Like most health movements, the premise of clean eating stems from the well-intentioned purpose of it being a lifestyle choice, rather than a fad diet. It stands as different from the other diets in its core philosophy of consuming whole and unprocessed foods and its focus on the natural.
Today, it has become one of the most popular movements, transcending generations and cultures. It has been deemed practical and realistic, as it aims at ensuring nutrition as the main goal, as opposed to calorie-counting and weight-loss as the only goal seen in other diets.
Why has this become a problem, then?
While, at first, it sounds straightforward and simple at its core, clean eating has become more than just nutrition-focused. It has become a judgement on one’s choices which emphasises the idea that the way people eat is not just unhealthy but “impure”.
Psychological Impact of Clean Eating
For some individuals, the negative association between health, food and “impurity” becomes the driving force behind the idea of “perfect health”. The pursuit of a perfect, healthy lifestyle at all times, becomes an urgent need—a necessity almost—and drives a highly restrictive and obsessive eating disorder (i.e. orthorexia), for some.
There is a fine line between clean eating and orthorexia that gets easily blurred for many. Orthorexia was first coined in 1997 by Steve Bratman and “describes a pathological obsession with proper nutrition that is characterised by a restrictive diet, ritualised eating and rigid avoidance of food believed to be unhealthy or impure” (Koven and Abry, 2015).
A healthy diet in itself is not the concern—it is the overwhelming nature of the diet that includes aspects of obsessively and ritualistically researching and planning meals to ensure their “purity” to the point of dysfunction in all aspects of their lives (McComb and Mills, 2019). There is also excessive emotional distress experienced when confronted with the possibility of eating “unclean” food, extreme nutritional deficiencies and an avoidance of social gatherings and finally, even avoiding eating with others at meal time i.e. extreme social isolation.
No Pasta For A Year
“I haven’t eaten pasta in a year” says Keya proudly, a 16-year-old client, in one of our sessions. Having eliminated all carbs completely, following a restrictive routine of skipping dinner and unhealthily monitoring all food for any sign of unhealthy ingredient, Keya’s free time is spent in avoidance—of all carbs, of any sign of being ‘unhealthy’ and of herself. Like many girls of her age in her class, Keya’s body image and self-worth are closely tied to eating clean all the time and following the herd— to achieve the ideal: a ‘clean’ body which has become a large aspect of being ‘fit’.
Being increasingly susceptible to ‘trends’, Keya and young individuals like her are constantly being bombarded with these messages—from social media (i.e. the health and beauty ‘gurus’ on all social media platforms) and from the notion of an ‘ideal’ body that is being portrayed in the entertainment industry.
The focus on ‘clean food’ slowly tips over into an association with one’s identity i.e. “I am clean/unclean if I eat this”.
This pursuit for clean perfectionism is then fuelled by intense fear and shame—of eating the ‘wrong’ food, of making a mistake and ‘slipping up’ and ultimately, fear of disease if the clean food is not had.
The Clean Eating Cult
Furthermore, the community of Clean Eaters has transformed into a cult, exacting punishment in the form of verbal slander to those who are not “true” clean eaters. This unfiltered focus on the absolutism of clean eating (unclean being associated with all foods that were not in the category of clean versus clean being associated with only natural and raw vegetables) has ended up perpetuating the notion of being healthy and unhealthy as two ends of that spectrum, with nothing in between.
On one hand, there is ample evidence to prove that clean eating (in a moderated manner) has multiple benefits and can be a healthy lifestyle change to make. While on the other hand, it has also driven individuals to orthorexia and resulted in a deterioration of their overall health—contradictory to its so-called base premise.
Just as with any fad diet, it is vital to understand the different ways it may impact each one’s physical and mental health and make an informed choice, before diving headfirst into the ocean of new trends, unchecked by any sound, scientific regulation.
Dishaa Desai is a psychologist and the outreach associate of Mpower—The Centre, Mumbai