Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Is Clean Eating An Eating Disorder?

Q&A Wednesday: Is Clean Eating An Eating Disorder?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: Have you seen this? A new eating disorder, orthorexia, is a fixation on eating “too healthy”. I was curious about ur thoughts since the description of the disorder sounds like clean-eating. Where does one draw the line?

A: Yep, I’m familiar with the term “orthorexia.” I’m more annoyed by it than anything, but mainly because the term is abused as if to say that anyone who focuses on what they consider to be healthier eating has to have some form of anxiety about it. It has to be disordering our lives. If anything, clean eating is about learning how to make healthier living a part of our lives.

Before I even begin, Dr. Steven Bratman – the creator of the term – says the following:

FYI: “orthorexia nervosa” is not currently a diagnosis, nor do I have any personal interest in making it one. It’s a description.

The fact is, the concept of orthorexia isn’t very new – it’s almost 15 years old. It hasn’t been picked up by the DSM (the manual that is used to determine and define mental disorders), so there isn’t a very hard-set list of rules for it. (In fact, the creator of the term has said on several occasions he has no desire to see it as such, either.) So no, I’m not surprised – in the least – that there are media outlets taking the term and wildly applying it to anyone who has any focus on healthy eating in their lives. There’s no standard by which they must abide in discussing it.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m well aware of the fact that there are anorexics who hide within the “clean eating community” because it’s generally accepted that most-if-not-all of us are food snobs and do, in fact, turn our noses up at certain foods processed in certain ways. However, regardless of how well you may eat, you are never removed from the reality that is… America. Your office will always have candy. Your meetings will always have those stupid bagels. You will always have more soft drink vending machines than there are the little machines that dispense the fruit and sandwiches. You still have to function within reality. At the point where you are removing yourself from reality because of an anxiety you develop over having the perfect diet? That’s where you should do a little thinking – your eating habits are disordering your lifestyle.

Clean eating, as I see it, isn’t a focus on nutrients – which is why I don’t discuss the specifics of them here. I’m not going to only eat my tomatoes with olive oil – because I want allllllll the lycopene – as a part of clean eating. Clean eating trusts the fact that the vast array of vegetable, fruits and proteins are going to nourish you by virtue of what they are. You don’t, essentially, have to obsess. You know that the default standard of clean eating – whole food – is going to have you covered.

To me, clean eating isn’t meant to be life, it is a part of life. If anything, as a former emotional eater, clean eating gave me back my life. Clean eating is about enlisting standards, and doing everything you can to live and abide by those standards.You can do that without it being considered disordered, and I’m pretty sure that we can all agree on that. If that were the case, any time a person acted on a standard that caused them to deviate from the norm, they’d be considered “disordered.”

And while I’m really cringing at the thought of shrugging off something that can be a mental health issue, when it comes to eating in this country – a country that has a habit of defending the very companies that serve them neurotoxins and call it “natural flavoring,” hands them little packets of cancer-causing agents and call it “sweetener” and sells them cheaply-made $0.99 dinners and won’t even identify the meat in the “meat patty” on the cover because they don’t know which meat is in it – if we were to define “normal” as “the current status quo,” and we were all expected to eat like everyone else? We’d all be screwed. All we have to do is look at the collective of Blacks in America and see how screwed we’ve been in trying to eat like everyone else.

That’s how you know that orthorexia is about more than the decision to eat healthier. It’s obviously imperative to have standards. And, as Bratman says, “I do not, and have never claimed that vegetarianism, veganism, or any other approach to eating healthy food is inherently an eating disorder!”

As obvious throughout Bratman’s entire site, he has some severe regrets for the way his term has kind of picked up legs and walked through the nation’s conversation about food. Throughout the comments on his site, he can be found explaining away the fact that the media is abusing the concept. He offers up half-hearted rebuttals against the people in the comments sections of his site who offer up their loved ones as “orthorexics” because “they have an unhealthy obsession with eating healthily.”

To the average American who is more inclined to use any and every excuse they can to justify their own unhealthy habits, they’d rather take the term and use that to imply that there’s wrong to have any standards in regards to food. It’s being used as a derailing tactic, and it’s annoying. This is where the media comes into play. Because of the way food debates are portrayed, the concept of “any” or “all” of us who are healthier eaters having actual eating disorders… or the idea that the attempt to try to eat healthier is somehow disordered is enough to get any journo’s attention. I doubt Bratman ever intended this.

In all honesty, I believe that anything can overtake people’s lives. While clean eating isn’t inherently disordered eating, it certainly can become such… and only you can make that determination for yourself. When I was first learning, I thrust myself into the center of every clean eating book I could, but learning about food was very different from obsessing over when I’d eat next or – even worse – pursuing and indulging in my next emotional eating binge. That knowledge I developed changed my life. So… while self-reflection is always important, the threat of being “called” (not “diagnosed,” as Bartman said himself) orthorexic shouldn’t be enough to turn one away from pursuing healthier eating. Considering the abuse of the term and in comparison to the eating habits of the rest of the country, I wonder how terrible of a thing that’d be.

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SMH April 27, 2011 - 7:17 PM

Not discounting those with mental health disorders that lead them to obsess and become compulsive; this sounds like more marketing/$$ making. If you do not have a disorder that we can profit from we will create one. Take one acceptable habit that is growing in popularity find the extreme edge focus on it an then tell everyone that doing any of this can lead to the extreme cause anxiety and then promote a cure.

Trust your own truth – if you are eating clean and it is not harming your life or disrupting it unduly – disregard this sound bite.

Zee April 30, 2011 - 10:46 AM

Orthorexia as they describe it in the article you link to does not sound like an eating disorder to me. It sounds more like somebody’s attempt to liberate themselves from a lifetime of being exposed to highly-processed and poisonous foods. So I think you’re right. The term is being applied too loosely.

LBC May 31, 2011 - 11:49 AM

Clean eating and orthorexia aren’t the same thing. Orthorexia is to clean eating what anorexia is to calorie counting: A reasonable idea distorted beyond recognition by unhealthy obsession and wildly misguided practice. In either case, the manner of expression (extreme food restriction, based on food “health” or calorie content, or whatever) is really a vehicle for another problem: Control, perfectionism, anger, self-destructive tendencies, etc. As they say: It’s not really about food.

There is nothing at all inherently disordered about clean eating, just as there is nothing inherently disordered about calorie counting, vegetarianism, or any other eating practice or philosophy. However, orthorexics aren’t legitimate “clean eaters” because they’re doing it far, far, beyond the point of health.

So, while I agree that the term gets thrown around much too lightly by people who don’t really understand it (something that Bratman can’t really control; you don’t get to choose who misinterprets your ideas), I still think it’s a totally plausible disorder.

Frankly, I suspect that it existed long before Bratman came up with the idea but didn’t show up because people were dismissed as hypochondriacs and health-food kooks. We knew a lady at church, decades ago, who started out with a few minor complaints (seasonal allergies, that kind of thing) and eventually ended up hospitalized because she imposed so many food restrictions upon herself that she basically couldn’t eat anything. She was sort of living on brown rice and greens, and was trying to figure out how to do without the rice for . . . I forget what reason. It was years before the low-carb mania so I don’t think it was that. Anyway, the more she read, the more paranoid she became about food–because, of course, pretty much everything is potentially bad in the wrong amounts–totally lost perspective, and almost starved herself. Her allergies probably weren’t caused by food in the first place but she got stuck on the idea that she could cure them through food instead of stepping back, realizing that the process wasn’t working, and looking for other causes and solutions, like most of us would. The irrationality is what made it disordered, not the idea of clean eating.

Asia July 20, 2011 - 3:42 PM

Thank you!

For your very first paragraph, it sums up everything I wanted to say.

Bannef October 3, 2011 - 1:02 PM

Your description of the lady at church reminds me in some ways of my Grandma, although thank God it never got anywhere near that bad. It’s just that she would obsessively read health literature, trying to figure out what she should eat – if eggs were considered unhealthy in the last thing she read she wouldn’t eat them, if they were healthy she would. It wasn’t reading the literature that was the problem (although it was problematic that I don’t think she had educated herself enough to have a critical eye about the literature she was reading, instead just assuming that the scientist was smart) it was the intense anxiety about doing something “wrong.” But the problem definitely wasn’t food – it was anxiety in general, which popped up in many aspects of her – and my 🙁 – life.

Deb December 7, 2011 - 10:43 PM

LBC, great description. My daughter dealt with orthorexia and exercise compulsion for about a year of college. or Fearing she’d buy something unhealthy that would send her tailspinning into clogged arteries and diabetes, she’d spend nearly three hours in the supermarket for $15 worth of food. Part of me attributed her concern to her desire to stay slim for dance, but another part of me realized what a perfectionist she had been through school and how she’d always been so hard on herself for any little human mistake. Today, thank God, she’s back to a healthy weight, exercises and maintains a good, well-rounded diet.

Celeste August 7, 2013 - 2:43 AM

I worked in a inpatient hospital on the Eating Disorders Unit for years. Of course clean eating is not a disorder, but I must say it very easily may transform into one. Many of the people who we treated started off with some type of restricting that developed into an obsession about what they would eat. I completely agree with clean eating for reasons unrelated to eating disorders, but I also realize that when changing your diet in any way it is essential that you are paying attention to the signs that you are not adjusting as healthily as you should be. Eating disorders are very prevalent in the Black community, although it is not often addressed. As a person who suffered in the past I am always weary of any extreme diet. But healthy, clean eating is healthy and good for me, where I am now.

Genya August 29, 2013 - 8:31 PM

Well, people who try to slander someone responsible with “orthorexia” aer probably trying to justify their junk food that they are eating. This way nobody can call label them back as junkorexic idiots

Melissa Craig June 17, 2014 - 3:09 PM

Another way to brain wash people to eat crap so that they get sick and PAY MONEY for medications to “make them better”. Government. SMH

Im a proud friggin’ orthorexia!!! HELL YA BABY! ORTHOREXIA POWER!

I don’t really obsess, but if they want to call it that, Who Cares?!? 😉

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