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Clean Eating Is Not Disordered

The clean-eating movement is getting a bad rap in some circles, especially online, for being associated with disordered eating. Here’s what our resident nutritionist and columnist Jonny Bowden thinks about the negative press.

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When I was about seven years old, I developed an obsessive-compulsive disorder. In my case, the primary symptom was a laser-sharp concern with the cracks in the sidewalk in my neighborhood in Jackson Heights, New York. It soon morphed into a whole mythology of terrible things that would happen to all sorts of people were I to violate the increasingly complex rules of crack avoiding. (In the universe of my mind, some cracks carried more severe penalties than others.)

Thankfully, I came out of that period with only the normal amount of obsessiveness that’s in the DNA of any writer. But my childhood foray into the throes of an obsessive-compulsive disorder taught me a lot about human behavior.

Which brings us to the elephant in the clean-eating room: orthorexia.

Orthorexia nervosa is an eating disorder in which people torture themselves over the “purity” of the food they eat, in a manner that affects their overall well-being. Orthorexics don’t share a diet philosophy – what they share is a rigid adherence to orthodoxy. It could be Paleo, vegan, Kosher or the old Billy Bob Thornton rule of only eating foods that are orange. The particular food philosophy doesn’t matter, nor does it matter if the philosophy is a good one or not. What matters is the obsession; in this case, the playing field just happens to be food orthodoxy.

And, according to the internet, the clean-eating movement is fostering this condition.


OK, let’s all take a deep breath.

Orthorexia is defined as an unhealthy obsession with foods that one considers healthy. Should we therefore not advocate for healthy eating? Blaming the condition of orthorexia on the desire for healthy foods is like blaming the St. Bernard dog for the avalanche.

It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to orthorexics. Before I entered the health and fitness field in 1990, I was a doctoral candidate in psychology. (I have what’s called an ABD – all but dissertation!) Then, when I began my career as a trainer at Equinox Fitness, I saw more than my share of people with eating disorders, and my understanding of and compassion for them was only deepened by my training in psychology.

One particular disorder we saw a lot of was what’s called exercise bulimia. People would come in and run on the treadmills obsessively, joylessly and frantically, trying to burn off the calories they guiltily allowed themselves at lunch. We were trained to spot those folks and offer them resources for help.

Here’s what we did not do: Blame the treadmill!

I’ve been writing for Clean Eating almost since the beginning. Anyone who knows my work knows that I am probably the most anti-orthodox nutritionist on the planet. My tag line for years was “Rogue Nutritionist.” I wrote articles like, “I Am Not Your Guru.” My favorite book in grad school was “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!”, which basically said, “Dude, don’t follow gurus. Find your own path.” That’s been my mantra for my entire professional life. The only absolute in my life is the commandment, “Don’t hurt people or animals.” Beyond that, I believe in empowering each person to find their own way. And I’m old enough to have learned that there are many, many roads to individual health and happiness.

So with that in mind, let me tell you what clean eating really stands for. It stands for eating real food made without a lot of unnecessary processed ingredients and additives. Eating foods as close to their natural state as possible. Eating foods that you could hunt, fish, gather or pluck. Eating food your great-grandmother would have recognized. Eating food that spoils. Eating food that doesn’t have a bunch of unpronounceable ingredients, whether it’s labeled “natural” or otherwise.

The clean-eating movement is also about a spirit – it’s a community with the shared goal of improving our own health, the health of our families and the planet. That’s it. We share different ideas, recipes, nutrition information and eating philosophies. We celebrate flavors and textures and other lovely qualities of real foods that get flattened by industrial processing. The clean-eating movement – and, I’m proud to say, this magazine – is characterized by openness and curiosity, not authoritarianism.

See also What Is Clean Eating?

Oh, and one more thing. When you meet someone who tells you that his or her definition of “clean” is the only one that’s “real” and all the rest are imposters, walk away. Nobody gets to dictate another person’s journey. Clean eating isn’t about somebody else’s idea of perfection. It’s about nurturing a healthier and more conscious relationship with the food we eat.

To blame the condition of orthorexia on the clean-eating movement is like blaming umbrellas for the rain.