Even if you aren’t trying to lose weight or get fit, eating healthy all the time is something that almost everyone aspires to. Logically, we know that eating a healthy diet full of the correct amount of fruits, veggies, protein, carbs, and healthy fats is the best thing for us. It keeps us, well, healthy; boosting our immune system, making us stronger, giving us the nutrients we need to survive, and increasing energy, among other things. But there’s a big difference between focusing on eating well to be healthy, and obsessing over eating healthy.
In fact, being super into eating healthy can actually be considered an eating disorder. It’s called orthorexia, and it’s a very real eating disorder that is unfortunately becoming more and more common. Orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with eating clean and healthy, whereas anorexia is an obsession with dieting and not eating, and bulimia is binging and purging. Want to take a guess as to what’s fueling the recent increase in orthorexia cases? Yep – it’s social media.
Eating clean is probably not a new concept to any of you, and that’s largely due to social media sites, especially Pinterest and Instagram. But in case you’re confused on what it means, eating clean is a diet where you only eat natural foods – nothing artificial or processed. Eating clean is a diet full of fruits, veggies, lean protein (think a piece of chicken or turkey rather than cold cuts, burgers, hot dogs, or bacon), seafood (think grilled salmon or flounder rather than fried fish), and healthy fats (avocado, natural nut butters, etc.). Most people who eat clean also choose to shun dairy, or are very picky with the lactose ingredients they use. Clean eating does not include butter, artificial sugar, ice cream, chips, pretzels, candy, white flour, or many store-bought items.
I’ll be real with you guys: eating clean can be a great diet. It’s an excellent way to cleanse, and it truly is very good for you. It makes you feel more energized and it keeps chemicals and other artificial ingredients out of your body. Unfortunately, as with most things, too much clean eating is not good.
Orthorexia is not just about clean eating – it’s about obsessing over clean eating. You may have seen this on fitspo or thinspo Instagram accounts. The bloggers who are obsessed with clean eating are easy to pick out. They’re the ones preaching about how eating healthy is easy and delicious! They’re the ones pretending spaghetti squash is like real pasta (I mean, it’s good, but come on). They’re the ones getting weirdly excited about the teaspoon of natural peanut butter they’re allowed to eat at night. They’re the ones putting an enormous amount of time and energy into every single piece of food that goes into their mouths.
I’m not bashing the eating clean lifestyle that many have adapted. In fact, I’ve done it, and I loved it. I’m also not trying to make fun of people who like to be healthy and focus on fitness and put a lot of time into their food. As long as they’re being healthy, then good for them! The sad thing is, many of them aren’t being healthy – they’re being obsessive.
There is such a thing as a negative side to eating healthy all the time. On the extreme side, that includes eating disorders that can make you sick or land you in the hospital. On the less intense side, the negatives include spending a lot of money, being too hard on yourself, denying yourself enjoyable things, and overwhelming feelings of guilt when you do indulge.
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I’ve been there. Last year, I tried a clean eating diet and stuck to it for four weeks. I removed artificial sugar and dairy from my diet. I only ate natural food like veggies, fruits, seafood (I don’t eat meat), whole grains, and healthy fats. For me, a typical day of food looked like this:
Breakfast: Black coffee, hard-boiled eggs, fruit.
Snack One: Oatmeal with fruit.
Lunch: Tuna with veggies and vinegar or a salad or a grain (like quinoa or brown rice) with veggies.
Snack Two: Unsalted nuts like almonds or walnuts, olives, maybe a fruit or veggie.
Dinner: Grilled or broiled seafood, veggies, one serving of carbs (like a sweet potato or whole grain).
Dessert: A spoonful of natural nut butter, Greek yogurt, or a clean-eating-approved protein bar.
It was very, very healthy, but also clearly not exciting.
My clean eating diet did what I wanted it to do: I lost a decent amount of weight. After the initial shock of feeling terrible without artificial sugar (which is something we very much get addicted to), I felt slightly more energized and just good about myself. I got compliments. People marveled at my will power. I even created an Instagram account to follow my journey, and I got lots of comments on my #cleaneatingfood pictures telling me how awesome and inspiring I was.
As great as that sounds, here’s something that wasn’t so great: I turned into a giant bitch.
I don’t know if you’ve ever done it, but going without sugar and dairy is hard. I’m sorry, hard is the wrong word. Nearly impossible is better. Almost every food that is easy and fast to eat is full of processed ingredients that are definitely not natural. Sugar is in virtually everything. I spent the majority of my time meal prepping in advance, food shopping, and trying to come up with natural food ideas that didn’t put me to sleep.
I was frustrated all the time. I would go to work, and there would be cupcakes or cookies that I couldn’t eat. It made me angry and annoyed, but I was determined to finish the challenge. And I was becoming obsessive. I took pictures of all my food. I stared at ingredients for longer than I should have. I felt absolutely awful about myself during my cheat meals (the opposite of how you’re supposed to feel). I was mean to my boyfriend and family because I missed sugar.
Obviously, my clean eating diet never turned into a serious obsession. But it was enough of an issue to make me a little worried. Is it good to eat clean or just to eat healthy? Yes. I would never discourage anyone from not doing it. But it’s also imperative that it doesn’t become an obsession. There’s nothing wrong with munching on a bag of chips sometimes. It’s okay to crave a bowl of ice cream with five different toppings and then eat it all. You should never feel guilty about going out to dinner with friends simply because your food may have been prepared with butter.
And as much as I support some members of the fitness community on Instagram, I think that overall, it puts people in an environment where they’re made to feel bad if they don’t eat clean. When I first started my fitness Instagram, I would post pictures of my healthy, but not clean, meals. Someone always felt the need to comment and say something like, “It’s great that you’re trying, but that’s not clean!” And it was like, okay? While clean eating is great, it’s not the only healthy choice out there. And many Instagram users promote it as though it is.
So, please don’t get caught up in eating too healthy. Like with most things, you need a balance. You need to be able to eat junk food sometimes. You need to have time off from eating healthy. And you will still be okay. Promise.
How do you feel about eating healthy all the time? Have you ever tried clean eating? How was it? Tell us in the comments.