Clean eating: signs it has gone too far
Improving a junk food-based diet is a smart goal, and it’s great to fix your eating habits by enjoying more vegetables or less candy. Or maybe you will go a step further, and try out the latest health trends – from tea-toxing to juice cleanses to eating only alkalizing foods. While you won’t find a panacea down these paths, you won’t likely find harm either, as long as you take a moderate approach.
But for some, the search for health through dietary perfectionism can result in unhealthy habits, nutritional deficiencies and disordered eating. How far can you go before the desire to achieve better health gets out of hand?
The term “clean eating” has been trending for a few years now. There are blogs, books and magazines dedicated to this practice, which includes the enjoyment of food in its most natural state, with an emphasis on choosing organic foods, avoiding processed products, and making environmentally sustainable choices. It’s a diet that’s supposed to be good for people and good for the planet. Win-win.
The drive to eat clean can be about overall wellbeing, or can focus specifically on alleviating a chronic health concern like digestive trouble, obesity or high blood pressure. So let’s be clear – there are lots of merits to a healthy diet based on whole, unprocessed foods, especially when dietary improvements are made in partnership with a dietitian.
The problem comes when the desire to eat clean becomes obsessive. It’s one thing to cut back on sugar by drinking fewer soft drinks. It’s a totally different thing to unnecessarily cut grains, meat, dairy, fruit, sugar or other things from the diet, without any medical reason to do so. Some people get so caught up in eating clean that the list of foods they avoid surpasses the list of foods they eat. It becomes strict and too severe.
Many dietitians worry that the “clean” mentality is dangerous because it creates the inevitable opposite: that other foods are “dirty.” This may lead to the feeling of guilt or shame when indulging in “unclean” or dirty foods like sweets, pastries or chips. But food is not about guilt or shame – it’s about health, taste and enjoyment. There is no such thing as a dirty food.
Are you going too far?
When pleasure from food turns into obsession and rigidity, it’s a sign that a problem is brewing alongside the kombucha. Eventually food choices become so restrictive that health suffers, which is an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to their health. Some people start to believe so many foods are dirty that food becomes something they fear instead of something that nourishes their body.
Dr. Steven Bratman coined the term “orthorexia nervosa” to describe this pathological fixation on eating clean and proper food. Medical dictionaries define orthorexia as “An eating disorder that makes you obsessed with eating only unprocessed, organic, or other “pure” foods.”
There are health consequences with such intense food restriction, including extreme weight loss, nutrient deficiencies, malnutrition and medical complications such as heart failure. People with orthorexia report a marked decline in quality of life, with the loss of relationships, social isolation and the obsession of constantly worrying about food.
Signs of a problem? Take this self-test
Here’s the important point: eating a diet that makes you feel healthier is not orthorexia. It is only problematic when the diet becomes obsessive and all-consuming. Take this test to see if your eating is on track or if you may need help finding better balance. Answer yes or no to these 10 questions:
- I have trouble finding something clean to eat in most restaurants.
- I avoid many foods without a medical reason to do so.
- I only eat foods made from pure, organic ingredients, with no exceptions.
- I have trouble travelling because of my food restrictions.
- I feel guilt and shame when I deviate from my self-imposed strict eating plan.
- I feel at peace when I’m in total control of my food intake.
- I believe that certain foods are dirty and off-limits.
- I spend a three or four few hours each day planning and prepping my meals.
- I feel superior for eating well and often lecture others about their poor eating habits.
- I cannot enjoy dinner with friends or family because I won’t eat what they are eating.
While this checklist is not meant as a diagnostic tool, it’s important to track the number of times you answered “yes.” The more times you said yes, the more likely it is that your clean eating is becoming too rigid. If you feel that’s the case, make a plan to speak with a dietitian or therapist (or both), who can help you find joy and balance in your eating habits again.
Cara’s book, Nourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nut and Beans is available on Amazon.
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