When Does Clean Eating Become an Unhealthy Obsession?

Thursday, Apr 21  •  


Making mindful decisions when it comes to food is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, however, for some people, this preoccupation with “clean eating” can become physically and socially impairing. According to a group of researchers at York University’s Faculty of Health, individuals who have a history of an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive traits, dieting, poor body image, and/or a drive for thinness are more likely to develop a pathological obsession with healthy eating, known as Orthorexia Nervosa. 

Orthorexia Nervosa 

Orthorexia Nervosa is not currently recognized as an official eating disorder diagnosis by the DSM-V, however, researchers are pushing for it to be included as a formal disorder due to its harmful effects on both physical and mental health. Individuals with Orthorexia Nervosa become so fixated on clean eating that they often spend hours thinking about food and planning their meals. This preoccupation with food can lead to social isolation, as well as physical health problems such as malnutrition.

Signs and Symptoms

Although Orthorexia Nervosa does not have official diagnostic criteria, it does have common signs and symptoms, including:

  • Having an obsession or preoccupation with healthy foods, nutrition, and eating
  • Obsessively checking ingredient lists and nutrition labels
  • Experiencing intense fear of “unhealthy” foods and avoiding those foods
  • Being unable to deviate from a specific eating style or dietary regimen without feeling anxious
  • Cutting out large groups of food despite having no medical, religious, cultural, or ethical reason for doing so
  • Spending unusually large amounts of time planning, buying, and preparing meals they perceive as healthy, to the point that it interferes with other areas of life
  • Having an unusual interest in or critical view of other people’s eating habits
  • Avoiding social events and foods prepared by other people
  • Bringing premade meals to events as a result of the belief that other people’s food will not meet their standards of “healthy”
  • Experiencing unintentional malnutrition or weight loss as a result of severe food restrictions
  • Fixating on preventing or curing disease with food or “clean eating”

For individuals with orthorexia, violating the healthy eating standards they have set for themselves leads to severe emotional distress and a decreased sense of self-worth. Often, people with orthorexia feel that their self-worth depends on their ability to meticulously follow a lifestyle that they consider healthy. That said, the most common sign of Orthorexia Nervosa is an obsession with healthy eating that negatively affects your life.

Causes of Orthorexia

Although you may begin a diet simply intending to improve your health, allowing your focus to become too extreme can lead to orthorexia. Although we do not know for sure what causes this disordered eating, many factors seem to play a role in its development.

  • Obsessive-compulsive tendencies
  • Past or current eating disorders
  • Tendencies towards perfectionism, high anxiety, and a need to control
  • Social factors such as nutrition knowledge, higher income, access to “clean foods”, and weight stigma

Aspects of clean eating promote whole, minimally processed foods, which are healthy. But the phrase “clean eating” moralizes food by painting other foods as “dirty” or undesirable. Moralization stigmatizes some foods, contributing to eating disorders such as orthorexia.

Being mindful of the foods you eat and how they affect your health is generally regarded as a good thing. However, for some people, there is a fine line between healthy eating and developing an eating disorder.

If you or someone you know is exhibiting signs of Orthorexia Nervosa, it’s important to seek professional help. This disorder is treatable and with the help of a professional, individuals can learn to develop a more balanced, healthy relationship with food.