Many people now take part in “clean eating”, a type of diet that involves eating foods considered to be healthy, unprocessed, or without certain ingredients like added sugar or saturated fats.
Clean eating is often framed as a health pursuit – a way of eating that is good for the body and mental health.
However, psychotherapist and eating disorder specialist Fiona Yassin, says clean eating can have a negative impact on health and is urging people to educate themselves on the potential dangers before embarking on a clean eating quest.
“Like any diet, clean eating is a way of restricting the food that a person eats. Clean eating can become a pillar of self-evaluation whereby adolescents value themselves on their ability to follow these rules and may experience distress when rules are not followed,” says Yassin, founder and clinical director of The Wave Clinic.
These thought patterns and behaviours overlap with many disordered eating behaviours and the underlying pathology of eating disorders. In fact, research suggests that positive attitudes towards “clean” diets are linked with disordered eating attitudes, and people who follow advice from clean eating websites are more likely to show dietary restraint, a risk factor for eating disorders.
What actually is “clean eating” and why can it be dangerous?
“Clean eating” doesn’t have a single meaning or clear definition. Some people use clean eating to describe diets based on whole or unprocessed foods. For others, clean eating means eliminating certain food groups, such as dairy or refined sugar.
Yassin, who has extensive experience in the treatment of eating disorders, explains, “Clean eating diets often have no more nutritional value than other meals, and in many cases, people following the diets miss out on important nutrients. While framed as a pursuit of health, the word ‘clean’ (in opposition to ‘dirty’) can suggest a kind of moral superiority where following certain diets makes someone a ‘better’ person.
“Clean eating also encourages people to categorise foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, a kind of black-and-white thinking that misrepresents the different ways that our bodies use food, as well as its place in social gatherings, relationships, and our own enjoyment.”
How can “clean eating” contribute to disordered eating?
“Clean eating” diets involve food rules for people to follow. These rules can become a measure of self-evaluation, which means people feel good when they follow them and bad when they do not.
Yassin says, “If you or a young person becomes preoccupied with these rules, clean eating can start to take over other parts of life and become the primary measure of self-value and self-worth. Teenagers and adolescents may start to follow rules increasingly strictly, for example, by ruling out entire food groups despite the consequences for their mental and physical health, including low body weight.
“These attitudes and behaviours overlap with those of eating disorders. Disordered eating behaviours may include restricting the intake of food, leading to significantly low body weight, and eating behaviours that cause a significant amount of distress, interfering with a young person’s everyday life.
“While clean eating doesn’t necessarily emphasise body shape or weight, the false and harmful conflation of health and thinness present in many parts of society means that people may start to measure their ‘health’ by their shape or weight, leading to an over-evaluation of shape and weight that characterises many eating disorders.”
Research has found that young adults who see “clean diets” as healthy (and are willing to use them) are more likely to show disordered eating behaviours and be preoccupied with body weight. Two of the most highly rated reasons for starting a clean diet included “for weight loss” and “to feel in control of their diet”, thinking patterns and attitudes that are often associated with eating disorders.
How can we prevent food and health trends from becoming harmful?
Yassin has shared three tips on how to prevent disordered eating behaviours, particularly in young people:
- Educate yourself and spread awareness about the potential dangers of clean eating diets, including the risks of developing food rules or cutting out food groups
- Take care not to reinforce ideas that being healthy is somehow a moral good or only an individual responsibility
- Develop critical attitudes towards media, including social media, and understand that a lot of information about diets, food, and health is false. Encourage young people to do the same.
It’s also important to recognise the warning signs of disordered eating behaviours that may underpin “clean eating” diets. These can include:
- Showing distress when “healthy” foods aren’t available
- Cutting out increasing numbers of food groups
- Spending more and more time thinking about food and meals
- Frequently checking ingredient lists and labels
- Obsessively following food and “healthy lifestyle” accounts or blogs on social media
Yassin says, “If you feel like you might have developed disordered eating behaviours or you think a young person in your life is showing signs of disordered eating, you should seek professional support. Disordered eating behaviours are serious mental health issues that usually require treatment to overcome.
“The good news is that, with evidence-based treatment approaches, most young people make a full recovery from eating disorders and reclaim a fulfilling future.”