Why Our Obsession with Clean Eating Could Be Leading Us Astray

Everyone’s talking about orthorexia, the unhealthy healthy-food obsession.
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Everyone’s talking about orthorexia, the unhealthy healthy-food obsession.

We’ve all heard the saying, attributed to model Kate Moss: “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” We’ve been bombarded with juice cleanses, clean eating, and CrossFit/SoulCycle/workout trend du jour. And we’ve probably seen (or heard about) social media dedicated to inspirational health and fitness posts, such as #fitspo (fitness inspiration, for the uninitiated) and #GOALS because, well, yeah.

If you had any doubt as to the ferocity of these trends, look no further than the latest firestorm over orthorexia. Earlier this week, Broadly, Vice’s new women-focused channel, ran an article titled, “When Does ‘Eating Clean’ Become an Eating Disorder?” that ignited a national conversation about our current health crazes. According to author Claudia McNeilly, orthorexia is defined as “an obsession with healthy food.” Although doctors do not acknowledge orthorexia as an official eating disorder, the article gained significant traction and was immediately trending on social media. Since then, orthorexia has been a hot topic in places such as the Washington Post and Yahoo. It has also made the rounds on Facebook and Reddit.

According to Dr. Karin Kratina, a nutritional therapist specializing in eating disorders cited in the original Broadly article, rates of orthorexia are rising. Cultural implications surrounding perceptions of health, food, and fitness are contributing factors. “There is nothing wrong with eating local or being a vegetarian or vegan,” Kratina said. “I think a lot of those diets are inherently valuable. The problem is that we have moralized eating, weight, food, and exercise. Food has become presented—more and more—as the answer.”

Just look at how food culture has evolved in our country. Increasingly, individuals are identifying themselves by their food, health, and fitness habits. As Broadly said, we engage in a “constant fetishization of healthy food.” Food used to be just what you ate; maybe your family had an ethnic bent, or you had your favorite foods or dislikes. Today, however, we have multiple cable channels dedicated to food preparation and eating, chefs are household names, and the term “foodie” is a completely unironic form of personal identification. We post photos on social media of organic breakfasts, paleo meals, or protein shakes with hashtags such as #CleanEating. We are exposed to the “ideal meal,” the “ideal body,” and the “ideal workout” all the time. It’s easy to think that if we conform to these standards and adopt the same for ourselves, we, too, will have the seemingly ideal lives of our social media friends.

While sharing develops a sense of community around common interests, it also evokes competition and comparison. And this can be dangerous for people who might be susceptible to taking things a little too far, as is the case with eating disorders. Jordan Younger, healthy lifestyle blogger and poster child for orthorexia, told Broadly, “Once I started talking about experience with orthorexia on my blog, and national news picked up on it, a flood of people came forward saying they identified with me. . . . We’re talking tens of thousands of messages. . . . It showed me how many people feel inadequate and feel that living a balanced life is not enough.”

McNeilly shared her own experience with the paleo diet craze in the piece. “What started as a mission to unnecessarily shed ten pounds and reap the alleged health benefits of a paleo lifestyle soon spiraled into an obsession with the virtues of my food.” She goes on to illuminate the thought process that creates unhealthy relationships with food. “The compliments were addicting—they would become my justification for enduring what evolved into a fear of half the food groups,” she writes.

Even if this is not officially recognized as an eating disorder—something that could be ten years or more away, according to Broadly—this kind of behavior clearly leads some women to life-threatening situations. No matter the name, those struggling with their food and exercise choices should seek help.

There is nothing wrong with striving to be the healthiest version of yourself, but if there is one takeaway from this phenomenon, it’s that the healthiest you involves balance—not an obsession with what you eat. If you begin to think that your value as a person is wrapped up in your food choices, it may be time to stop and remind yourself: You are enough just as you are, and no kale juice cleanse can change that.