You’re scrolling through Instagram and see lots of plates of food filled with colorful vegetables, salmon, roasted chicken, and so on. If you glance at the hashtags, you’ll likely see variations of #eatclean and #cleaneating. For those who follow health trends or diets, the clean-eating lifestyle is very familiar. There are lots of versions, but generally, it’s about avoiding anything processed. Instead, “clean eaters” choose whole foods, avoid anything in a package, and avoid anything with ingredients they can’t pronounce. On the surface, that sounds well and good, but it can actually lead to a clean-eating disorder that’s potentially dangerous. How is that possible?
The history of “clean eating”
It seems like the term “clean eating” has been around forever, but it’s actually relatively new. We couldn’t track down who started it, but it first started popping up consistently less than 10 years ago. It was a response to peoples’ fears about packaged foods and artificial ingredients. Instead, the idea was that one could get healthier by eating “whole” foods or foods that have been as least processed as possible. Ingredients like bone broth, wild-caught fish, and organic produce were necessary. Unlike a diet, clean eating wasn’t about counting calories or cutting out entire food groups. It was about watching the quality of your food, knowing where it came from, and what was done to it. Nothing wrong with that, right?
If that’s where clean eating stopped, then yes, there is nothing wrong with that, and does probably result in a much healthier diet. However, as clean eating took off on social media, the rules and claims started to morph and change. Even the term started to take on insidious significance. The idea that certain foods are “clean” means that certain foods are “dirty,” and if you aren’t eating clean, you become dirty yourself. Influencers started getting strict and making their own definitions for “clean” to mean only vegan foods or only organic foods. It was a totally unregulated, chaotic bubble of clean vs. dirty.
The clean-eating disorder
When you start to believe that certain foods are clean or dirty, and have the power to make you clean or dirty, it can turn into an obsession. This clean-eating disorder even has a name: orthorexia nervosa. Research shows that people with a history of eating disorders, OCD tendencies, and body image issues are especially vulnerable. The need to “eat clean” takes over their lives and can lead to malnutrition, if they start to cut out food groups like dairy or gluten when they don’t need to. Instead of being driven by the need to be thin, which is what most people associate eating disorders with, it’s a need to be “healthy” and “clean.”
Though orthorexia isn’t officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the term has been around since 1998. It’s just now becoming more well-known because of trends like clean eating. Symptoms include:
- Obsessively reading ingredient lists and nutritional labels
- Cutting out entire food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, etc)
- Getting stressed about the quality of the food you’re eating and always wondering about everyone else’s food
- When “clean” food isn’t available, refusing to eat anything and worrying about things like “toxins”
- Obsessively detoxing or “cleansing” when a “dirty” food is eaten
It’s all about balance
The term “clean eating” is loaded. The reality is that everything has chemicals with different effects on health, and there’s probably no easy way you can avoid eating something “dirty,” according to the nebulous guidelines. If you make your own clean-eating rules and take in the advice of trained nutritionists, and you’re able to live in a way where food doesn’t rule your life, committing to whole, less processed food is healthy. However, for many people, the clean-eating disorder is a real problem, and they take things too far. In the end, it’s all about balance, and acknowledging that eating a piece of candy or something in a box isn’t going to send your health spiraling down. You don’t become “dirty.”
The Keto diet often falls into the category of “clean eating.” What’s the science?