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Lately I've seen a few articles circulating on the internet linking clean eating with a recently coined, extreme eating disorder known as orthorexia. Orthorexia is defined as an unhealthy obsession with healthy foods. The disorder itself sounds like a harrowing ordeal and I have empathy for anyone experiencing its symptoms. There's just one issue I have: the behaviors described in connection with this eating disorder have nothing to do with clean eating.
Let's take two articles: "When Does 'Eating Clean' Become an Eating Disorder?" by Claudia McNeill for broadly.vice.com and "Blogger Jordan Younger Reveals How Extreme 'Clean Eating' Almost Killed Her" by Susan Donaldson James for today.com. The same woman is featured in both articles: Jordan Younger, a former vegan with a huge online following who diagnosed herself with orthorexia and went on to ditch veganism in favor of a more balanced approach.
According to the Today article, “What began as an attempt to get healthy morphed into an unhealthy regimen of food restrictions, 800-calorie-a-day juice cleanses and exercise.”
This sounds incredibly unhealthy and terrifying. It also sounds like a food approach that has nothing to do with the tenants of clean eating. Clean eating in no way, shape or form advocates calorie or food restrictions like the ones described here. On the contrary, several of the basic tenants of clean eating oppose this directly.
The first tenant of clean eating is to eat five to six times a day. "Three meals and two to three small snacks are ideal. Lean protein, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and complex carbohydrates should be a part of every meal," according to the Clean Eating Institute. Clean eaters are encouraged to "choose complex carbs like whole grains over processed and refined foods like white flour, sugar, bread and pasta." They're encouraged to "consume essential fatty acids (EFA) every day," "depend on fresh fruits and vegetables for fiber, vitamins and enzymes," and "consume humanely raised, local meats and ocean friendly seafood." Clean eaters are encouraged to eat real food and plenty of it. 800-calorie a day juice cleanses are certainly not advocated. There's no argument from me that this is a form of disordered eating, but I fail to see how this has any connection to clean eating.
In the Today article Younger notes, “I tried cleansing and raw veganism. I spent all my time trying to remain vegan, but I didn’t feel well.” Neither cleansing nor raw foods nor veganism are mentioned in any of the clean eating tenants. As just mentioned, clean eaters are encouraged to eat humane forms of meat and seafood according to individual preference. Becoming vegetarian, vegan or raw is a personal decision and its own version of a lifestyle. It can be supported by clean eating -- I am both a vegetarian and a clean eater -- but it can also have nothing to do with clean eating. Clean eating is never about restricting calories. As for cleanses, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the health community, whether they support clean eating or not, who supports the idea of a juice cleanse as a sustainable lifestyle. Attempting to live off too few calories is a form of starvation or anorexia. It is not an example of clean eating.
The Broadly Vice article went into further detail about the cleanses Younger was doing:
“Soon vegan cleanse companies sought her out to try their pricey cleanses for free. Younger started cleansing religiously – for a minimum of three days a week, eventually finding that every time she finished a cleanse and reintroduced solid food, her stomach problems returned, making her feel even worse than before.”
Again, this is not clean eating. This is cleansing. Cleansing is not a part of clean eating. Cleansing is an incredibly unhealthy practice that deprives your body of necessary nutrients and calories. Clean eating is a form of eating that attempts to bring as many nutrients, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants into your diet as possible.
Broadly Vice author McNeill goes on to describe her own struggles with a Paleo diet she undertook. “Since I was eating only vegetables, coconut oil, and lean meat," she writes, "the ten pounds came off quickly.”
Eating only vegetables, coconut oil, and lean meat? Again, this is not encouraged in clean eating. Clean eating is about getting the widest variety of healthy nutrients as possible. Everything described in these articles is undeniably unhealthy and disordered, but nothing described in either of these articles is linked to clean eating. Clean eating is about eating real, healthy food.
Obviously the point being made in these articles is that what started as a desire to eat healthy veered toward disordered lifestyles that caused harm to the women involved. I don't wish to negate the pain these women or any others in similar positions suffered. However, the behaviors described in these articles are not forms of clean eating. They are forms of disordered eating. No one who believes in a true clean eating lifestyle would ever suggest anyone attempt to live off 800 calories a day.
To me, this seems like anything else: Everything is healthy until it's not. Drinking water is healthy until you drink way too much of it and make yourself sick. Ditto for eating salad. Thinking about what you eat is healthy but obsessively thinking about it every minute of the day is not. Saying no to dessert every now and then is healthy but refusing to ever let a single cookie pass your lips is not. Eating an apple a day is healthy but eating ten a day is not. Exercising six days a week is healthy but exercising six days a week, five hours a day is not. A moderate amount of most things is healthy and an obsessive amount is not.
If you're attempting to eat clean and find yourself becoming obsessed with it, it's time to try a new approach. If you feel like you can't eat anything but kale smoothies and roasted vegetables, it's time to rethink things. If you're starting to fear food and if you're avoiding social outings with friends because you don't trust yourself near a plate of fried appetizers, it's time to get help. You've entered a realm of unhealthy eating and it's important that you find your way back to health and safety.
There are people who can enjoy a few drinks and there are others who become alcoholics. There are people who can eat a slice of cake, enjoy it, and move on with their lives and there are others who feel like they need to eat another slice and then another and then another once they've had one. There are people who happily clock out after eight hours of work and others who stay hours longer, refusing to leave the office until every last problem has been solved. There are people who attend a yoga class a few times a week and others who can't fall asleep at night until they've lifted weights, run 10 miles and jumped into the pool for 100 laps during their lunch break. There are people who see a red cup at Starbucks as a red cup and others who see it as abomination against religion. Extremism is something that exists everywhere, in everything, and anyone can become consumed by it.
There's nothing extreme about basic clean eating, though. Clean eating is simply the notion that we should be eating more real foods and less processed ones. It's the notion that we should feed our bodies with the most healthful, nutrient-dense foods available while occasionally partaking in the less healthy ones. It's about taking care of our bodies, loving ourselves, and feeding ourselves accordingly. It's not about being moral or virtuous. It's not about judging the food or lifestyle choices other people make. What people put into their bodies is their own choice and as long as someone feels healthy and happy, I'm happy. But no one -- and I mean no one -- is going to feel healthy and happy if she's living off of 800 calorie-a-day juice cleanses or nothing but vegetables, coconut oil, and lean meat.
Allow yourself to live. Trying to survive on a restrictive diet isn't living. Eating delicious, homemade food that's both nutritious and filling is living. Eating a cupcake at a wedding is living. Trying to pack as many fruits and veggies into your day as possible is living. Making a picnic and giving no thought to the ingredients other than whether or not they taste good is living. Moving your body is living. Skipping exercise on days you're sick or tired is living. Planning fun dates with your friends is living. Not counting calories is living. Eating a spinach smoothie today and blueberry pancakes tomorrow is living. Refusing to let yourself become unhealthily obsessed with food or anything else is living. Let yourself live.