Healthy Eating, Clean Eating and Orthorexia: Where Do We Draw The Line?

Healthy eating, clean eating and orthorexia: where do we draw the line?
Healthy eating and 'clean eating' used to mean the same thing: simply eat less processed food. Cook from scratch most of the time, don't add sugar or salt to foods, eat lots of veggies, lean meats, eggs, dairy, fruit, seeds and nuts and reduce alcohol consumption. 

If however, some of top health bloggers and magazines were to be believed, the glossy 'aspirational' version of 'clean eating' has turned into just another fad diet, prescribed to followers, the majority of whom have not been professionally diagnosed with a dairy or gluten allergy, and just simply want to lose a few pounds and feel better. 

This cult-like version of clean eating has since morphed into a vegan, diary-free, gluten free, alkaline, raw version. Cutting out food groups or particular ingredients when you don't have an allergy, particular illness or an intolerance to it is time consuming, hard work and according to the qualified experts, pointless at best, and at worst, it's potentially nutritionally deficient, and damaging to your relationship with food and even your sense of self-worth (I've eaten 'bad', 'dirty' food, I must therefore be bad person'). 

It's also isolating when you're away from the #cleaneating #fitfam of Instagram. Eating a such a restricted diet makes it difficult to go out with friends, cook for a family or go on holiday. This is one, among many reasons, why it's not sustainable in the long term and will likely encourage the urge to binge on 'forbidden foods' and send a person spinning down the 'bad food/bad person' thought spiral. Sounds just like every other kind of fad-diet doesn't it?! 

If you are someone who feel they may be suffering from an allergy, or even an undiagnosed serious illness such as Crohns, IBD or celiac disease, then please get a formal diagnosis and seek treatment and dietary advice from a qualified professional. Many of the big name 'free-from/raw/alkaline/clean eating' blogs are unqualified to prescribe such specific 'cures' and restrictive diets to their followers. 

I don't see these sorts of bloggers as being much different from the pro-ANA/MIA websites and forums, where people suffering from the eating disorders of anorexia and bulimia encourage others and swap 'tips'. There's a real danger of the followers of these 'health' blogs becoming completely obsessed with the unbreakable rules of 'eating clean', leading to an eating disorder called 'ortherexia' (which hasn't yet been clinically recognised as an eating disorder in the DSM). 

In a balanced, healthy lifestyle, you can still eat a piece of cake if you want to. There's certainly no need to feel guilt about consuming some refined sugar or a take away pizza once in a while (or even once a week!). Whatever happened to good old 'moderation'? Portion control? 

The food you eat does not who you are as a person. This is taking the phrase 'You are what your eat' far too literally. If you're the kind of person who writes your dietary needs/preferences in your social media bio and have to tell everyone around you how they should be eating, then you may well be taking it too far.

We need to see food for what it really is: fuel for our bodies. Some of it is high quality fuel, some of is low quality. By all means, eat for your goals, but don't restrict yourself with a long list of rules. Live your life, don't let it revolve around food. 

On topic and fascinating viewing:

BBC3's documentary: Clean Eating's Dirty Secrets (BBC iPlayer)

Selfridges #BODYTALK: Is the cult of wellness unhealthy? (YouTube)


  1. Wonderful post Karen - I've been involved in both finding the positives in clean eating and the backlash of the hyped-up unsustainable versions of it, and think that there's a real element of humanity missing from a lot of the 'clean' blogs out there.

    Realistically, your body deserves whole-foods that are nutrient-dense and well cooked. Better yet, organic and local product in season - but this is quite hard to do, and when you add in all the strange advice out there about going gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free, vegan, plant-based, raw, paleo, etc. it really adds up. I've been aiming to stand up and say that while I do eat healthily for the majority of my meals, I'm not going to deny a gooey chocolate brownie or packet of crisps once in a while, nor am I going to restrict myself so that I can't eat out with friends. Losing the guilt and pigeon-holing has been hard but it's worth it, and I feel a lot better knowing I eat in moderation, with conscious thought on both the health and happiness consequences of the food I eat.

    Besma | Curiously Conscious

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Besma! Yes, it's important to have a balance of eating healthily and well, but not so restrictive that it becomes hard to fit around every day life and impacts on our happiness. It's difficult to establish that balance at first but its much easier to maintain in the long run :) x

  2. I think this is a brilliant article. I had also wondered when clean eating had turned so bad like you I just grouped it with healthy eating. I dont feel its neccesary to cut out food groups unlesa you have an intolorence. Personally I use plant based milk butter and yogurt but will still eat eggs and cheese. I just have never been big milk drinker. You have to enjoy life aswell like last night I had a big slice of cake with alpro custard. I mean it was Friday night 😂😉 x
    Lola Mia //

  3. Hi Karen, this is so serendipitous! I discovered your blog today as I am a Personal Wellness Coach and work with Herbalife Nutrition, so saw your interesting new post shared earlier. I absolutely agree with this post. It's got to be about balance. In fact, I met a woman at a casting yesterday, as I am also an actress, and today we had a chat on the phone..we had got on really well in the waiting room, we have had THIS conversation almost WORD for WORD. She used the word eating disorder and talked about the healing nature of communing with a wonderful slice of cake.

    Thanks for this 'calling out' of the Emperor's New Kale!

  4. On point! I met a woman yesterday at a casting and we exchanged numbers. We spoke today and had almost this entire conversation...word for word! I'm a Personal Wellness Coach and work with Herbalife Nutrition, which is how I found your blog today...Your interesting new one had been shared by a colleague.
    Many thanks for calling out the 'Emperor's New Kale'
    All the best, Nicola Goodchild


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