Clean Eating May Not Be the Healthiest New Year’s Resolution

New Year's

Contributor: Staff at McCallum Place

Thinking about switching to clean eating in the new year? You may want to reconsider.

Supporters of clean eating say that it can help people boost their health. But when taken too far, this eating approach can cause some people to struggle with unhealthy eating behaviors, which can lead to an eating disorder if left unchecked.

What Is Clean Eating?

There are many different definitions of clean eating, so one person’s version of this eating approach may vastly differ from another’s.

In general, clean eating involves only eating foods that do not contain additives, preservatives, or processed ingredients. For example, a person might limit the processed foods in their diet and eat more high-quality proteins, beans, and whole fruits and vegetables [1].

Other versions of this diet maintain that eating clean foods cleanses or detoxifies the body, resulting in certain health benefits. That means that eating foods that fall outside this diet is considered nutritionally deficient, impure, harmful, dirty, or even immoral.

Despite this lack of consistency, most people seem to agree on one thing: it’s a healthy way to eat. In a small study of about 150 college undergraduates, 91% of participants said that clean eating was a good way to care for one’s overall wellness. They told researchers that the top reasons they would try a clean diet are to lose weight, get healthier, and feel in control of their eating habits [1].

A larger study of about 700 women ages 17-55 found that around the same number of participants felt the same about clean eating: 40% felt positively, and 40% felt negatively. In taking a closer look, 46% believed that clean eating encourages people to eat healthier, and 21% felt that it boosts a person’s health [3].

So, if eating clean is supposed to be good for your health, what’s the harm?

A Step Too Far

Too much of a good thing isn’t always healthy. Identifying certain foods as bad or unclean can lead to cutting them out unnecessarily, and that can actually be bad for a person’s health if they aren’t getting proper nutrition [2].

Cutting out foods can also snowball quicker than a person expects, and they may suddenly have a very limited selection of things they can eat. Not only can this hurt a person’s health, but it can also affect their social life.

There may only be a few restaurants that serve foods they can eat, or they may feel embarrassed or ashamed to eat in front of others. They are then faced with a choice between maintaining their relationships or eating a clean diet.

For many people, clean eating often wins.

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From Diet to Disorder

When clean eating starts to come before a person’s relationships or other priorities, they may have developed an unhealthy fixation on healthy eating. Over time, this can put them at risk for developing an eating disorder.

Restricting certain foods is common for those who have eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). But a lesser-known condition called orthorexia nervosa involves an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating [4].

While not formally recognized as an eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), orthorexia can cause a person to become so focused on eating a certain way that it can damage their health and relationships.

“In the case of orthorexia, it centers around eating cleanly and purely, where the other eating disorders center around size and weight and a drive for thinness,” Sondra Kronberg, founder and executive director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative, told NPR.

Like eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, orthorexia can be accompanied by mental health concerns such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or an anxiety disorder. Someone who is struggling with orthorexia might feel intense pressure to perfectly maintain a clean eating diet, and they may suffer from overwhelming anxiety when faced with barriers to eating cleanly.

While a person may have started eating clean to control their health, they may lose that sense of control somewhere along the way.

There’s nothing wrong with setting a resolution to get healthier in the new year. But knowing where to find the line between eating a nutritious diet and obsessing over every meal can help ensure that your eating habits remain healthy.

If you find yourself struggling with obsessive thoughts about healthy eating, reach out for professional help. Working with experts can help you develop a healthier relationship with food and the way you eat.

References

[1] DeSoto, L. (2021, November 4). Clean eating: What does the research say? Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/clean-eating-what-does-the-research-say.

[2] Ambwani, S., Shippe, M., Gao, Z., & Austin, B. (2019). Is #cleaneating a healthy or harmful dietary strategy? Perceptions of clean eating and associations with disordered eating among young adults. Journal of Eating Disorders. 7, 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-019-0246-2.

[3] Allen, M., Dickinson, K., & Prichard, I. (2018). The dirt on clean eating: A cross sectional analysis of dietary intake, restrained eating and opinions about clean eating among women. Nutrients. 10(9), 1,266. DOI: 10.3390/nu10091266.

[4] National Eating Disorders Association. (2021). Information by eating disorder. Retrieved December 9, 2021 https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/information-eating-disorder.

[5] Fulton, A. 2019. When efforts to eat ‘clean’ become an unhealthy obsession. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2019/10/07/766847274/when-efforts-to-eat-clean-become-an-unhealthy-obsession.

[6] Vuillier, L., Robertson, S., & Greville-Harris, M. (2020). Orthorexic tendencies are linked with difficulties with emotion identification and regulation. Journal of Eating Disorders. 8, 15. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40337-020-00291-7.

[7] National Eating Disorders Association. (2021). Orthorexia. Retrieved December 9, 2021 https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia.


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The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published January 5, 2022 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on January 5, 2022, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC