Confessions of a Health Coach

When Good Intentions Go Too Far

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Sheila Fitzgerald/
Sheila Fitzgerald/

During my training to be an Integrative Health Coach, I learned that part of my job would be serving as a “humble role model”: walking my talk and modeling, without being boastful, the attributes of health, fitness and wellness that I would help clients develop in their lives.

I took this obligation seriously, as I have all my responsibilities for as long as I can remember. When I was a Brownie and Girl Scout (in the “olden days,” as my four-year-old granddaughter says), I recited the promise “to do my best.” Since it carved out no exceptions, I took the scout promise literally and applied it to everything.

It became part of me, and throughout my childhood I was surprised by how much slack others cut themselves even as I cut myself so little. When inevitable lapses of judgment occurred as I grew older, I met them with self-criticism and shame, and my parents added harsh disapproval since they too had come to expect my best at all times.

Fast forward to my health coaching years, and I worked diligently on every area of my health, hoping to be an excellent role model. Scarcely a day went by that I didn’t exercise and meditate, and I became more and more intentional about what I ate.

Then the pandemic hit, and like so many others, I worried that my immune system might not be up to the job. I doubled down. I began avoiding restaurant food due to my suspicion that it contained fats and grains of lower quality, as well as more salt and sugar, than I would use in cooking. My grains had to be 100% whole grains, and I almost never ate butter or unhealthy oils. I thought less and less about what I wanted to eat and more about what I should eat at every meal.

In this “healthy eating” mindset, I was caught off guard when I read about a condition that is gaining recognition as a form of disordered eating. In orthorexia nervosa, I learned, the aim to eat healthfully becomes unhealthy. I was horrified to read stories of obsessions strong enough to cause mental distress, social isolation, even malnutrition.

A article led me to a self-assessment tool developed by Dr. Steven Bratman, who named this condition in the late 1990s. Of the six behaviors he identifies, even one of which can signal a problem, I found three that described me: steadily eliminating more foods and adding to food rules; having trouble relaxing rules on special occasions; and having my happiness, self-esteem and safety tied to the “rightness” of what I eat. I needed to understand my behavior before it went too far.

I began to see that my eating habits had helped me feel in control. We all experience anxiety at a time like this, and healthy eating was a way to keep my anxiety in check. It had started as a useful tool, but excellence was becoming perfectionism, and my stressful thoughts around eating were probably cancelling out some of the health benefits I was seeking.

And this, I have decided, amounts to a lack of humility of sorts. While I have not been boastful, I have been attempting to overcome the sense of vulnerability that is part of being human. Serving as a humble role model, I have now concluded, involves keeping in touch with that vulnerability. This requires the self-compassion I try to help clients develop but have withheld from myself.

What does this mean for my future eating habits? I want to see the big picture of my eating instead of focusing on every micronutrient in every meal, to think in terms of guidelines instead of hard-and-fast rules. I want to enjoy eating more and dwell on it less, to allow myself a treat from time to time. As I think about it now, I might even consider having a few Girl Scout cookies this year.

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