When 'clean eating' becomes unhealthy

vegetarian bibimbap
CC BY 2.0 Stacy Spensley

Over-zealous adherence to a 'clean' diet is leading to increased numbers of orthorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that obsesses over eating 'righteously.'

Last month there was a baking book on the new arrivals shelf at the library. I picked it up curiously, intrigued by the beautiful cupcake on the front cover. Within seconds, I realized it was a “gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free” baking book, featuring “treats without guilt.” I dropped it back on the shelf like a hot potato. I’d rather make cookies with flour and sugar, and eat less of them, than settle for sawdusty pucks of sadness.

Sometimes I feel like the world is becoming increasingly obsessed with eradicating all things ‘bad’ from our diet. There’s a fixation on ‘clean eating,’ fueled by celebrity health gurus, vegan bloggers, and hashtag-happy Instagrammers. The term conjures images of massaged kale salads, pressed carrot juice, and cauliflower-crust pizzas – foods that are supposed to sound lovely, but, once you look past the fancy photo filters, are hardly satisfying daily fare.

On one hand, it’s great that there is growing interest in improving nutrition and that more people understand the power food has to make us feel good in every sense; but on the other hand, it can go too far. As explained in The Guardian, young people in particular are often unable to draw necessary boundaries and end up hurting themselves through their dedication to clean eating.

Rhiannon Lambert, a registered associate nutritionist in London, treats around 180 patients annually for eating disorders. She has seen the number of people presenting due to clean eating double over the past year. She told The Guardian:

“Young people lose sleep over this and cannot afford the lifestyle needed to maintain it. Health bloggers can be unqualified and offer dangerous advice. Not all of them want to impose their lifestyle on others, but lots of them do and they often give advice on clean eating with no scientific backing. The books come along, the products come along and these people are now role models whose every word will inspire impressionable young people. I have clients who think they have to be vegan to be successful.”

The problem with the clean eating movement is that it suggests other foods are ‘dirty,’ by comparison, even though those ‘dirty’ foods may contain nutrients important for human health. This can balloon into a full-blown mental illness called orthorexia nervosa, whereupon young women in particular (although men are far more affected than they used to be) start out trying to eat cleanly, but then become fixated on food quality, purity, and eating ‘righteously.’

Says Ursula Philpot, a dietitian at the British Dietetic Association:

“At the top of most people’s lists [of bad foods] is gluten and dairy. When you talk to young people more, you find out about their stringent rules – some will worry all day about eating a biscuit.”

In the words of teenage Eliza Moyse, whose clean eating experience turned badly, “It’s like making an enemy out of everyday food, making it something negative in people’s heads.”

I have to admit, I had no idea this problem was so serious. In fact, I wrote a post for TreeHugger in the summer, praising clean eating trend for dealing a death blow to dieting, at least in the traditional sense. Now it appears I must eat my own words.

There are no firm numbers on how many young people follow a clean eating regime, but experts agree that numbers seem to be rising, as is the popularity of health bloggers. Deanna Jade, founder of the UK’s National Centre for Eating Disorders, said the number of orthorexia cases she’s seen has doubled over the past five years:

“There’s now more pressure than ever to be healthy. There are too many messages in the media and especially social media. What worries me is that a lot of people promoting these ideas have no knowledge of nutrition. I don’t know what the solution is, but a lot of the time getting people to recover from an eating disorder means getting them to relax their ideas about clean eating.”

All the more reason for me to bake a batch of double chocolate cookies and eat them with my kids, to show them it won’t kill us to have a few each day. I’ll just be sure to serve salad at dinner.

When 'clean eating' becomes unhealthy
Over-zealous adherence to a 'clean' diet is leading to increased numbers of orthorexia nervosa, an eating disorder that obsesses over eating 'righteously.'

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