Clean Eating: When It Becomes An Unhealthy And Dangerous Obsession

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The clean eating trend is in full-force, and it seems like everywhere we go our co-workers, best friends, even our own mothers are jumping on the bandwagon. We can’t go five minutes on social media without someone sharing their clean eating blog, or seeing pictures of celebrities downing smoothies that give them glowing skin and boosts of energy. While making healthier life choices is often encouraged by health professionals, the idea could quickly spiral out of control for people who are prone to eating disorders, depression and anxiety.

How is clean eating linked to eating disorders?

Eating disorders are a form of mental illness that are complex and often misunderstood. Our definition of eating disorders is constantly evolving and with the rise of clean eating diet trends, a new type of eating disorder has emerged, called orthorexia. Orthorexia is the term used to describe a person’s unhealthy relationship with food characterized by their obsession of healthy eating.

What does orthorexia look like?

People with orthorexia are often obsessed with defining and maintaining what they consider to be the perfect diet. This is not the same thing as eating disorders that are motivated by the perfect weight.

Common traits of people suffering with orthorexia:

  • Anxiety and obsessive concern over their relationship with food and health concerns (often without seeking medical advice)
  • Elimination of entire food groups and a strict, limited list of acceptable food choices
  • Increased consumption of supplements and herbal remedies
  • Anxiety over food preparation and meal ingredients

How do I know if someone has orthorexia?

Any one of these symptoms on their own is not necessarily cause for concern, however, the most alarming red flag is when a person’s health obsession begins to interfere with their daily activities and social interactions.

Emotional symptoms of people with orthorexia:

  • Guilt when failing to adhere to a specific diet
  • Time-consuming meal planning
  • Feelings of pride or satisfaction when adhering to strict diet rules
  • Criticism of others who don’t follow strict diets
  • Fear of eating away from home or eating meals prepared by others
  • Isolating themselves from friends and family

But isn’t healthy eating a good thing?

In general, making healthier food choices is not a definite indicator of an eating disorder. But clean eating can become problematic when a person’s choices become more like obligations, and if they fail to fulfill those obligations they become panicked and ashamed. Orthorexic behavior can lead to severe health complications if not treated. People with orthorexia are often malnourished and underweight, which can lead to heart complications. Most people with orthorexia also struggle with depression, anxiety, mood swings, as well as strained interpersonal relationships.

How to get help

If you or someone you care about is showing signs of orthorexic behavior, seeking professional help is highly recommended. At Partners in Health and Wellbeing, therapist Emily Camera, MSW specializes in topics such as eating disorders, trauma, PTSD and anxiety disorders. By taking a compassionate and empathetic approach, Emily helps adults and adolescents with eating disorders, and says, “Therapy coupled with nutrition counseling has proven to be successful in helping people to restructure their attitudes and behaviors around food.”

To learn more about our therapists and services provided at Partners in Health and Wellbeing, please visit our website. You can also call the office at (302) 655-2627 to schedule an appointment, or request an appointment online.

To learn more about orthorexia and eating disorders, please visit the National Eating Disorders Association website: