Since becoming vegan last spring, I have found myself immersed in the “clean eating” community. There is a natural tendency, when you are constantly reading labels to figure out if there’s whey hidden in that loaf of bread, to become a little fixated on the contents of your food. I’ve witnessed--and granted, this is all online as I’m not overwhelmed with an abundance of vegan friends--a shift from reasonably avoiding animal products to becoming obsessed with eliminating every potential source of non-vegan ingredients. Sometimes, this obsession morphs into not only following a hyper-strict vegan diet, but avoiding GMOs, non-organic foods, artificial sweeteners, or anything else that can be perceived as impure.
But vegans aren’t the only people who are susceptible to buying into the idea of “eating clean.” And yes, I will continue to use quotation marks around it because I think the term is, well, bullshit.
The creeping realization that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is a major contributor to our problems with obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes means that Americans are becoming increasingly health-conscious. About 1 in 5 Americans are on a diet at any given time, many of whom may be motivated by vanity but certainly some want to become healthier. Americans privileged enough to have the choice have been turning away from convenience foods and choosing “cleaner” options. Even Wal-Mart sells organic items now that many Americans are convinced that GMOs are dangerous to consume (even though scientists believe they’re safe to eat).
This focus on purity is troubling. It’s easy to go from wanting to do what’s best for your body to severely restricting your diet to becoming obsessed with consuming only the “cleanest” foods. The very idea that some foods are “clean” implies that some foods are “unclean”--and we’re not talking about bacterial contamination or visible dirt. This devolution is called orthorexia--an unhealthy fixation on health which can be characterized by an obsessive desire to “eat clean.”
Because orthorexia isn’t an official mental illness, I haven’t been able to find any statistics about the number of people who suffer from it. What I have found is an abundance of examples of people who demonstrate behaviors that are in line with the symptoms of orthorexia. As a woman in her late twenties who is (1) working in public health, (2) vegan, and (3) a trained cook always searching for a great recipe, I stumble upon what looks like orthorexia all the time. Fitness bloggers, oil-free vegan YouTube stars, and fitspiration creators on Tumblr and Pinterest all espouse eating philosophies that focus on finding only the “cleanest” foods.
The obesity crisis exacerbates this issue. Particularly in public health circles, there is an emphasis on encouraging healthy diets and plenty of exercise as a way of curbing Americans’ collective weight gain. In fact, I began my MPH thinking I would become a nutrition and food educator (though my focus has shifted over time). Because obesity-related health conditions are a strain on quality of life and an economic burden, public health has rightfully invested resources in reducing obesity in our population. But the constant messages to “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables” can easily become, in the minds of those who are vulnerable to obsessive thinking, “The only way to eat clean is to only eat fruits and vegetables” or “Oil is evil.”
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be eating more produce. Absolutely, Americans should be. But I believe there’s a need to be sensitive to the diverse way healthy eating messages will be interpreted. The dangerous concept of “eating clean” is rampant and can have negative consequences for anyone concerned with achieving or maintaining health. Public health professionals should keep this in mind.
And if you’d like, I’m happy to make you some vegan chocolate chip cookies with real sugar, white flour, and lots of fat. I may not eat animal products, but that doesn’t mean I "eat clean."