Public Comment

Healthy Living: How Does a Passion for Health Become an Unhealthy Obsession?

By Sally Bryson
Tuesday July 31, 2007

When it comes to food, “everything in moderation,” is how my grandmother would have said it. And that includes knowledge.  

I have always been health-conscious. I would stay away from the sugar, drink the green tea and slurp the pomegranate seeds. I even bought some wheatgrass once, though it remained buried in the crisper drawer, as I wasn’t sure what to do with it. 

But I was still an omnivore with dilemmas. I was confused about cholesterol, mystified by meat and afraid of fat. More knowledge, I decided, was the answer. Picturing lean body mass for life, strong bones, a glowing complexion and vitality radiating from my every extremity, I enrolled in weekly nutrition classes and began devouring articles and books by food journalists. 

Looking back, there should have been a disclaimer: Warning: Too much nutritional knowledge can lead to anxiety and stress. What followed was a year-long journey to Destination Health in which I routinely found myself turning mid-step and looking longingly back at the blissful place called Ignorance that I had left. Faster than I could say “high fructose corn syrup,” the holistic world began to take over my life.  

I became concerned with LDL, HDL, organic, local, seasonal, grass-fed, happy cows not Happy Meals, raw milk, antibiotics, probiotics, growth hormones, lactose intolerance, trans fats, rancid oils, enriched and fortified, glass or plastic, slow-cooked or fast food, mercury levels, heavy metals, artificial sweeteners, GMO, refined carbohydrates, empty calories, top soil, feed lots, soy, pasteurized, homogenized, irradiated, microwaves, and pesticides. 

I learned that we must wash everything we eat because of the chemicals but not too much because we need the healthy bacteria. I stopped drinking out of plastic and cooking with Teflon. I began planning every meal and inputting the ingredients into a computer program to check that we were getting not just our RDA but ODA. (O is for Optimum. I was all about the Optimum.) I learned that my body was always trying to tell me something. Ridges on my nails, brain fog, cravings and the little wart on my right foot were obvious signs of nutritional imbalance and impending doom.  

So, I had my hair tested for heavy metals. I took a food allergy test, kept a food diary, recorded my daily basal body temperature every morning and fed-exed my stool to be analyzed in a laboratory in North Carolina.  

And the strange thing was, the more I learned, the worse I began to feel. What is the opposite of the placebo effect? Paranoia, hypochondria and an alarmed husband. Ah. Enter sanity again. My sweetie had been living his life just as always, taking care of his health in a general, old-fashioned sort of way—you know, exercising and eating lots of fruit and veggies and he was doing great, he was never sick. Meanwhile I was changing everything about my diet and lifestyle in view of my newly acquired knowledge and was feeling crummy. 

I couldn’t understand it but I was sure that his relaxed attitude would catch up with him in the end. After I had once more informed him that his liver was probably about to implode and that he was most certainly deficient in zinc and addicted to gluten, meanwhile I was in a state of near permanent anxiety and was having trouble sleeping, he told me that maybe, just maybe, I was getting a little too stressed out about this health thing. 

“You’re like Woody Allen on wheatgrass,” he muttered. I looked up from where I was attempting to force-feed kelp supplements to the dog. “And we all know that stress is one of the worse things for you.”  

How had my passion for health turned into an unhealthy obsession?  

Knowledge is in general a good thing after all and for much of it, I am grateful. But my grandmother, who passed away peacefully at the age of 94, probably thinking that a nitrate was something to do with the cost of a hotel room, was actually right. Though we are correct to ask questions and consume consciously, the attitude with which we raise our fork to our mouths can be as important as what is on the fork. Worry is bad for our health. And boy did I worry? The odd refined carb can be good for you occasionally if that’s the only time you eat with reckless abandon.  

Right now, I haven’t taken my vitamins in several days. I forgot. Oops. Also, I didn’t have a teaspoon of flax seed oil this morning, I ate wheat for breakfast two days in a row and I didn’t have a spirulina and bee pollen smoothie this afternoon. I’m still alive, I no longer become neurotic if I go out to eat and there is no organic food available (for which my husband is very relieved), I’m more laid back about it all and I feel great. 

New research comes out everyday, dispelling myths about health and creating new ones. I’ve just learned that the healthiest way is to take them with a big pinch of salt. Just as long as it’s not too much salt. And it’s probably best if it’s gray, Himalayan sea salt, rich in trace minerals such as iodine, potassium...