Orthorexia & clean eating: the dirty truth

With summer approaching, I’ve seen more and more accounts talking about getting their “summer body”. More specifically, people are focusing on eating “clean” in the hopes of attaining their desired physique. However, there’s a whole host of issues surrounding the clean-eating movement, so carry on reading to hear my personal thoughts and experience.

What is orthorexia?

It’s defined as “a mental health condition in which the sufferer systematically avoids specific foods that they deem to be ‘unhealthy'”. Whilst the sufferer might not necessarily monitor their calorie intake, the source of these calories becomes a source of obsession and anxiety. The “Ortho” from “orthorexia” stems from the Greek for “right” or “correct”, which ties into the sufferer’s desire to achieve and maintain a certain eating standard that they deem to be correct.

“superfoods” are a big clean-eating catch; I used to eat them as I thought they were a miracle health food but now I only have the ones I actually like the taste of

Anorexia vs Orthorexia

Often, the line between the two isn’t clear cut. Some may suffer from or show symptoms of both, whereas others may suffer specifically from one. Since orthorexia is generally not as life-threatening as anorexia, it is usually harder to get help. Especially since nowadays “clean eating” has become so popular. If someone tells you that they’re cutting out gluten/ dairy/ (refined) sugar/ carbs/ fat/ grains etc (honestly the list goes on) for an inexplicable reason you might think it a bit odd, but not look much further into it. On the other hand, if you notice a friend severely restricting their food intake then you might talk to them about it. Orthorexia is, in my opinion (and again, I’m no expert/ health professional etc), far less recognised and diagnosed for this reason.

“Clean” eating – and why I hate dislike the term

When someone says the word “clean”, what immediately springs to mind? Washing-up liquid, mops, sponges, white shiny surfaces, hospitals… they all spring to mine. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to eat food I associate with anti-bacterial spray. On a more serious note, however, it’s what the term implies that makes it so dangerous. If only specific foods are deemed to be “clean”, what does that make everything else? Dirty? Sinful? Gross? For me, it’s this suggestion that what you’re eating should make you feel bad – guilty, even – because it’s not “right”. And sadly, this is how orthorexic eating patterns can develop.

I would never have eaten these pancakes before as they contain wholewheat flour aka wheat + gluten = nasties (or at least I used to think so)

My story

I’ve never really spoken about my transition from anorexia to orthorexia. And that’s mainly because I only properly came to terms with it a year ago. Without realising it at the time, my way of “recovering” was through another form of restrictive eating. I am not blaming DeliciouslyElla, her blog or instagram for this, but I just so happened to stumble across her page. It was a photo of sweet potato brownies that caught my attention. I remember looking at the ingredients and seeing no butter/ sugar/ flour (at least as I knew them to be). I remember researching into gluten, dairy and refined sugar. And most importantly, I remember thinking that they were the enemy. I simply couldn’t eat them, or else I would contaminate myself with these “dirty” foods.

no longer an “eating disorder”, but still disordered eating patterns

Yes, I stopped focusing so much on my caloric intake. Yes, I managed to put on weight, hit my targets and eventually get discharged from therapy. But no, I still – crucially – did not have a healthy attitude towards food. Far from it, in fact. I rid my diet of gluten (especially from wheat); no bread, pasta or cakes, unless they were made with 38427 different gluten-free flours which were also 3904378x more expensive. No more refined sugar – although maple syrup, honey and coconut sugar were all ok! I became hooked on this “clean” eating bandwagon, like so many others, and social media made it a lot worse. With the likes of Kourtney Kardashian and her “detox diet” going around, it’s easy to see why. Food had again become a source of anxiety, and eating out was again a struggle.

the topping on these is just dark chocolate (melted) – before I’d have never touched chocolate that contained any sugar other than coconut sugar

Starting my blog

So if you go back to my first few recipes, a lot of them are actually gluten & refined sugar free. Some still are. The difference is, I no longer think of this as the “correct” or “only” way of eating. I’ve started experimenting with gluten again in recipes and the outcome is often 1000x better (think Tesco Banoffee Pancakes). I still don’t really consume much refined sugar, but the same goes with unrefined. Everything in moderation in my books. It’s no longer about depriving myself of “dirty” food, but eating what makes me feel good. If that’s a sweet potato brownie, then fine. If it’s a traditional fudgy, crinkly, chocolate chip one then that’s fine too. I guess I’ve now realised that a diet wholly made up of either wouldn’t be healthy, and having a healthy attitude around food is just important as a balanced diet. If you think about it this way, there’s no point in eating a “superfood massaged kale salad” if eating a pizza has you feeling guilty for days afterwards.

The slippery slope – and how to escape it

This is just my experience. Yours or that of someone you know may be completely different. What is key, however, to overcoming this disordered eating pattern is first of all recognising it. If you avoid gluten because you’re intolerant or coeliac, then obviously I’m not saying you have orthorexia. But if you’re avoiding it because another blogger/ influencer is (for non-medical reasons), then confront yourself about it, along with any other food type/ group that you may have eliminated from your diet. Stop believing everything you read on instagram/ online in general, because the majority of the time it’s rubbish. Sorry to sound rude, but it’s the truth. So many people claim all sorts of nonsense that is NOT backed up by scientific evidence or a relevant degree.

“normal”, wholemeal bread , toasted and topped with aaaall the goodies. Take that orthorexia.

Luckily, “myth busting” with regards to food has now become a thing, and qualified health professionals are resorting to their blogs/ instagram profiles to debunk this nonsense. A couple of accounts that have really helped me with my mentality around food are:

@Plantbased_pixie

@rhitrition 

They are both qualified and registered nutritionists so their words have some weight behind them!


As always, I hope you’ve found this post useful or interesting. Let me know your thoughts on this topic in the comments or on Instagram! I’d love to hear them.

Emma ♥♥