Jessica Alba does it. Miranda Kerr does it. Gwyneth Paltrow wrote a cookbook about it. “Clean eating” has picked up steam in the past few years as the healthy eating plan du jour. But just like any health trend, its meteoric rise has been countered by naysayers, who say it is unsustainable at best and dangerous at worse. In fact, the British Dietetic Association identified “clean eating” as its number one “worst celebrity diet[s] to avoid.” Whoa. But what’s so bad about incorporating more salads and veggies into your diet? It seems harmless…right?
Well, first, let’s define—or attempt to define—clean eating. At its simplest, clean eating is about consuming nothing but “whole” or “unprocessed” foods. Keri Glassman, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the founder of Nutritious Life, describes it like this: “[Eating] whole, real, unprocessed foods as often as possible. In other words, naturally nutrient-dense foods. It is mostly plant-based by default.” But that’s a pretty broad answer, no? The problem with clean eating, it seems, lies in its ambiguity. Sure, lots of people have a healthy version of eating clean, but because there’s no set definition, it’s easy for some dieters to take it too far (just like another food trend that’s become popular recently, intermittent fasting).
So what does it look like when clean eating goes wrong? On a basic level, thinking of food as the enemy takes the joy out of an activity that should be pleasurable. It can also, more seriously, lead to disordered eating behaviors. Even diets that are marketed as healthy or wellness-focused could cause a fairly new type of eating disorder, orthorexia.
Wait, what’s orthorexia? According to the National Eating Disorder Association, “The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1998 and means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being.” When clean eating turns into a preoccupation, that’s when things can get dangerous.