The Dangers of Clean Eating

The Dangers of Clean EatingI have many friends advocating a “clean eating” lifestyle. On the surface, this seems like a good idea. Eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods. That’s always a wise goal.

However, sometimes this nebulous concept of “clean eating” devolves into food camps almost religious in their fervor. In one camp, I have dear friends who are vegan because they read The China Study. In another camp, I have friends who avoid all bread because they read Wheat Belly. And then in another are my friends who have gone Paleo and espouse the virtues of meat, meat, and more meat (with a side of vegetables). I know half a dozen children whose mothers claim are allergic to gluten, even though the chances of this statistical cluster are slim.

These specific dietary choices are fine. We make food choices for a variety of reasons, whether for perceived health, ethical considerations, or simple personal preference. Want to eat vegan, gluten free, Paleo, organic, local, sugar-free, etc..? Have at it as long as you don’t accidentally create nutritional holes.

Unfortunately, we are not a live and let live food culture. Therefore, unsurprisingly, food has become the newest entry in the Mommy Wars. These personal decisions are often debated via social media networks or mom groups. Moms wonder who is feeding their kids the healthiest diet and toss different, often shaky, internet sources back and forth. Playdates become occasions for food self-consciousness. Will a mom scoff if I offer non-organic oranges or, heaven forbid, cheese crackers and teddy grahams?

I went to one birthday party where the mother stayed up all night to bake stuffed homemade oatmeal cookies in lieu of cupcakes and was sure to tell us she only used organic sugar and that her daughter had never tasted a cupcake. (Did she rip the cupcake out of her daughter’s hands at other kids’ birthday parties?) The cookies were delicious, but my body and my kids’ bodies didn’t care whether the sugar was organic or not. Sugar is sugar. And it was a kid’s birthday party. Sometimes food doesn’t need to be overthought.

The line between caring about your family’s health and obsessing about minute food decisions is easy to cross. Not only does this obsession stress out mothers in pursuit of the perfect diet, but it also creates social friction as some mothers adopt one diet and others adopt another.

Sometimes moms in search of the perfect healthy “lifestyle” pass along dysfunctional food categories to their children. Ironically, in their effort to be good moms they often inculcate disordered eating in their own children by creating “good” and “bad” food categories for their children to internalize. The mom who baked homemade “healthier” cookies and who forbade cupcakes was probably not a disordered eater, at least not pathologically. However, the leap from annoyingly health conscious to disordered eating is not large.

I met a 10 year old girl who could list the “healthy” foods she was allowed to eat and all the “bad” foods she would never put into her body. I asked her where this list came from. She said her mother was a “a very healthy eater” and had taught her what foods to eat and what foods were bad.

This child’s relationship with food saddened me. I didn’t even know how to classify it. It certainly wasn’t healthy, but neither was it hovering around a clear eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia or binge eating. I couldn’t even pinpoint what unsettled me so much about her relationship with food. On the surface, her diet was better than most, certainly better than developing type 2 diabetes at 10 or living off McDonalds. But eating “unhealthy” food gave her anxiety. Food was exclusively a source of “health,” rather than a source of sociability or enjoyment.

Furthermore, if “healthy” foods weren’t around, she became anxious and refused to eat. At 10, bread was enemy #1. Bread! That’s crazy. She was actually aghast when I joked gluten was my favorite “food group” because I adored fresh baked honey wheat bread. She worried that I was irretrievably harming my body and she wondered how I was thin (she was clearly equating health with thinness, maybe without knowing it).

I couldn’t even begin to unravel her question or her dietary misconceptions. I wanted to explain that when I was younger I had my own disordered relationship with food, but that today I don’t deprive myself of any food category, that I eat for enjoyment as well as for health. I wanted to explain that food obsession can overtake a person’s life.

But I didn’t say any of that because she clearly thought she was the poster child for health. She was proud of her mother for passing along healthy food habits, so I knew questioning the way she talked about food would also be questioning her mother.

She was disgusted by her friends who ate fast food and were overweight. She said she would never be like them. I agreed that eating her kale and quinoa and organic meats was great, that those foods were awesome. But I tried to tell her eating chocolate or having an occasional milkshake with friends was okay too. She wouldn’t hear it. In her mind, foods were good and healthy or bad and unhealthy.

Her particular relationship with food confounded me. What do you call someone obsessed with healthy food choices? Someone who still eats, who doesn’t binge eat, who doesn’t force herself to vomit, but who nonetheless thinks of food in binaries?

The answer is orthorexia nervosa, the newest delineated eating disorder. I’m not a medical professional and I’m not after the fact diagnosing this little girl. Nevertheless, the orthorexia red flags were there.

Orthorexia is characterized by a preoccupation with the nutritional makeup of the foods one eats. This preoccupation becomes a full blown disorder when it affects social relationships or makes a person fearful of eating certain types of foods.

At its most extreme, orthorexia sufferers do not meet their nutritional needs, an ironic consequence of obsessing about health. Orthorexia differs from anorexia because the goal in itself isn’t thinness. The goal is health, but the black and white lines between unhealthy and healthy foods and the obsession with this goal can result in extreme weight loss.

Just as anorexia is not simply about food, orthorexia likely is not simply about health. Certainly an element of control and perfection is involved. However, our society seems to encourage behaviors that lend themselves to orthorexia. We are searching for the perfect healthy human diet. The diet books gain their market share by telling us how to maximize our health potential. And moms worry a candy bar will set their children up for perpetual failure.

So beware of  “clean eating’s” dangers. Too much of it can cross the line between caring for yourself and your family’s health and unintentionally fostering an eating disorder. Obsession isn’t helpful and it definitely isn’t healthy.

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2 thoughts on “The Dangers of Clean Eating

  1. Yes and yes! I wrote a post a few years ago with the advent of “clean eating” from a faith perspective ( If some foods are “clean,” then others must be “dirty.” And if we are what we eat, then eating “dirty” foods makes you feel dirty; that is if you see food that way. Calling a diet “clean eating” can definitely be dangerous to our mental and emotional state, which translates to our overall health. Thanks for posting!


    1. I hadn’t thought of it from a faith perspective, but that is a really good point (especially because the language surrounding food is often imbued with meanings far wider than the actual nutrient content of what we are ingesting).


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