerous.

Recently, there has been a wave of people attesting to how things like weightlifting, running, or “eating clean” have helped them become free of eating disorders. In the same breath, however, they’ll say they are still counting calories, regularly weighing themselves, and reviewing their bodies in the mirror. But, “it’s okay,” they say. “It’s healthy now.”

Don’t get me wrong, it is theoretically plausible to take up these activities in a healthy way – turning the dangerous compulsions to weigh a certain amount into a drive to be the best you possible whatever shape that takes. However, it often seems like many are just swapping out the patently dangerous behaviors that characterize anorexia or bulimia for less obvious forms of restriction and body idealization.

The problem is that things like compulsive exercise or excessive “healthy” eating are already involved in many eating disorders. It is not uncommon for someone living with anorexia or bulimia to mask their disordered eating and slim figure with running every day or using over exercise as part of their “method” to gain an “ideal” body.

Meanwhile, there’s a growing recognition that taking healthy eating too far can develop into unhealthy eating habits described as “orthorexia”, though the condition has yet to be formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Because of this, when I hear someone say they’ve recovered from an eating disorder with a specific type of exercise regimen or clean eating I can’t help but think of an alcoholic who says they’re “sober” because they only drink wine now.

I’m not the only one who sees the parallels either. Psychotherapist and Eating Disorder Specialist Jennifer Rollin recently questioned the “clean eating” phenomenon in an article for The Huffington Post:

“Saying that you’ve recovered from an eating disorder and now you eat “clean” and stay away from processed foods-is like saying you are sober from alcoholism-yet maintain a “healthy” relationship to alcohol by sticking to wine and beer. While “clean eating” may be socially sanctioned-it’s incredibly dangerous for those in eating disorder recovery (and largely unhelpful to the population in general.”

The same can be said for obsessive exercise or striving to reach a specific type of body. Just because you aren’t aiming for a stick-thin figure anymore doesn’t mean the urge to workout every day is necessarily healthy. It may just be another way for your eating disorder to present itself or you run the risk of falling into one of the many traps that can lead to relapse.

Dr. Lindsey Ricciardi, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in eating disorders, compares these activities to stepping close to a cliff. It can be safe, but there is always the risk of stepping too close and falling off the ledge.

“When I discuss staying strong in one’s recovery from an eating disorder, I often use the metaphor of staying away from the edge of a cliff. Imagine being at the Grand Canyon, and staying behind the rope in the safe area. The further you can stay back from the edge, the less likely you are to ‘fall’ in your recovery.”

While some activities can be safe, things like religious exercise or carefully planning what you’re eating toe the line.

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