Is the Clean-Eating Obsession the New Disordered Eating?



The other day, I was on the phone with one of my good friends, waxing nostalgic about all of the delicious dinner dishes we’d each made recently, when she mentioned a recipe her sister had made with cauliflower “rice.” Then, she went on to describe a spaghetti squash “pasta” her sister had made before that, and next she raved about some drool-inducing vegan cookies her sister had been whipping up as of late. Then she sighed and said, “I’m actually kind of worried about her.”

Wait, what?

Usually when someone you love amps up their healthy-eating habits, you’re happy. Maybe even relieved, in some cases. But not in this case. My friend is worried that her sister hasn’t just made healthy eating a priority, she’s made it a full-blown problem: She no longer goes out to eat, because she can never find anything on the menu that lives up to her standards. She has adopted a gluten-free, dairy-free diet and now fears that if she even touches a glass of milk, she’ll go into anaphylactic shock. (Note: She’s never actually had a serious food-related allergic reaction.) And a grocery-shopping trip with her is just that: a day-long excursion. All in the name of “eating clean.”

Hearing my friend’s worries made me think of an article published in the LA Times last week, “For Those With Orthorexia, Diet Can Never Be ‘Pure’ Enough.” I’d originally brushed the piece off as totally ridiculous. I mean, since when did caring about the quality of your food become a hush-hush disorder?

But my friend, who leads an incredibly healthy lifestyle herself (She is on birthday-party friendship-level with, like, everyone at her gym), made me think twice when she mentioned her sister’s somewhat alarming behavior. Maybe, in this case, the phrase “too much of a good thing” rings a bit too true. Even if that thing is as seemingly harmless as organic, micro-brewed Kombucha.

According to the LA Times article, orthorexia was named in 1996 but has yet to actually be accepted as a formal diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. As Jennifer Lombardi, executive director of the Eating Recovery Center of California in Sacramento, explained to the Times, folks struggling with orthorexia aren’t preoccupied with their weight or their appearance. Rather, they are fixated on the “pure” value of their food and lifestyle, which can apparently be just as dangerous. And according to psychotherapist Kimberly Quinlan, the number affected by this disorder is growing.

As orthorexic D.C. Copeland told the LA Times, “I got into raw veganism, colonics, enemas and a whole way of life. It was so insanely pure. There was no room for error. I couldn’t even work. All the energy went into making my green smoothies and doing a yoga class. I was addicted to this feeling; I had to be pure.”

That sentence reads almost like a gag-interview from The Onion. But once I stopped rolling my eyes, I realized: Holy cow, she couldn’t even work. That is really scary.

So while my friend’s sister is in no way as obsessed as Copeland was, I’m beginning to wonder: Can healthy-eating really become a disorder? If you only drink juice for two weeks, but call it a “detox,” is it really any different than depriving yourself of food? And if you refuse to eat anything but raw vegetables for months on end, should your friends be worried about you? Or should they just accept your lifestyle?

What are your thoughts, Be Wellers? Let us know in the comments below.

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  • Kimberly Shrack

    As someone living with obsessive compulsive disorder, I seriously empathize with people who are living with orthorexia – while it is different, there are some definite similarities, like the need to do something so thoroughly as to leave no room for doubt – that “need to be certain” is at the core of all OCD. While everyone’s experience with mental illness is different, the “oh brother eye roll” is something we have all had to deal with while in the throes of our disease. It’s not only hurtful, but it’s also very demoralizing. If you begin to suspect your friend “needs” to go to these extreme measures in order to function, remember that talking or shaming them out of it is not only very unhelpful, but can also make things worse. Express your concern and unless you are living with it, too, don’t say you know exactly how they feel – comparing their disease to your desire to avoid junk food is trivializing. Just be there and be supportive. To all those out there struggling with this disorder, don’t be afraid to seek help – you deserve to live a happy, fulfilling life!

  • cmyllek

    I have just completed my third week of adopting a vegetarian diet, cutting out 95% of my dairy consumption and aiming to eat mostly raw. I sought this new diet after having a terrible bout of tonsillitis, convinced that I needed to take control of my immune system. Once I dove into the research, I couldn’t stop — I was overwhelmed to discover the volume of discourse on YouTube and Instagram regarding the vegetarian, vegan, and new-to-me “80/10/10” diet. Some of these health nuts are beyond passionate about their veganism, often dividing themselves into exponentially “healthier” subgroups that in turn chastise each other in the race to promote the cleanest lifestyle. (Raw veganists versus “mostly raw,” etc.) Many of these individuals are walking the line between enthusiastic health promoters and “orthorexics.” Perhaps the passion originates from the added financial incentive of whatever supplements they’re selling and YouTube ad revenue that’s coming in, but nevertheless it may be contributing to a new crop of health obsessed people. I think it’s becoming trendy to be healthy, especially with the influx of juicing brands and the like. Ultimately, any effort to be more cognizant of one’s health is good in my book, so long as it doesn’t interfere with your relationships.

  • Tracy Shields

    Of all the addictions out there–and let’s be honest this is more an addiction than a disorder (although I’d agree on both terms)–this is one that I can live with. Although, I’m not sure if my family appreciates it.

    Thing is, there is no comprehensive, trustworthy, middle-of-the-road body of evidence or agency that offers a solution to the problem of unhealthy eating. So…all these extreme nutrition philosophies pop up in direct contrast to the current western diet as a way to balance out the other extreme of obesity and preventable, chronic diseases. You have the paleo movement, the vegan movement, the raw food movement, and so on, all claiming to be “the one true” diet, and while they each offer wonderful alternatives to fast food, sodas, cakes and cookie, they too, in their own way confuse and inhibit a more natural approach to eating.