Clean eating diets are fuelling eating disorder crisis, doctors warn

‘Clean eating’ diets are fuelling a growing eating disorders crisis, doctors and even some former proponents are warning.

Last week Dr Mark Berelowitz, an eating disorder specialist at the world-renowned Royal Free Hospital, warned that the clean eating regimes promoted by popular food bloggers and websites can be a “catastrophe”.

Berelowitz told the Sunday Times said that 80%-90% of his patients at the Royal Free followed clean eating diets, which exclude or severely restrict dairy, gluten, carbohydrates, sugar, and meat.

In an interview with the newspaper Berelowitz calls the term clean eating “dangerous” because “it gives someone who is battling to hold on to their health a misplaced sense that they ought not to have a peanut butter sandwich as a snack, and instead have some raw broccoli.”

He added: “Calling this regime ‘clean’ is a sort of deliberate marketing myth that emphasizes one approach to eating at almost any cost. The ones who are most likely to be attracted to these blogs are people who are already overly self-critical”.

“Calling this regime ‘clean’ is a sort of deliberate marketing myth that emphasizes one approach to eating at almost any cost”

Food disorder experts say that the popularity of clean eating diets is leading to growing numbers of young people, particularly teenage girls, becoming obsessive about ‘healthy’ eating and learning to fear entire food groups.

This phenomenon is sometimes known as orthorexia nervosa, the term coined by Dr Steven Bratman to describe personal food regimes that have become a “disease disguised as a virtue”

The eating disorder charity Beat says that orthorexia nervosa is technically not an eating disorder, describing it as being closer to obsessive compulsive disorder, and characterized by a “fixation on righteous eating, eating only ‘pure’ foods and trying to avoid contamination by food.”

Beat hears frequently from young people who have flipped over from having a healthy interest in eating well to acquiring an unhealthy fear of food and eating occasions. One teenage girl writes: “I think about food constantly, I struggle to eat anything that I haven’t made myself and the thought of eating anything unhealthy that doesn’t comply with my strict clean eating rule makes me extremely anxious. I control everything I eat. It’s exhausting.” She anguishes: “It’s my birthday next week and my family will expect me to eat [food types] like everyone else.”

Maddy Moon, who runs a website helping people with orthorexia, was once an ardent follower of clean eating diets. When she lost weight dramatically, her periods had stopped and she was constantly exhausted she realised her eating obsession was making her ill. She says she became trapped in “orthorexic cycle”. It wasn’t just thought of eating a Big Mac that would make her feel sick, as she recently told Vice magazine: “I’d actually become scared around just … fruit. I didn’t really eat salads because they have ‘too many ingredients’, and that scared me.”

“I’m not very keen on the ‘clean-label’ or ‘guilt-free’ type of message framing … (it’s) basically selling fear”

The journalist and food allergy blogger Alex Gazzola says he thinks free-from brands should avoid negative terminology. He recently told NPN: “I’m not very keen on the ‘clean-label’ or ‘guilt-free’ type of message framing. At the end of the day it’s food, isn’t it? I prefer when a brand uses phrases such as ‘try it’, or ‘it versatile and it tastes great’ – rather than basically selling fear.”