When is "Clean" Eating an Eating Disorder?


So here’s the thing: Our physical health is incredibly important. Some may argue it is the most important thing in life; without it, our quality of life drops significantly. And, our diet does play a huge role in our health. What we choose to eat will impact the way we feel.  Eating donuts for every meal probably won’t make us feel as good as eating a well-balanced diet. 

That said, following the newest diet trend—“clean” eating—carries with it the precarious tendency to slip into disordered eating. When you start eating “clean,” your mind may be flooded with self-imposed rules: Don’t eat this. That has too much fat. This isn’t clean; it has too too much sauce on it or is fried. I can’t eat sugar and be healthy. If a food isn’t “clean,” it can easy to label it “bad” or to avoid it all together.

So how do you know when your quest for health—or eating “clean”—is really an eating disorder or disordered eating hiding behind the justification that you’re “being healthy.” 

Here are a few questions to ask yourself—

Do you Have a List of Good and Bad Foods?

Fact: There is no such thing as a “bad” or “dirty” food. Food is food. Food holds no moral weight. Choosing to eat one food vs the other does not make you a “good” or a “bad” person because there is no such thing as a “good” food. There is no such thing as a “bad” food.

Certain foods offer different nutrients, but eating too much or too little of any food—even “clean” food—is not great for you. If you find yourself completely eliminating a certain food group from your diet, ask yourself what is behind your decision and examine the feelings that come up if you were to/when you do eat that food. 

For example, say you choose to stop eating dairy because every time you have it, you end up feeling bloated and sluggish. You’re out with friends and your dish comes with cheese sprinkled on top. You might try to brush the cheese off as much as you can but end up eating the dish—and some cheese—any way. If you feel a little bit gross physically after the meal but take it as a cue to remember to ask the waiter to leave the cheese off next time, it’s probably not disordered eating. Conversely, if you find yourself feeling guilty or dwelling about the cheese that you put in your body, this could be a signal that choosing to eliminate dairy from your diet isn’t just about the food. 

Experiencing feelings of guilt or shame after eating certain foods is always a sign that something deeper is going on.

Do you Have to Prepare the Majority of Your Meals?

When we go to someone’s house for a dinner party or choose to eat at a restaurant, we only have so much control over the way our food is prepared. If the chef wants to add an extra tablespoon of butter to the sauce or uses a sugar-based marinara, we cannot control this

If you find yourself avoiding restaurants, cancelling social plans because you won’t be able to prepare your own food or worrying about trusting someone else with your food preparation, your diet is negatively impacting your life. These thoughts indicate that your diet has made your world small and has made you fearful. Your diet should never make you feel afraid or isolate you. Ever.

Am I Pre-Occupied With Food?

So, there’s a difference between spending time every day researching recipes on Pinterest for the delicious meal you’re going to create that night and being preoccupied with food. A food preoccupation is when you’re constantly thinking about or analyzing what you just ate or what you’re going to eat at your next meal, and food starts to dominate your day. If you start to notice your mood is affected by your food choices—i.e. you feel happy because you “ate clean” or feel shame or guilt for eating something “bad”—it’s an indication that food has become more than just food. 

When you start to follow any diet or make a lifestyle change, the biggest thing to keep in mind is that your worth is not predicated on what you choose to eat. You are wonderful if you choose to eat McDonald’s for every meal or kale for every meal. Our food choices do not dictate our value as human beings.

We are meant to live free, full lives. Food is there to facilitate this; it should never hinder us. With that, your quality of life includes your emotional well-being. If you find you’re mired in feelings of guilt, shame or fear any time you sway from your diet, that diet is not enhancing your quality of life. If you’re experiencing a preoccupation with or fear about food, is a signal that it’s time to ditch the diet and examine what is going on emotionally. Asking yourself what is behind your motivation to start any diet is paramount, because it is 100% possible to thrive physically and emotionally without cutting out any food groups. Food is meant to enhance your quality of life, never limit it.