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.

Like what you’re reading? Stay in touch with Be Well Philly—here’s how: