When Eating Clean Leads to Orthorexia

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Contributor: Staff at Carolina House

Many people have started to turn to clean eating to lose weight or get healthier. But for some people, eating clean can actually put them at an increased risk for developing certain eating disorders, like orthorexia.

As a purportedly more nutritious way to eat, clean eating has cropped up all over social media, blogs, books, and TV shows. It might seem like a harmless way to get nutrients and maintain a healthy weight, but eating clean can lead to disordered eating behaviors for some individuals.

What Is Clean Eating?

Although on the surface, it sounds like eating clean just involves eating healthy foods, clean eating is a diet — just like with any other diet, that requires limiting certain foods.

When a person eats clean, they eliminate processed or refined foods from their diet and try to eat more “real” foods, or foods with as few artificial ingredients and as little processing as possible. People who eat clean also try to incorporate more plant-based foods into their meal choices.

Although it is a diet, there are some real health benefits to clean eating, including:

  • Reduces the fat, sugar, and salt in a person’s diet because they eat less processed food
  • Encourages individuals to eat more fruits and vegetables
  • May help some people maintain a healthier weight
  • Some people eat clean for only a few weeks, while others try to make clean eating a permanent lifestyle change. And for many, it has been the lifestyle change that has made all the difference for their overall health and well-being.
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When Does Clean Eating Become Orthorexia?

But, as with any diet, clean eating isn’t the right choice for everyone, and it can be dangerous if it becomes overly restrictive. Clean eating can lead some people to engage in the bingeing behaviors associated with binge-eating disorder because they can experience intense cravings when they attempt to eliminate certain foods from their diet. This may also cause them to engage in the bingeing and purging behaviors associated with bulimia nervosa.

The focus on eating a super healthy diet can also lead to an eating disorder called orthorexia. People who are suffering from orthorexia experience a compulsion to eat as healthy as possible and may feel an uncontrollable urge to find the highest-quality foods and ingredients. And many people who struggle with orthorexia cannot control the amount of time they spend finding and cooking healthy meals, which can cause them to unintentionally withdraw from their friends and family.

When clean eating becomes overly restrictive, it can become time-consuming and expensive, and it can make it difficult for individuals to socialize with others in environments that involve food. But one of the more dangerous symptoms of orthorexia is that individuals feel compelled to take clean eating to the extreme by eliminating entire food groups from their diets, which can cause undernourishment or malnutrition.

It can be difficult to determine whether someone is just trying to eat healthier or if they may need help with the symptoms they are experiencing. Some warning signs of orthorexia include:

  • Becomes really anxious when healthy food options aren’t available
  • Continually cuts out more and more food groups
  • Has a narrow list of foods they can eat because they consider those foods healthy
  • Increased concern about the health of ingredients
  • Spends increasingly more time studying food labels and ingredient lists
  • Worries about the food that will be served at events
  • Social feeds are filled with health-related content
  • If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of orthorexia, it’s essential to seek help at the first signs or symptoms before you experience any long-term effects.

Who Is at Risk for Developing Orthorexia?

An obsession with eating healthy can lead to orthorexiaNot everyone who tries clean eating will develop a disorder, but some people are at a higher risk than others. Some factors that can increase a person’s risk for developing orthorexia include:

  • Past struggles with an eating disorder
  • A history of dieting
  • Poor body image
  • Internalization of the “thin ideal”
  • Obsessive-compulsive tendencies
  • Access to organic/clean food

Although eating disorders are still widely considered mental health conditions that affect young women, people of all genders can develop orthorexia. It’s also important to note that not all people who suffer from orthorexia experience body image concerns.

The primary focus of this condition is on eating the healthiest foods possible in a way that inadvertently has negative effects on a person’s health and life. Clean eating can be an effective lifestyle change for many people who are looking to improve their health.

But if you or someone you care about starts to show the warning signs of orthorexia, it’s vital to find professional help as soon as possible.


National Eating Disorders Association. (N.D.) Orthorexia. Retrieved from https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia.

Nayyar, A. (2019, May 14). When does clean eating become an unhealthy obsession? New research findings on who is at risk. York University. Retrieved from http://news.yorku.ca/2019/05/14/when-does-clean-eating-become-an-unhealthy-obsession-new-findings-on-who-is-at-risk/.

Blackburn, K.B. (2017, Aug.) Your clean eating questions, answered. MD Anderson Cancer Center. Retrieved from https://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/clean-eating-questions-answered.h29-1591413.html.

Zeratsky, K. (2019, May 21). Clean eating — or eating clean — seems to be all over the internet and in grocery stores and restaurants. What does it mean? Is it just another fad? Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/clean-eating/faq-20336262.

About the Sponsor:

Carolina House BannerCarolina House is an eating disorder treatment center that serves people of all genders, ages 17 and older. Within our residential and outpatient programs, we offer a range of services such as LGBTQ- and male-inclusive programming to help individuals who are struggling with eating disorders and co-occurring mental health conditions. Our treatment connects men and women with the care they need to achieve long-term recovery from eating disorders and other mental health concerns.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of 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 on September 22, 2020 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on September 22, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He is responsible for the operations of Eating Disorder Hope and ensuring that the website is functioning smoothly.