Clean Eating Is Not Healthy—It's a Harmful Trend
The phrase "clean eating" is often used in wellness circles to denote a preference for natural, organic foods over artificial, processed ingredients. At face value, this is undeniably beneficial. After all, the human body requires essential nutrients to function, many of which come from vegetables, fruits, and other whole foods. It's important to be mindful of this. However, I feel using the word "clean" to talk about eating habits is problematic. In extreme cases, I worry it could even influence eating disorder behaviors. In my humble opinion, clean eating is not healthy—it's a harmful trend with potentially serious consequences.
Why I Believe the Clean Eating Trend Is Harmful
I have no qualms whatsoever about a plate full of vibrant, fresh, nutritious foods. I am a vegetarian, in fact, so I do value conscious, wholesome eating. As I mentioned above, it's the "clean" factor that I have a problem with. To me, "clean" feels like an indication of purity. When I follow this particular diet, I am morally superior, but if I veer outside of those "clean eating" parameters, I become a moral failure. So if I'm no longer clean, then it stands to reason I must be contaminated—or so this trend implies, at least.
But as I have learned from 10 years of anorexia recovery, when the lines between food choices and personal identity blur together, harmful beliefs and restrictive patterns around eating can incrementally start to emerge. There's no need to take my word alone for it, though. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) concurs:
"Clean eating has exploded in popularity, from a fixation on leafy greens to the normalization of juice-based diets. Nutrition should be respected, but labeling food as 'clean' or 'dirty' is just dieting by another name, and dieting is the most important predictor of a developing eating disorder."1
This obsession with clean eating, according to NEDA, is often referred to as orthorexia. While it does not currently meet the formal diagnostic criteria for a mental illness, orthorexia can be just as debilitating as bulimia, anorexia, or another eating disorder. In some cases, it can lead to malnourishment and severe weight loss. It can also co-occur alongside other mental health concerns such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).2
My Experience with Clean Eating Tendencies
As much work as I have put into my healing process, I sometimes wrestle with orthorexic tendencies in my own eating habits. I have to be aware of my motivation for checking nutritional labels and ingredient profiles. Is this action spurred by a genuine desire to care for my health? Or is there an ulterior motive beneath the surface to restrict—and vilify—entire food groups? Am I scared to consume anything that isn't natural and pure? Have I categorized so many foods as off-limits that I'm starting to have symptoms of nutrient deficiencies?
If the answer to any of those questions raises a red flag about my current relationship with food, this tells me I need to re-evaluate both my thoughts and behaviors. I do not want to be ruled by this irrational fear that an ingredient I consume will somehow make me dirty. Rather, I want to feel pleasure and nourishment from the food I eat—whether it's an organic piece of fruit or an indulgent bowl of chocolate ice cream. In my experience, the clean eating trend will not facilitate this outcome. Instead of harmful, restrictive dieting, it's so much healthier to listen to the body and practice conscious, mindful eating.
Schurrer, M. (2022, May 12). Clean Eating Is Not Healthy—It's a Harmful Trend, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, February 5 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/survivinged/2022/5/clean-eating-is-not-healthy-its-a-harmful-trend
Author: Mary-Elizabeth Schurrer
I agree with you. Mindful eating sounds more correct especially towards those who struggles with eating disorders.
Thanks so much for sharing! I definitely concur—mindful eating can be such an instrumental practice in eating disorder recovery, as well as health maintenance overall.