If you have ever found yourself anywhere on the spectrum of Orthorexia and health obsession no matter how big or small, I suspect you have probably caught yourself pondering the idea of adding something new to your dietary intake / routine one way or another.
Maybe it was eating more beetroot or another trending ‘super-food’ of the moment. Maybe it was seeing how many you could beat your 5-a-day recommendation. Maybe it was considering which supplement was going to improve the quality of your sleep, or which protein was most likely to digest the fastest after your work outs in order to optimize your recovery.
Whatever it is, it is a mindset of ‘adding something in’. It feels instinctive to our over-achieving minds that to take things to the next level to reach our goals we must do something new we are not doing now. And the only way we naturally conceptualize doing something new is by visualizing a physical solution. Something we can hold and then swallow, or an activity we can perform and feel.
This goes for a lot of things in life. We generally talk about benefits of exercise more than those of not exercising (rest), we don’t get noticed as much at work for the things we didn’t do (not knee-jerking to changes in market performance for example), and our partners don’t show as much gratitude for spending less time with them (breathing space and reflection). But when we look at things rationally or read Antifragile (Taleb 2012) like I have we realise how important subtraction or absence is to our success.
This very basic idea serves it’s purpose well for the various health supplements industries or any business that prides itself on ‘alternative’ solutions for health. It gives them and easy logic to sell on. Buy this – achieve this. It’s hard to sell nothing.
It’s also pretty obvious that despite what I’ve just said, subtraction IS the first thing most people do at the low-end of the health spectrum. Advice for over-weight and unhealthy starts with ‘don’t eat this’ and ‘avoid too much of that’, because we aren’t usually stupid enough to believe a pill will just cure everything. But even at this level the addition mindset immediately comes into play when we apply some subtraction because psychology of habit formation shows us that being able to replace said negative lifestyle behavior/routine with something else rewarding is much easier than just removing it, and leaving an unsatisfying gap in one’s life when we experience various triggers.
However as we progress to better health removing becomes harder of less visible compared to adding something new, tweaking this and that, in line with the Olympic athlete diet plans and other role models in society we see on a daily basis.
Whilst I’m a genuine advocate of experimentation, and looking for better alternatives for health, I think it’s worth considering for a moment that as we pursue our quest for health and start to run out of silver bullets to step change our lives and our health, we often forget that one of the most powerful things we can do is think about what we don’t need to do. In other words go right back down the pyramid of advice we have access to and recognize, less is more.
When we consider all the factors that impact our health, some do clearly have a greater impact than others, and as basic as they are, keeping focus on them can make the biggest difference. I’d say there is around 3 or 4 key things we can do to ensure the majority of our healthiness. At the heart of the Orthorexic problem is looking for that extra tweak, or supplement which will squeeze that extra health gain despite being completely governed by the law of diminishing return and being highly counter productive in the grand scheme of your day to day life.
I’d go further to say that some keen health obsessors, actually forget the basics of health and focus entirely on their goji berries, protein shakes and organic kale at the expense of the things that matter.
What am I talking about then?
Let’s start with eating itself. I’m not talking about reducing calories or restricting yourself, I’m talking about how and when. When I was a sufferer, I was constantly thinking two hours ahead. Nutrition for me was a round-the-clock responsibility. Even for the regular gym goer, eating six smalls meals a day, still prevails mainstream thinking, along with the ‘breakfast is the most important meal‘ paradigm, despite increasing amounts of science and advice showing us these beliefs are based on false truths.
Not only are these ideas great for the food industry who wants to sell a product for every eating occasion, but they can actually negatively affect your health too. It could be the rise and fall rollercoaster rise of our blood sugar you spark on a daily basis with a carbohydrate-filled breakfast, further fueling your hunger for a few hours time, and ensuring your pancreas is run in overdrive and ages faster than your slice of apple turns brown. I digress.
We forget the huge health benefits from just giving your digestive systems a break. Occasional fasts, have numerous hormonal benefits, like stabilizing our blood sugar (and appetite), increase our fat metabolism, and help up sleep better/maintain better cardiac rhythms in general. Not to mention freeing up so much time we no longer need to stress, buy for, and prepare so much when it comes to meal planning.
What about exercise? Chances are the biggest gym junkies you know are pumping iron, or seeking their next endorphin hit, anywhere from 5 times a week to, require two fresh gym kits a day. How healthy is this really? Not only could we save ourselves some stress and time but the health benefits of rests days and even cheat days have been widely discussed before now. People often forget the body does not work on a day to day basis with health slipping away very 24 hours, but rather a long-term average of weeks and months. The best bodybuilders know that true muscle recovery and growth can take well over a week before the best time to re-stimulate occurs.
Finally, but by no means exhaustively, there are so many things we should just ensure we are getting less of, to build our health, without wasting any extra minutes or pennies. You are probably already avoiding huge amounts of processed food, which many people are wasting money on, but for some reason it’s hard to accept that the fact you are already doing this is getting you the majority of the way there. That money you save buy buying simple foods and produce does not need to be reinvested elsewhere in supplements and ‘super-foods’. Spend it on life instead.
In a similar vein, are there skin and beauty products, seen as staples in today’s society that you could use less of, and not only save money, but reduce the amount of chemicals and toxins your body comes into contact which gradually erode your health in their own ways. Simply not sitting in the smoking area will help you remain far cleaner and healthier than paying extra on organic greens to not have pesticides in your veg. Credit to Stephen Bratman for this simple idea.
Overall I think there is an opportunity for us to free ourselves from our own minds to some extent, by trusting or bodies to do the work, and realizing that with some of the most basic things taken care off, we can then trust them to get us the rest of the way there. I think the examples above could easily be expanded if you were to think carefully about your lifestyle.
Which areas in your life do you think perhaps you need to think about doing less in order to get more?