Finding Balance in Healthy Eating: The Dangers of Obsessive 'Clean Eating’
Nowadays, it's hard to figure out what it means to eat "healthy". There are so many different opinions out there and they often contradict each other.
As a dietitian, I've noticed that more and more women are feeling guilty and bad about themselves if they don't eat what they consider to be "pure", "clean", or "healthy" foods. But, even though they think they're eating healthily, there are some signs that it's become a problem. When people feel like they have to eat perfectly and get distressed or very anxious if they can't, it's called Orthorexia (1). This isn't an official diagnosis yet, but it's a term that's commonly used to describe this type of eating. There are many ways that our relationship with food can become unhealthy, and "clean eating" is just one of them.
We also know that people who have previously had an eating disorder like anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa may be at a higher risk of developing a new type of unhealthy eating called orthorexia (2). This could also increase their chances of going back to their previous eating disorder.
What does it mean to eat "clean"? It might look different for each person, but there are some signs that your relationship with food might not be healthy.
To see if your relationship with food might not be healthy, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I spend a lot of time reading blogs about nutrition and specific ways of eating?
- Do I have trouble focusing at work or school because I'm always thinking about food or planning my meals?
- Have I cut out certain foods or food groups from my diet?
- Do I feel guilty after eating "bad" foods, but proud or accomplished after eating "good" or "clean" foods?
- Is it hard for me to eat food that someone else prepared?
- Do I spend a lot of time planning my meals ahead of time?
- Am I starting to avoid socializing with others so I can stick to my eating routine?
- Do I judge other people's eating habits or try to get them to eat the way I do?
If some of these questions sound like you, it's possible that you're putting your mental and physical health at risk by being too strict and limiting with your food choices.
What are the risks of "clean eating”?
- You might not be getting all the important nutrients your body needs, even if you're eating enough calories.
- It can mess with your hormones and make it harder to have regular periods, ovulate, or get pregnant.
- Being too strict with your food choices can make you more anxious and cause more restrictions over time.
- If you only allow yourself to eat certain foods, it can affect your social life and make it hard to eat out with friends or family.
- You might start having digestive problems.
Healthy eating is about following some basic nutrition principles to improve your health, but it might look a little different for everyone. Most people can still enjoy going out to eat, having dessert (yes, even with REAL sugar!), and eating some processed foods. It's all about balance! If you're struggling with your relationship with food, check out the Be Good With Food Programme and contact me to see how we can work together to help you.
- Anastasiades E, Argyrides M. Healthy orthorexia vs orthorexia nervosa: associations with body appreciation, functionality appreciation, intuitive eating and embodiment. Eat Weight Disord. 2022 Dec;27(8):3197-3206.
- Segura-Garcia C, Ramacciotti C, Rania M, Aloi M, Caroleo M, Bruni A, Gazzarrini D, Sinopoli F, De Fazio P. The prevalence of orthorexia nervosa among eating disorder patients after treatment. Eat Weight Disord. 2015 Jun;20(2):161-6.