Food

8 Warning Signs That Reveal the Dark Side of 'Clean Eating'

In some cases, the clean eating diet fad has led to severe eating disorders.

Photo Credit: Dmitry A/Shutterstock

We live in an age where almost any belief can be justified by a quick Google search. Take "clean eating," a diet fad that over the past few years has taken the web by storm. With its challenge to mainstream thought on nutrition and hordes of social media-savvy ambassadors, clean eating had all the ingredients for a viral hit. But like so many internet-fueled obsessions, it has had some serious consequences.

The philosophy behind clean eating is relatively simple. Basically, it's the myth that a diet should contain only "whole" or "unprocessed" foods. The problem lies in its ambiguity. While some have interpreted the diet as simple veganism, other, more obsessed corners of the internet have taken clean eating to extremes. For these clean-eating obsessives, many regular foods are now considered impure. Justified by this belief, followers of the fad have started to severely limit their diets. Instead of making them healthier, clean eating has led to increased cases of severe eating disorders.

One prominent case is Jordan Younger, a popular New York City wellness blogger. As the Guardian recently reported, Younger first noticed something was wrong with her diet when she started experiencing hair loss. According to her instagram, the Blonde Vegan (which had 70,000 followers at its peak), Younger labeled herself a "gluten-free, sugar-free, oil-free, grain-free, legume-free, plant-based raw vegan." Dispensing advice with the hashtag #eatclean, Younger soon experienced the backlash when she developed an eating disorder that has since come to be known as orthorexia.

"I have absolutely seen a rise in orthorexic patients as a nutrition therapist," Karin Kratina, a nutritional therapist and eating disorder specialist, said in an interview with Broadly. According to Kratina, the concept of clean eating, which moralizes the way we consume food, has played a major role in this "exponentially" growing problem. Unlike other eating disorders that obsess over the quantity of food being consumed, orthorexia has more to do with perception of the food itself.

"Nutritionists and psychologists say that they’re seeing it more often, especially in the face of restrictive food trends, like gluten-free, and growing information about where food comes from, and how it’s grown and processed," dietician Heather Hansman told Fast Company.

People like Younger have largely driven this trend through the power of social media. A 2015 paper by Psychology of Women Quarterly found that women are increasingly comparing themselves to images found on Facebook. "Our research shows that spending more time reading magazines and on Facebook is associated with greater self-objectification among young women and these relationships are influenced by women's tendency to compare their appearance to others, particularly to peers on Facebook," said researchers from the study, according to Science Daily.

So what is it about clean eating and social media that makes it such a powerful combination? According to Giles Yeo, a University of Cambridge geneticist interviewed by the Guardian, it has to do with the fact the myths around clean eating contain “a kernel of truth." Eating more vegetables, less refined sugar and meat are obviously important features of any healthy diet, said Yeo, but the problems creep in with the puritanical language used by #eatclean advocates. As a result, those who follow the trend cannot separate fact from fiction—a problem increasingly familiar in our post-truth culture.

In order to dispel these myths, the first step requires acknowledging what constitutes the disorder associated with clean eating. An article on 3Plusinternational lists eight warning signs associated with those who could be clean-eating their way toward orthorexia:

  1. Obsession with a "pure and healthy" diet
  2. Self-diagnosed allergies and intolerances without medical testing
  3. Low or underweight, or striving for an "ideal weight"
  4. Fanatical exercise regime, an inability to carry out causes anxiety
  5. Fixation on foods that are believed to be healthy and "pure"
  6. Extreme beliefs about diet and health
  7. Inability to follow food regimen causes anxiety
  8. Moderated social interaction to maintain dietary restrictions

If you know someone who may be exhibiting these symptoms, it's important to act. But as Steven Bratman, the doctor who first diagnosed orthorexia, advises on Elite Daily, simply explaining the ill effects of clean eating and the health reasons for why a person should stop is not enough. "It's like telling them to do something evil, like go drive drunk; they're not going to do that," he explained, comparing those with the disorder to people suffering from an addiction. Given that fact, said Bratman, the sufferer first needs to recognize that she or he has a problem.

More broadly, as a society we need to address the underlying concern that drives this trend on the internet in first place: our food systems. "There’s a danger that, in fighting the nonsense of clean eating, we end up looking like apologists for a commercial food supply that is failing in its basic task of nourishing us," writes the Guardian’s Bee Wilson. The best solution would be to improve the quality of food that ends up in grocery stores and restaurants. Of course, doing so is easier said than done, which is likely why so many are attracted by the radical nature of clean eating.

Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York. He tweets infrequently @RobScherHimself.

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