Behind The Feed: The Dirty Flip Side Of “Clean Eating”

Behind The Feed: The Dirty Flip Side Of “Clean Eating”

Are social media’s staunch adherents to the “clean eating” movement perpetuating a dangerous binary?

Behold, the chia seed parfait: It starts with a handful of pellets that you soak overnight in any of the many varieties of non-dairy milk now available. The next morning, you have a breakfast packed with omega-3 fatty acids, “good” carbs, protein, tons of fiber and vitamins. Add dragon fruit, sliced bananas, strawberries, and some flowers (edible, of course) and it’s also *kisses fingertips* drop-dead gorgeous and Instagram-ready. More importantly, though, it’s “clean.”

It’s one of the handful of dishes that have become ubiquitous with the rise of clean eating. Scroll through any of the 36 million-odd posts with the hashtag #cleaneating on Instagram, and you’ll find countless shots of lovely parfaits alongside its “clean” compatriots: Zoodles with vegan “alfredo”; ancient grain bowls with tempeh “bacon”; an entire Pantone scale of cold-pressed juices.

Of course, it’s impossible to deny that our industrial food complex is up against some complicated, nuanced issues of economics, food lobbies have tipped the scales when it comes to regulation, and issues like the rise in childhood diabetes is a serious problem. But as is the nature of a pendulum, there’s an equal and opposite side to this equation.

Chalk it up to America’s Puritanical roots, perhaps, or else our human tendency to interpret the world in terms of black and white, but alongside a reasonable move towards healthier eating and educating ourselves about where our food is coming from — the rise of “clean” foods has directly paved the way for its opposite. That is, the notion that everything not “clean” is by default “dirty.” And it’s a mindset that’s potentially dangerous.

Breaking clean

The rise of clean eating and its subsequent backlash in recent years has perhaps most notably been summed up via the story of Jordan Younger, a food and wellness blogger that rose to prominence as The Blonde Vegan in 2013. Over the course of the next year, Younger’s enthusiasm for her self-prescribed raw, vegan, gluten-free diet played out as a constant stream of bright, buoyant and carefully-styled photos on her Instagram and blog, paired with enthusiastic captions describing how healthy and happy this diet was making her.

Younger’s message resonated quickly and broadly, to say the least; she developed a following in the hundreds of thousands, and subsequently figured out the route to monetization via marketing her own meal plan (sans formal training in nutrition), sponsorships, as even a line of t-shirts.

But beneath the glowy exterior, Younger became increasingly aware that what started as an interest in eating healthier had spun out of her control. In June of 2014, she published a post on her blog called “Why I’m transitioning away from veganism” detailing the evolution of her obsession with clean eating and how it eventually become debilitating and dangerous. Her hair had started falling out, for starters.

Despite massive backlash from her once-devout followers, Younger has stayed the course and has become a voice cautioning against the potentially harmful — and often difficult to spot — side effects of becoming unhealthily obsessed with otherwise healthy eating.

It’s a condition often referred to as orthorexia nervosa, which was coined by alternative medicine specialist Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997, after his observations of obsessively fixated diet behaviors among yoga retreat attendees.

In 2015, Younger published a book detailing her journey called Breaking Vegan, and she has since changed the name of her blog and Instagram to The Balanced Blonde. Along with other prominent critics of the clean-eating-as-lifestyle movement, such as celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, Younger is careful to articulate that the issue is not with the actual food itself; rather, it’s the psychology that surrounds it and the methods in which these messages are disseminated:

“The rise of sharing clean eating on social media has made it much easier for others to compare the way that they eat, and to go down that slippery slope of eating like someone else rather than listening to their own body,” Younger says.

“I do think there are some really beautiful things about sharing clean, healthy food from the earth online — I still do it as a food blogger! But I just think we all have to have our own discretion … My ‘clean’ isn’t the same as someone else’s ‘clean.’ It’s so much more about learning to live and eat in the way that supports our individual body the best.”

“Clean eating” as a moral act

Since his article was originally published in Yoga Journal in 1997, Dr. Bratman’s work has been somewhat misconstrued over the years. “Basically, ‘clean eating’ is just a theory of healthy eating,” he explains, which in and of itself, is not a bad thing. “It doesn’t become orthorexia unless it passes some sort of threshold and becomes harmful,” he says, acknowledging that the threshold is not a hard and fast line.

And while it was never his intention, his coining of the term has led to instances in which orthorexia is being used interchangeably with clean eating — something with which he is deeply uncomfortable.

“I strongly object to pathologizing a theory of eating. It is not only intellectually wrong to do this, [in that it neglects] a long history of mainstream dietary foolishness, [but] it is also counterproductive, because it alienates those communities who most need to hear about orthorexia,” he says.

Speaking of those communities, staunch supporters of clean eating are quick to point out that orthorexia nervosa has not been acknowledged by the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association’s manual against which mental disorders are diagnosed — though it is acknowledged by eating disorder support platforms such as the National Eating Disorders Association.

Nonetheless, dietitian and nutritionist Alissa Rumsey points out that for individuals who have lived with eating disorders in the past, using clean eating as a cover for severe calorie restriction or other potentially harmful methods of dieting is almost the perfect disguise. It’s “more socially acceptable,” she says, emphasizing that when someone is in recovery, “it’s important that there are no food rules or restrictions, otherwise, there is a high likelihood that the eating disorder behaviors will come back.”

What makes the issue so slippery is the idea that by defining foods as “clean” and “unclean,” righteousness is introduced into the equation, and along with it, the weaponization of “shameful” habits. It’s largely the reason the debate has become so heated, and why Younger faced such vicious backlash when she made her renouncement: The way we choose to eat has become a personal reflection of who we are as people, and social media lets us broadcast those values for the world to see.

“Using the word ‘clean’ assigns a moral value to your food, where none exists. Judgement is rooted in the very name ‘clean [eating]’ and by eating these foods, [it allows] people to feel morally superior to others,” says Ramsey.

Interestingly, Bratman takes no issue with the term “clean eating.” In fact, he asserts that assignation of moral values is nothing new: “We all do that, all the time. Conventional medicine makes a silly distinction between red meat and white meat, and assumes the former is ‘good’ and the latter ‘bad,’” he says, adding that “real food” and “junk food” is another such moral distinction.

“The problem is not one of category, but of degree; by this, I mean that the category ‘clean eating’ is not the problem; it is the degree of obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior that is the problem.”

Food for thought next time you’re losing sleep over that late-night Del Taco you smashed immediately after finishing your three day soup cleanse. Cutting out all the noise and listening to what your body actually needs is never a matter of black and white — and that’s a probably a good thing.

Before making any changes to your diet or nutrition plan, be sure to personally consult with your doctor or a registered dietician/healthcare provider first.If you or someone you know is in need of mental health assistance, visit this site or If you or someone you know is in need of mental health assistance, visit this siteororthis site for access to resources.