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When Clean Eating Becomes Unhealthy

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In the case of this post, the general definition that I use for “clean eating” is as follows: Clean eating involves choosing to eat nutritious, whole foods that are in their purest forms, while avoiding processed foods.  It is also important to note that I am not a Registered Dietitian, nor do I have a medical degree.  These are simply statements that I am making based on my own personal experiences.

Clean Eating.

It is quite the hot topic these days, isn’t it?  With the new year in full swing, so many of us have been searching for “clean eating” recipes (my daily page views have nearly doubled since the 1st), and many have set out on the path to eat a healthier diet.  While I am a major proponent for adopting a “cleaner” diet and leading a healthier life, I also feel as though I would be cheating you by not sharing my own personal struggles and mishaps within the realm of the clean eating world.

This may seem a bit dramatic, but I believe that clean eating has the ability to become somewhat of a deathtrap.

Unhealthy Clean Eating GraphicWe’ll get to that deathtrap part in a second.  But first, let’s start with my thoughts on the positive aspects of clean eating.

clean eating positive graphicClean eating is healthy when it results in one increasing the amount of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats in their diet.

Clean eating is beneficial to the body when water consumption increases and, as a result, the amount of soda/sugary drinks/coffee consumed decreases.

Clean eating is positive when it encourages people to cook at home and eat in more, as opposed to resorting to restaurant meals on a regular basis.

Clean eating is beneficial when one’s healthy eating habits become contagious towards those around them, and family members and friends adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Clean eating is healthy when it encourages people to try new foods.  I certainly never thought I would be a brussel sprouts or tofu lover!

Clearly, there are many positive aspects to eating a clean diet.  Trust me when I say that I am all for clean eating (it is a part of my blog name, after all).  But I have to emphasize my belief that some very fine lines exist when it comes to clean eating.  Where do we draw the line between when clean eating is positive and healthy, and when clean eating becomes obsessive, guilt-ridden, overpowering, negative, and unhealthy?

clean eating negative graphicClean eating is not healthy when it becomes an obsession.  Healthy eating should not consume a person and his or her thoughts.

Clean eating may be a negative experience if a person is too focused on whether or not he or she has eaten enough vegetables or enough fruits.

Clean eating may not be beneficial if it leads to counting calories.

Clean eating can negatively affect one’s social life when it results in avoiding social situations or eating out due to a fear of not being able to eat “clean enough.”

Clean eating can be detrimental when food begins to be categorized as “good” or “bad.”

Clean eating can be a negative experience when one feels great after eating a “clean” meal, and then awful  (mentally) after eating a “not clean” meal.

Clean eating can be unhealthy when one completely cuts out food they used to love instead of simply eating it in moderation.

As I mentioned above, I am speaking from experience with this post.  Clean eating certainly has a positive side and many health benefits for so many people.  But I have also personally witnessed, felt, and experienced the negative effects of sliding down the slippery slope of obsessive clean eating.  Some may call this “orthorexia.”  Regardless of what you want to call it, it is by no means fun.

My college-age self would have told you that you were nuts if you said that two years later I would be headed down a path toward obsessively eating clean, thinking about food far more often than I should, and actually fearing social situations involving “unhealthy” food and how they would impact me mentally and emotionally.  I am fortunate enough in 2015 to say that I am in a much better place than I was in 2013 and the first half of 2014.  I stepped back, took a look at my food habits, and made changes.  Not to say that these changes were easy.  They took a good year and a half to fully adopt.  But I am now feeling better about eating out at restaurants and gatherings, treating myself more often, and enjoying food a lot more.  I certainly still have challenging moments and challenging days, but am happy to say that I am finally finding that balance in healthy living, and I am experiencing the positive sides of clean eating.

I don’t mean for this post to insinuate that adopting a lifestyle of clean eating will lead to orthorexia, but I want people to know that it can (even to those of us who think, “it won’t happen to me”).  I 100% support those of you who are turning over a new leaf in 2015 and are eating cleaner, but please do so in a way that is not all or nothing.  Do so in a way that still incorporates your favorite treats, your favorite restaurant meals, and plenty of social gatherings.  Healthy living is about clean eating and eating treats, all while not feeling bad or guilty.

Happy eating 🙂

What are your thoughts on “clean eating?”

Edited to add: I wrote this post about a week ago.  Between then and now, Jen shared a similar post about clean eating.  Jen is a Registered Dietitian, so be sure to check out her take on clean eating, too!

{ 61 comments… add one }
  • meredith @ The Cookie ChRUNicles January 12, 2015, 4:55 am

    I wrote a bit about this too in a way when I said I can’t let eating clean control my life and keep me from dining out and enjoying myself with my favorites foods and favorite people. It’s a real slippery slope.
    meredith @ The Cookie ChRUNicles recently posted…Weekend Thoughts Per PictureMy Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 7:24 am

      It really is a slippery slope, and it’s one that I never thought I would go down. I think it is really important to be mindful about our food thoughts/habits.

  • AJ @ NutriFitMama January 12, 2015, 6:51 am

    I think just about anything can have a negative impact when it becomes an obsession and begins to control your life. It’s all about moderation and perspective. I have had my own struggles in the past, so it’s nice to see others out there sharing their own struggles. Hopefully it will help someone who might be feeling similarly realize the path they might be take, and give them the opportunity to head in a different direction.

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 7:27 am

      I hope so, too! These more personal posts are often difficult to write, but I always hope that I will connect with at least one person and that they will benefit from it.

  • CARLA January 12, 2015, 7:21 am

    ahh yes.
    about a decade ago I did a newspaper article on ORTHOREXIA and everyone laughed.
    no one is laughing now.
    CARLA recently posted…Gilmore Girls reinforced my mothering.My Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 7:29 am

      How interesting! I didn’t realize it even had a label a decade ago. You sure were on to something, and I am glad it is more known/accepted as something that is REAL.

  • Elizabeth @ bowl of delicious! January 12, 2015, 7:36 am

    What a great post. You clearly lay out the benefits of clean eating, which are plentiful! And I love the cautions you have against eating “too” clean. Moderation is so important!! Sharing. Thank you 🙂

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 8:29 am

      Thanks, Elizabeth! I have certainly learned that moderation is the key when it comes to so many things- including food. Hopefully this post will resonate with others who may be struggling with similar experiences as I was.

  • Kelly @ Hidden Fruits and Veggies January 12, 2015, 8:54 am

    Great post! My sister had issues when she was trying to eat healthier with being totally afraid of eating anything bad (and actually tried to opt out of most meals when we were on vacation — yeah, no one’s letting that happen!) Love to see people talking about it
    Kelly @ Hidden Fruits and Veggies recently posted…Grilled Avocado Sandwich + A Cookbook Review and Giveaway!My Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 9:03 am

      I think this happens FAR more often than anyone realizes, and I am glad that the healthy living community is finally talking about it. I think it is far more prevalent within blogging than we may think.

  • mike January 12, 2015, 9:01 am

    i eat a 100% plant based diet because of ethics and health. i am a member of a few vegan groups on fb. i see this a lot in the vegan community on fb, especially the raw vegans. people start to pursue purity of food above all else. their life is consumed by worrying about everything they and everyone else eats. it is sad, especially when they start skipping family activities and cut off contact with old friends

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 10:43 am

      Thanks for your comment, Mike. I am also a member of some of those groups on Facebook, and I have noticed the same thing. I think it is important for us to take a step back and truly evaluate what is most important to us. For me, spending time with family and friends during social activities are things I will remember. How clean I ate on a certain day is definitely not something I’ll remember a week later.

  • Farrah January 12, 2015, 9:40 am

    I definitely agree–too much of a good thing can be a bad thing (sigh, orthorexia 🙁 ), especially when it becomes an obsession. There are some instances where I would advocate for counting calories (e.g. in diabetic patients who don’t realize just how much mindless snacking they’re doing each day), but I do agree that it can be a slippery slope. Everything in moderation is key!
    Farrah recently posted…ExerciseMy Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 10:44 am

      Great point, Farrah! Calorie counting certainly works for MANY people. I suppose we just have to be extra mindful about whether it is helpful or hurtful for us personally.

  • Ange @ Cowgirl Runs January 12, 2015, 10:41 am

    I couldn’t agree more with your (and Jen’s) posts! I’m a moderation gal, so I agree that eating well is important, I’m not going to cut out a food group (dairy, legumes, wheat, whatever) becuase someone wrote a book about it.
    Ange @ Cowgirl Runs recently posted…Motivate Me Monday 1/12 & Polar M400 ReviewMy Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 10:45 am

      Haha, great point! 😉 If we all cut out the foods that people say are “bad,” we probably wouldn’t be eating anything at all!

  • Miss Polkadot January 12, 2015, 10:53 am

    Fully agreed. While I can’t pretend I was over my [ED-related] struggles with food they’re not within the measures of ‘clean eating’. I don’t feel bad for eating not-so-nutritious food when I’m craving it. There’s a reason we’re longing for these foods: because they’re tied to emotions, memories, simply because they taste good. I’m against all-or-nothing in any way when it comes to food. Like you, I think any way of eating that makes us prioritize food over social life requires a red flag signal. I will admit I’m working on overcoming this very point right now but I’m on my way.
    Society requires us to follow enough rules already so we shouldn’t set any more in our lives regarding the food we eat. As a proponent of intuitive eating I believe we will always naturally find a balance in our diets and there’s no need to stress or try to ‘manage’ and ‘optimize’ our intake. If we genuinely crave a salad: great. But the same goes for a fierce appetite for the occasional pizza with extra cheese. Food isn’t science.

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 4:51 pm

      Society definitely plays a HUGE roll in what we eat, which is both negative and positive. I think it tends to be a lot more negative in many aspects. It can be really tough to not “listen” to what society is saying about how we should eat, but I think it is important to work hard at doing so. I also really enjoy the idea of intuitive eating, and it is something that I have been working to do. Good luck with your journey 🙂

  • Erin @ Her Heartland Soul January 12, 2015, 11:25 am

    Great post!! I’m really really REALLY trying to eat clean this year, but absolutely do not want to get in a bad mindset with it. I just need to fit in my old jeans!! haha #alliwantfornextchristmas
    Erin @ Her Heartland Soul recently posted…Weekend SnapshotsMy Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 4:52 pm

      We can definitely keep one another on track with clean eating AND the occasional indulgence! 🙂

  • Dana | fresh simple five January 12, 2015, 1:11 pm

    I couldn’t agree with you more! To me, any form of restriction (calorie counting, eliminating food groups, etc.) is an unhealthy way to approach eating. Although we are all different, food is supposed to bring us joy as well as nourishment. I love that you shared your feelings on clean eating because there is a lot of truth to them (in my opinion). Happy to hear you are in a better place and here’s to a tasty 2015!
    Dana | fresh simple five recently posted…Roasted Cajun ChickpeasMy Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 4:56 pm

      Thanks, Dana! I 100% agree that restriction does very little good for most people. I am happy to be in a much better place, as well! 🙂

  • Amy Dillard January 12, 2015, 1:28 pm

    You are so inspiring and real! I love reading your stories!

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 4:58 pm

      Aww, thanks Amy! YOU are awesome. Thanks for all your support, friend 🙂

  • Rebecca @ Strength and Sunshine January 12, 2015, 2:06 pm

    Anyway of eating can be taken to an extreme when people feel like it gives them power, control, and a sense of belonging.
    “Clean Eating” can mean so many things too and that’s where it is tricky!

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 4:59 pm

      That is SUCH a great way of putting it, Rebecca. I truly feel as thought I lacked “control” in other areas of my life during that year and a half, and I am almost certain that had something to do with my obsessive eating habits.

  • Sarah @ Making Thyme for Health January 12, 2015, 6:14 pm

    I agree with you 100%! I got a little obsessed when I first started focusing on healthy eating and working out but thankfully it tapered off pretty quickly and I’m more relaxed about it now.

    But I see a lot of others who are obsessive about it (calories, macros, etc.) and it can be dangerous. One of my coworkers is like that and she hasn’t had a period in 6 months which I think has something to do with her eating and exercising habits. But I’m not sure.

    Either way, taking anything too far, even it’s supposed to be good for you, can be bad.
    Sarah @ Making Thyme for Health recently posted…Copycat Starbucks Spinach Feta Breakfast WrapsMy Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 12, 2015, 7:44 pm

      Yes, I have learned that extremes are not good. That is sad to hear about your coworker, but hopefully she will become more self-aware and will work towards finding a healthy balance.

  • Kaylin @ Enticing Healthy Eating January 12, 2015, 9:42 pm

    This part right here “Clean eating can be a negative experience when one feels great after eating a “clean” meal, and then awful (mentally) after eating a “not clean” meal.”
    THAT was the hardest part for me to overcome with my own problems of obsessing over clean and healthy eating. I know I suffered from orthorexia for a time back in my later high school and early college years. Everyone is different and for some, it can take quite a while to recover from disordered eating and return to a healthier and happier lifestyle. I’m so glad I did! And always happy to hear someone else who has reached success with overcoming it as well!
    Kaylin @ Enticing Healthy Eating recently posted…And They Lived Happily Ever AfterMy Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 13, 2015, 2:38 pm

      I am so glad that you did too, Kaylin! What a great feeling it is 🙂

  • Diatta @ Femme Fitale Fit Club January 12, 2015, 10:31 pm

    Clean eating is positive and can be beneficial to your body. I do not know if folks carry it so far that it get adulterated but I am sure some do. Everything in moderation.
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    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 13, 2015, 2:39 pm

      Clean eating is definitely positive in MANY ways, but when we carry it too far and it becomes an obsession… well, it’s not so positive anymore.

  • Em @ Love A Latte January 13, 2015, 7:59 am

    This is FANTASTIC POST! It’s such a tough thing… I pride myself on my clean eating and I really try my best to stick to whole foods, but I still splurge and let myself loose a bit with restaurants. I too went through a not so healthy phase in college, and 5 years later I am really proud of where I am and I never want to go down that ugly path of counting calories and obsessing again. For me, eating whole plant-based foods gives me the freedom to eat what I want, when I want, and not think twice about it. I’m not perfect though (of course!) and I still have moments of over thinking what I’m eating, but at least now I can take a step back and realize it. Society makes it really hard on us by having so much crappy food out there and if the all around norm was just whole organic happy foods I don’t think it would be such an issue, but that’s not the real world. Thanks for doing this post! 🙂
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    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 13, 2015, 2:59 pm

      You make a REALLY good point!! It is a shame that our society is not more focused on healthy, whole foods. Maybe someday that WILL be the norm!

  • Linda @ Veganosity January 13, 2015, 9:41 am

    True. I’ve never had an eating disorder, and I’ve never let food take over my thoughts. I’m more of an eat to live, than live to eat person. I don’t enjoy processed foods, or animal products, so I don’t eat them. At least I try not to eat processed foods. Sometimes it can’t be helped. Having said that, I think that there are a lot of people who have issues with food and they go bananas when they adopt an eating style. Whether it be a vegan, vegetarian, paleo, raw, or whatever the diet du jour is for the year. You can’t blame the “diet” or the person who got sick from eating that said “diet,” because there is a lot more going on than just food with that person.

    I’ve been criticized for posting “unhealthy” vegan recipes. They have too much sugar, or they’re not gluten free, or I used canned beans instead of dried. I’ve also been put under the microscope by some of my friends about how thin I am because of my vegan diet. The truth is, I’ve always been thin, and going vegan resulted in my losing about 5 pounds, just because I cut out dairy, fish, and chicken. I feel amazing and I don’t feel deprived or frustrated. It’s a lose-lose situation at times, when it really shouldn’t be. In the end, moderation is key, and by that I mean moderation of unhealthy processed foods, because I think that there are a lot more sick people who eat horrendous foods daily than those who don’t, and they could benefit from a clean, whole foods diet.

    Thanks for the honest post Hannah. 🙂
    Linda @ Veganosity recently posted…Skillet Fried Potatoes with ChivesMy Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 13, 2015, 3:21 pm

      No matter what we do, there will probably always be judgement from SOMEBODY! What is important is that we find what works best for US and what is healthy for US! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  • Nicole Lindquist January 13, 2015, 12:46 pm

    I love your honesty and think that’s what makes a great blog! Sorry you had to go through all that, but happy to hear you’re in a better place now 🙂 Great post and really great writing!

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 13, 2015, 2:36 pm

      Thanks, Nicole! I SO appreciate the kind words 🙂

  • Nora (A Clean Bake) January 13, 2015, 1:50 pm

    This is such a fantastic perspective on healthy eating or “eating guidelines” of any kind. Everything in moderation – even moderation, as they say! I think, for me at least, the trick is to really learn to listen to your body and know when it is worth it to give in to a craving (which, uh, I do often)!

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 13, 2015, 3:25 pm

      Agreed!!! Being more intuitive and listening to my body is something that I am definitely working on. But also keeping our “moderation” in check is important, too, to ensure we aren’t simply using that as an excuse to eat junk a majority of the time.

  • Alissa Apel January 15, 2015, 10:23 am

    I totally agree with this post. My Dad is to the extreme of healthy eating. He can’t go out to eat hardly at all. Family gatherings is hard because he can’t eat very much. I try and tailor the food we have at my house, so he can eat it. Then my Grandpa and Aunt aren’t happy with what we’re having.
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    • Alissa Apel January 15, 2015, 10:24 am

      It’s important to have moderation with what you eat. Don’t eat crap a lot. It’s ok to treat yourself sometimes.
      Alissa Apel recently posted…The Best Breakfast CookiesMy Profile

      • ClnEatingVegGrl January 15, 2015, 1:37 pm

        YES! I figure if the majority of what you eat is healthy, splurging in moderation is completely okay. In fact, it is a great thing to do for the majority of us!

  • Trisha January 15, 2015, 11:06 am

    I’ve been waiting to read this post all week so I’m glad I finally had a few minutes to check it out. I totally agree that too much of anything can be bad. I think there can be a fine line between obsession & enthusiasm. Moderation & a bit of chilling out is the way to approach anything you want to enjoy for a lifetime & health should be just that. Enjoyed for your lifetime.
    Trisha recently posted…Harissa Spiced Sweet PotatoesMy Profile

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 15, 2015, 1:38 pm

      I love how you put that… “anything you want to enjoy for a lifetime.” I think that is really important. Extreme ways of eating are going to be VERY difficult to maintain, and almost impossible to do so in a way that makes one happy.

  • rachel @ Athletic avocado January 19, 2015, 7:03 am

    this is so true! clean eating should be the majority about 80 percent of the time in my book! the rest of your eating can be fun!

    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 19, 2015, 10:06 am

      Yes!! It really is ALL about moderation 🙂

  • Francesca January 19, 2015, 7:07 pm

    Nice reminder for the new year! 😀
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    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 19, 2015, 7:42 pm

      Thanks, Francesca! I hope it resonates with some people!

  • Carly @ Snack Therapy January 22, 2015, 7:31 pm

    I 100% agree with this. Even something that seems totally healthy can become unhealthy if it adds unnecessary stress to your life/body.
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    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 24, 2015, 4:27 pm

      YES! When pretty much anything becomes an obsession, it generally isn’t a good thing… unless it’s nut butter or something 😉

  • Suzanne @WorkoutNirvana January 23, 2015, 12:14 pm

    Love your site! As an unapologetic clean eater myself and personal trainer, I can assure you that counting calories can be a healthy component of a clean eating lifestyle. My weight loss clients do track their food, at least for awhile, so that they can gain awareness and understand many aspects of their diet. Personally, I’ve never had any of those negative side effects of eating healthy, but they certainly do get a lot of press. I think overall, if a person has those tendencies, they’ll manifest in pretty much any type of eating approach.
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    • ClnEatingVegGrl January 24, 2015, 4:28 pm

      Great points, Suzanne! Thanks so much for your thoughts and input 🙂

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