Clean eating or disordered eating?

Clean eating or disordered eating?

How do you know if you’re engaging in clean eating or disordered eating?

Is there anything wrong with “clean eating”?

Could eating “too clean” cause problems?

Too much of a good thing?

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line and entered disordered eating territory?

Whoa boy- this is a doozie. Exercise addictions and eating disorders go together like PB and J.


In this post I’m going to tell you how to figure out if you’re entering the eating disorder danger zone.


Speaking from experience I can say that my relationship between food and exercise was inseparable. As I grew more excessive in exercising I also became more controlling in my eating habits.

I can remember the days when I had no clue about nutrition nor a desire to learn about it. Early in college that changed and I started to peruse health and fitness magazines. Then I took a couple of nutrition courses at my university. Somewhere along the way I entered the waters of “clean eating“. At one point I think that my “clean eating” habits were well-intentioned and not harmful. But before long I was in way over my head. I had entered the land of orthorexia where my clean eating habits became an obsession, which isolated me from the life I once loved.

Initially, I thought I was simply standing up for my health. I was exercising hard and wanted to reap the benefits of my workouts rather than undo my hard work through “bad eating” (which I later learned is a flawed logic when taken to extremes).  I told myself that passing up dinner parties or drinks out with friends was good for me. It didn’t occur to me at the time that these simple choices would spiral into a tenacious eating disorder.

“Clean eating was a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”


Now, we’ll turn to the experts to learn how to recognize when clean eating becomes disordered eating.


Karin Kratina,  PhD, RD, LD/N gives the following description of orthorexia on the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) site.

Those who have an “unhealthy obsession” with otherwise healthy eating may be suffering from “orthorexia nervosa,” a term which literally means “fixation on righteous eating.”  Orthorexia starts out as an innocent attempt to eat more healthfully, but orthorexics become fixated on food quality and purity.  They become consumed with what and how much to eat, and how to deal with “slip-ups.”  An iron-clad will is needed to maintain this rigid eating style.  Every day is a chance to eat right, be “good,” rise above others in dietary prowess, and self-punish if temptation wins (usually through stricter eating, fasts and exercise).  Self-esteem becomes wrapped up in the purity of orthorexics’ diet and they sometimes feel superior to others, especially in regard to food intake.

Eventually food choices become so restrictive, in both variety and calories, that health suffers – an ironic twist for a person so completely dedicated to healthy eating.  Eventually, the obsession with healthy eating can crowd out other activities and interests, impair relationships, and become physically dangerous.

Marjorie Nolan, MS, RDN, CDN, ACSM-HFS, explains how isolation is a common element of orthorexia on the site

Sharing a meal is one of the key ways we socialize and bond in society. But for people suffering from orthorexia, a family meal can seem like a minefield. Eating food that they don’t consider pure, or that someone else has prepared, causes an extreme amount of anxiety for orthorexics. “If someone is experiencing a lot of anxiety around food because they’re not eating what they think they should be, or the amount they should be, that could be a sign of orthorexia,” says Nolan.


Do you relate to this? What is the difference between eating clean and having orthorexia or some other variation of disordered eating? In my experience and in the opinions of eating disorder experts, the answer lies in the degree of engagement. How much time and energy to you devote to eating clean? How often do you think about it, plan it, rearrange your day to accommodate it? The more engaged you are with clean eating the more likely you are to slide into the shady area of disordered eating.

Personally, a clear indicator of disordered eating was that it felt terrible. I no longer took pleasure in eating. It was fair to say that I felt like a slave to clean eating and if I failed, in any way, to uphold the rules of clean eating, I would pay with sever anxiety, self-recrimination, and fear. Looking back it is clear that those types of feelings are not part of a healthy relationship with food.

For those of you who want to do further reading you can check out the study titled: When eating healthy is not healthy: orthorexia nervosa and its measurement with the ORTO-15 in Hungary.

Below are the questions from the ORTO-15. Read through them and see how many you agree with. Higher agreement levels indicate increased likelihood of orthorexia.

Supplemental orthorexia nervosa-related questions used in this study:

1. I consume only healthy foods.

2. I always eat according to my eating schedule.

3. Sexuality plays an important role in my life.

4. Being overweight is a sign of weakness.

5. I avoid food with specific colors.

6. I disapprove of people, who cannot overcome their desires.

7. I think most people can be blamed for their own diseases.

8. I always eat the same meals.

9. I am critical of people who don’t follow the rules of a healthy lifestyle.

10. I spend a large amount of time preparing my meals.

I recall being terrified when I realized that I had a “problem” with eating clean. The idea of dirtying up my perfect nutritional plan was not acceptable. I was certain that once I started eating ice cream or other delicious treats that I wouldn’t be able to stop. I really didn’t know what to do next.

If you’re feeling the same way, please know that you’re going to be OK. You don’t have to leap into action. Pause. Go slow. Think about what all of this really means to you. What do you miss about the days when you were able to eat more flexibly? Do you wish you could eat whatever you truly desired and still feel safe? I certainly did. And with time you will be able to do just that. It’s all a matter of balance.


“If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.” Lao Tzu,


Send me an email and tell me about your situation. I’m here to listen.


And two more nuggets for the fellow bookworms out there:

– Dr. Bratman’s “Health Food Junkies: Orthorexia Nervosa: Overcoming the Obsession with Healthful Eating.” 

– And I also really love Eating Mindfully by Dr. Susan Albers.


Do you or someone you know have difficulty finding the balance between “eating clean” and moderation? Share this post or leave a comment below. Let’s talk about this!

“My point is, life is about balance. The good and the bad. The highs and the lows. The pina and the colada.”

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *