While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat healthy, even that can be taken to extremes.
The “clean eating” trend that’s so popular these days on social media, for example, is actually leading many into an eating disorder called orthorexia—an obsession with avoiding processed or “dirty” foods. It’s particularly dangerous for people recovering from disorders like anorexia and bulimia because it serves as yet another way to restrict and obsess over food.
“Saying you’ve recovered from an eating disorder and now you eat ‘clean’ and stay away from processed foods is like saying you are sober…yet maintain a ‘healthy’ relationship to alcohol by sticking to wine and beer,” writes Jennifer Rollin for The Huffington Post.
The truly insidious nature of clean eating is that it’s completely socially acceptable. Instagram photos, cookbooks, and recipe websites all endorse it. They ignore the fact that separating food into “good” and “bad” categories can lead to obsession and other negative—and dangerous—behavior. Juice cleanses and “detox” diets come with very little scientific basis behind them, and yet they remain incredibly popular.
“It’s like saying, ‘Let me heal from my mental illness that causes me to obsess and focus [on] food and my body by finding a new way to obsess and focus on food and my body,” writes Rollin.
Hannah Matthews, writing for SELF, comes to a similar conclusion. For Americans—particularly American women—healthy eating is already closely linked to ideas of deprivation. Add clean eating to that, and you get a recipe for a socially acceptable mental, and often physical, illness. Already constantly exposed to a cultural fixation on the female body, women are also reminded that clean eating is a way to improve and “purify” their bodies.
According to NEDA, orthorexia symptoms include compulsively checking nutrition labels, being unable to eat anything that isn’t designated “pure,” obsessing over bloggers or social media figures promoting clean eating, and showing an unusual interest in what others are eating.
Orthorexia hasn’t been recognized by the DSM-5 as a disorder, so it can’t be officially medically diagnosed. But many healthcare professionals are keeping an eye out for patients exhibiting the signs, including the physical side effects of clean eating: binging or emotional eating, low energy, dry skin, abnormal blood work, and even stress fractures.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat healthy. But the rising “clean eating” fad has taken that desire to an extreme, endangering lives and ruining the mental and physical health of the people it supposedly helps. What’s worse, the fact that it’s so socially acceptable means many people who suffer from orthorexia don’t even see it as a problem. There’s healthy, and then there are dangerous eating habits. As a culture it’s our job to recognize the dangers of “clean eating” and focus on healthier, more sustainable options.