Orthorexia; the dark side of clean eating

orthorexia, clean eating
image: Lily Lvnatikk

While eating unprocessed, whole foods is undoubtedly better for our health, it is wholly possible to take clean eating that step too far and it becomes ortherexia.

Health coach, Brenda Janschek, was focused on providing only the best food for her family. She stocked her kitchen only with organic, clean, whole, grass-fed, sustainable local, seasonal, activated and grain-free foods to feed her husband and two growing children.

“This made me feel really proud of myself and like I was more of a success as a mum when I was feeding my kids this way,” tells Brenda.

“Nourishing my family became my badge of honour, until one day my daughter came home from school and tried to hide the empty packet of biscuits she had been given at school. My heart dropped. I had unwittingly created fear around food. My daughter was scared of letting me see something she had eaten. This was the opposite of what I wanted.”

Brenda’s work as a health coach and wellness blogger is what drove her passion for clean, whole foods, but when she realised she was sacrificing both balance and enjoyment she decided she needed a reboot.

“I wasn’t so extreme that it became totally tricky to eat out or go to people’s places for dinner, but I found that I was constantly trying to find the ‘best possible option’ on offer, based on my food ideology, often ending up with a less than satisfying meal as a result,” she says.

“Also, I was getting lots of eye rolls from my hubby if he hadn’t done the grocery shop ‘properly’ – the nuts weren’t organic, the chicken wasn’t pastured, the bread wasn’t sourdough. There were too many food rules in the house for his liking.

“I learnt that the stress I was creating around food was more detrimental than some of the food I was actively avoiding.”

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Making a conscious choice to relax the “rules” has enabled her family to have a more balanced approach. Brenda now goes for the 80:20 rule, where they eat well 80 per cent of the time, and the rest of the time is a free pass.

“I made a decision that I no longer wanted to create fear around food. When you have an ingrained ideology, it’s easier said than done. Unwinding habits can be a bit of a slow process, but that’s exactly what I did. As a result, we’re all in a much healthier place in terms of our food attitude these days,” says Brenda.

Orthorexia nervosa is a relatively new eating disorder that occurs when you will only eat food that you feel is “good” for you.

With the rise of diet trends such kissing sugar goodbye, our modern interpretation of a Paleolithic plate, and gluten-free everything coupled with our desire to devour food images on social media, the #wholefood revolution is serving us unhealthy amounts of fear onto our dinner plates.

Accredited practicing dietician and founder of Figureate Consulting and co-founder of The Moderation Movement, Zoe Nicholson, believes the new wave of this atypical eating disorder stems from our desire to have “the right body.”

“We live in a society that is saturated with fear around food which is heavily influenced by our culture’s worship of the ‘ideal’ or ‘right body’. As a result, many people develop a very troubled relationship with food. Our society has a fixation on weight and appearance, which stems partly from being immersed in a culture that is constantly selling us ‘the right body’.” Zoe says.

The “right body” we’re being sold, lives in airbrushed pages sparkling with digital enhancements and fairy dust. It’s not real.


Many trending diet will indeed result in weight loss, which therefore promotes the diet as “good,” however it may not be the omittance of foods that sparks the weight loss.

“While many people will claim to feel better when they follow these trends, it is usually not the avoidance of specific foods but rather all the other changes that go along with it, such as eating more whole foods, especially fruits and veggies, eating less highly processed food and just being more aware of what they are putting in their mouths. However, all of these benefits can be achieved without cutting out grains, dairy, gluten or sugar,” says Zoe.

“And when people do lose weight following these trends, they are showered with compliments such as ‘wow, you look amazing’, ‘what’s your secret’ and then the diet is of course celebrated. However, the frightening and usually hidden truth is that this praising of weight loss and eating well occurs even when a person is restricting food to the point of starving at times, having sleep issues, menstrual cycle disruptions, and food binges followed by feelings of anxiety and guilt.

“A number of ‘wellness warriors’ have now come forward to share their stories about how being so fixated on eating well and looking a certain way was actually very damaging to their health.”

When we label foods as toxic or harmful it demonises food and a desire for #cleaneating does not just compromise nutrition, but also kills the pleasure of eating. While we should strive to eat for energy and not for the sake of it, many of our lives revolve around the rituals surrounding sharing food… a true foodie will be thinking about their next meal while eating their current one.

“When the pleasure is taken out of eating or when someone has a troubled relationship with food, they are more prone to anxiety, emotional distress, poor self-worth, body image issues and eating disorders. Having a more relaxed approach to eating allows for a more positive relationship with food where people are more likely to eat for nourishment and physical hunger rather than emotional hunger or food cravings.”

The motivation to eat is not only controlled by metabolic desires but also external factors such as our environment, and our upbringing. If we had a parent who was concerned with dieting, we are more likely to be vulnerable to worrying about food consumption and our body’s appearance. Conquering these hard-wired lessons can be easier said than done.

In order to overcome this obsessive eating behaviour we must look at a higher sense of fulfillment says human behavioural specialist, founder of the Demartini Institute and international best selling author, Dr John Demartini.

“[Orthorexia] is partly a response to an individual not feeling fulfilled in their true highest value(s) and as a result not activating the executive center in their prefrontal cortex that normally moderates compulsive behaviours of lower brain centers and pleasureful associations with the clean eating that has been reinforced and rewarded,” tells Dr Demartini.

“When you fill your day with high priority actions that inspire you your life does not fill up with lower compulsive activities that don’t. It is wise to eat quality food, in moderation and eat to live not live to eat.”

Removing the labels “good” and “bad” from food and neutralising how we think of what is essentially just fuel is a positive move for everybody. Mindful eating and a concept of balance in our diets is far healthier than being restrictive and switching to an ideology of intuitive eating, which is eating when you are hungry, and stopping when you are satisfied is a more sound approach to balancing both mental and physical wellbeing and rediscovering the joy of food.

If you need support please contact the National Eating Disorders Supportline on 1800 33 4673 (1800 ED HOPE) at the Butterfly Foundation


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