At What Point Is 'Clean Eating' Classified As An Eating Disorder?

The warnings signs to look out for, according to a psychologist.

clean eating
Image: iStock

Written by: Cassandra Dunn, psychologist for

Living a healthy life is a valid and worthy pursuit, no doubt about it. ‘Train mean and eat clean’ is the mantra of many a healthy living advocate. For some people though, the commitment to eating ‘clean’ can become so obsessive that it’s potentially dangerous. The term Orthorexia Nervosa refers to a type of disordered eating that involves a very rigid approach to eating only healthy, pure or natural food.
The health and fitness industry play a vital role in influencing attitudes as such toward food, which is why it’s so important for leaders in this industry to act as role models. Working with Steph Claire Smith and Laura Henshaw on their online fitness program Keep it Cleaner (KIC) has been a great experience, as they’ve created a positive and safe community where KIC girls can share and promote a balanced, sustainable lifestyle, build confidence and manifest a nourishing relationship with food. But unfortunately, this isn’t always the case.

How could eating healthy be bad for you?

The tricky thing about Orthorexia is knowing when your strict approach to healthy eating moves from being a lifestyle choice to a mental illness. While it’s not officially recognised as a clinical diagnosis in psychiatry, people who work in the field of eating disorders report that Orthorexia is a very real condition with characteristics similar to both Anorexia Nervosa and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
You might feel like you gain control of your life through your food choices, have anxiety around food and become increasingly preoccupied with eating only the ‘right foods’. The difference between Orthorexia and other eating disorders is that the fixation is not on weight loss but on eating foods that are pure and natural.


If you’re wondering what Orthorexia Nervosa looks like, some of the warning signs include:

  • Being extremely rigid in your food. Over time, the number of foods you allow yourself to eat may drastically decrease as you become more anxious about food and increasingly strict.
  • Avoiding situations or social occasions because you can’t guarantee the food will be up to your requirements. In other words, your life choices are impacted and influenced heavily by food and eating.
  • Spending a lot of time thinking about food; whether it’s counting macros, hunting for ‘bad’ ingredients, eliminating entire food groups or planning ahead of time what you will eat and when.
  • Feeling irrationally guilty for eating ‘bad’ food or feeling superior to others who do not adhere to fastidious food rules like you do. Having relationships damaged by your food rules.
  • Noticing that rather than you being in control of your food choices, your strict food rules begin controlling you.

What to do?

If you’re not sure whether or not you have a problem, it pays to err on the side of caution and speak to someone who can provide a professional opinion. It might feel scary to ask for help because you worry that if you’re forced to change your eating habits your health will suffer. Working with a professional can help you to come up with a balanced, sustainable solution and challenge the faulty thinking that is keeping you stuck.
Ultimately, what we all want is optimal health in mind as well as body so if you realise you’re sacrificing your mental wellbeing for the sake of your food choices, it’s time to try to get that back into balance so you can truly live a fulfilling life and achieve your highest, happiest potential.

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