The whole idea of clean eating would be pretty harmless if it was mostly about eating fresh food and being more restrained when it comes to highly processed foods. In a time when Australia is facing an obesity epidemic (63% of Australian adults are overweight or obese), it hardly seems as though a dedication to a healthy diet could be a negative thing. But by categorising food as being either “clean” or “unclean”, we are entering into murky and undefined waters.
Have we underestimated the huge impact language has on our relationship with food?
With social media by its side, the clean eating campaign has become more about restriction, elimination and for some, even shame. Just by looking at #cleaneating tag on Instagram, we can see how “healthy eating” has become more about giving up whole foods groups, rather than finding balance and moderation. We see tags like #glutenfree, #sugarfree, #raw, #vegan and #dairyfree, which all ultimately lead to you feeling #guiltfree…
Herein lies the problem.
The association of “guilt” and “food” can lead to a disordered relationship with food.
Increased anxiety and guilt around eating can impact someone’s ability to enjoy social eating, maintain healthy relationships and can negatively impact their children’s eating behaviours. When “clean eating” is associated with a desire to lose weight, many people experience an increase in body image dissatisfaction and a decrease in self worth at times when they’re (inevitably) unable to stick with the demands of “eating clean” which can lead to anxiety, emotional distress and social isolation.
I think behind the notion of ‘clean eating’ is an implication that any other form of eating is dirty or shameful.”
“I don’t like extremes,” she continued, “I think that’s the real truth. I think that food should not be used as a way of persecuting oneself and I think really one should look to get pleasure about what’s good rather than either think ‘Oh no, that’s dirty, bad or sinful’ or ‘eating is virtuous.’”
By labelling food “clean” we place a moral value on food, which can then lead to it becoming entwined with one’s sense of self-worth. This is where the pursuit of “perfect” health can become an unhealthy obsession. This is can lead to a form of disordered eating known as Orthorexia Nervosa.
So what is Orthorexia?
Orthorexia was a term coined by American doctor Steven Bratman after he, himself, began experiencing and unhealthy obsession with food:
All I could think about was food. But even when I became aware that my scrabbling in the dirt after raw vegetables and wild plants had become an obsession, I found it terribly difficult to free myself. I had been seduced by righteous eating.
It is important to note that Orthorexia is NOT THE SAME AS HEALTHY EATING! Rather, Orthorexia describes a self-punishing relationship with food that involves a continuous shrinking pool of foods which are deemed acceptable. Unfortunately, this description draws many parallels to modern dietary fads that promise “superior health” by eliminating entire food groups without scientific validation. For some, the #cleaneating campaign may normalise their restrictive eating habits, preventing them from understanding the point at which they move from normal eating to disordered eating.
I lucky enough to speak with Rebecca Reynolds, Lecturer and Nutritionist at UNSW (we previously reposted her article about celebrity nutrition which you can find here), about how the growing obsession with #cleaneating could possibly have negative impacts.
Here is a little bit of what she had to say:
“I think that the growing number [of] followers of strict healthy eating trends, including clean eating, can come with many negative consequences. Including eating disorders…I think that trends today [are] often promoted by attractive celebrities with no solid science qualifications.
[These] are often based on misunderstandings of basic biochemistry and physiology and of modern medicine’s “artificial” but potentially life-[saving] effects. Unfortunately, modern, affluent societies today idolise appearance more than inner substance. This image-focus, as well as our innate incomprehension and fear of ageing and death, perhaps leads us to obsess about life-promoting ideals that we feel we have some control over?
There is no need to be obsessive about eating healthily. The stress of the obsession itself may far outweigh any health negatives of eating a croissant each day.
AT THE END OF THE DAY you have to eat what makes you feel good. If “clean eating” works for you, if you feel healthier and happier, than by all means continue. But do not feel as though you have to give up a certain food or ingredient that you love for fear that it is “toxic” or a “sin”. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again – BALANCE AND MODERATION are the keys to a healthy relationship with food!