An obsession with ‘clean’ eating is more than just taking a healthy diet too far, reports Joyce Fegan.

THERE’S a big buzz in the online food community about clean eating. 

Images of green smoothies, with almonds sprinkled on top, fill our social media timelines on the daily commute, links to recipes make up the captions, and bloggers, as a result, have built an army of followers.

The Hemsley sisters in Britain have gained a huge following for their healthy recipes, and so too has Deliciously Ella — Ella Woodward. 

Closer to home, the Happy Pear brothers have a loyal brigade, as do top models Rosanna Davison and Roz Purcell.

While these food bloggers promote a nutrient-rich and balanced diet, for some people their efforts to becoming healthy can become obsessively unhealthy, possibly even eating disordered.

Is it time to step away from the spiruliser and find balance in the process?

Hemsley sisters with their spiralizer.

Mum of three Andrea Weldon, 32, developed an eating disorder in her early teens and went through the full spectrum of behaviours, including an obsession with ‘clean’ eating.

Now fully recovered, she works with people recovering from eating disorders via the Marino Therapy Centre and says orthorexia has now become just as dominant a condition as bulimia or anorexia in the clients she sees.

Orthorexia is a term coined in 1996 by American doctor Steven Bratman and refers to an obsession with only eating food that is deemed to be 100% pure, wholesome, and nutritious.

“Trying to be physically well in the past led me to be very unwell and I think that’s something nobody thinks about anymore,” says Weldon. 

“When you’re actually trying to be physically well how much attention are you paying to your emotional well-being?”

Ella Woodward, the celebrity cookbook writer

She points out that underlying any eating disorder is the feeling of not being ‘good enough,’ and so with ‘clean eating’ comes the opportunity to be ‘good,’ ‘clean’, and ‘pure.’

Weldon would go to the gym and eat a certain way afterwards in order to achieve that elusive feeling.

“I wanted to keep that cleanness and pureness,” she says. 

“Overcoming that was by learning balance and learning not to use the term ‘good’ and ‘bad’ food.

“It started off just allowing myself things and trusting my body; that in eating crisps or chocolate, nothing was happening to my body.”

While orthorexia has not yet been included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Bodywhys psychotherapist Harriet Parsons is seeing indications of it, but it has not yet become a serious issue.

“When someone is recovering from an eating disorder, say anorexia, and they’re starting to eat again, often it’ll feel safer for them, they’ll go through a phase of eating in that ‘clean’ way because that feels OK, but you wouldn’t really want them to stop there,” says Parsons. 

“You’d want them to be free with food and have a slice of cake without thinking about it.”

However, one professional who is seeing strong signs of orthorexia in her practice is Marie Campion, director of Marino Therapy Centre for the last 25 years.

“I see it in my work and it’s getting worse and worse, anything that’s obsessive is generally not helpful,” says Campion. 

“From our point of view, what I see is boys and girls, younger and younger, being obsessed with being healthy and exercising. 

"It’s another form of dieting. We call it now ‘clean eating,’ but I think we need to clean up the mind.

“It takes longer for people to realise they have a problem because it’s so normalised. 

"When people become defensive it’s a sign that there’s a little truth in this. In this ‘wellness’ trend, abnormality becomes normal.”

Consultant dietitian Gillian McConnell, who runs Inside Out Nutrition, says eating should not make us feel guilty.

“In our society food is a constant dilemma for people, but we must remember, eating should not make us feel guilty or be labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’,” she says. 

“It sounds like such a cliché but certainly parents should be teaching their children about moderation.

“As qualified dietitians, we try to teach our clients the value of all foods that can help people forge a healthy relationship with eating and help prevent people from taking their diet to a potentially dangerous extreme.

“For many who go down this road, they can end up omitting food types from their diet, making the diet unbalanced and causing deficiencies down the line.”

Side-effects can include a deficiency in essential fatty acids because people have cut out all fats and oil from their diets. 

This can present in the body as dry skin, hair loss, and a weakened immune system.

Another consequence is where people go gluten-free and run the risk of limiting their consumption of B vitamins, which are needed to metabolise food into energy. 

Some effects of not having vitamin B12 in your diet, include fatigue, depression, and anxiety.

However, there are signs that the clean-eating wave is beginning to recede. 

Queen of wellness Gwyneth Paltrow, who once advocated such a lifestyle, has just published her latest book, It’s All Easy.

In it you’ll find recipes for pasta carbonara, with butter and bacon on ingredient lists.

Also taking a more balanced approach to clean eating is restaurateur Lisa Murrin, 28, who runs Eathos in Dublin city centre. 

Her Instagram account, @the_health_balance, has attracted almost 6,000 followers.

However, what’s different about Murrin is that she strikes the balance across all the food groups.

“The mix on the menu goes from an avocado smash on sourdough to your crispy bacon and eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce. Eathos, for me, was finding that balance,” says Murrin.

Initially, she thought the restaurant would attract young professional women but her customer base is made up of a diverse age group from elderly people, who pop in for a scone or a cake from their in-house patisserie to couples having brunch on a Saturday.

Pastries would certainly not be considered ‘clean food’ but it shows how she’s keen to include all types of food in her restaurant. 

As a result of this balance, business is so good that Eathos is looking for premises number two.

But, Murrin finds herself at odds with the ‘clean eating’ brigade on social media.

Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, are image-driven sites with users clicking on photos they’re attracted to, the more colourful the better, and food images reign supreme. 

Not everyone uploading these types of photos are professionals chefs or qualified dietitians and so confusion can occur.

“Social media is obviously a very positive tool in so many respects but also it can be negative,” says Murrin. 

“I go on [Instagram], and you’ve all these different people telling you different things.

“You come away and you feel so confused as to what is healthy and what is healthy eating because everyone is going to tell you something different and it can become very obsessive. 

"It’s all about finding your balance and everybody’s different, my balance is going to be different to your balance.”

Parsons says social media can mean different things to different people.

“When you talk about selfies or taking pictures of your food and putting it out there are myriad reasons as to why somebody might do that and it might be perfectly normal or straightforward,” she says. 

“But one of the ways you can think of it, is a seeking of validation from the outside, that ‘it’s OK to be me’.”

Overall, she says, the message around health has become distorted and that food, body size, and how we eat has become wrapped up in how we value ourselves.

“It’s thought that you are a better person if you eat a certain way,” she says. 

“The message becomes distorted and conflated into these two categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.”

But, good or bad, clean or dirty, Andrea Weldon believes it all comes down what goes on in the mind, and not the body.

“The difference between the way I used to live and the way I live now is that food doesn’t actually play an important part in my mind,” she says. 

“Food is fuel, it’s enjoyable. End of story.”


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