Orthorexia Nervosa – The Clean Eating Disorder

If it’s not doing good things for you, it’s bad for you. – Clean Eating Simplified…

clean eating or burgers?
Clean Eating Instant Death!
The concept seems simple enough, and is a one sentence summary of what clean eaters think about nutrition. However, the problem with clean eating comes when they begin to believe that certain foods are unhealthy. Sugar, saturated fat, refined grains, gluten, dairy, etc. are constantly criticized by the clean eating community as being unhealthy and, even worse, will make you gain fat and lose your gains.

The rise and fall of clean eating happens when the idea gets so engrained in our heads that passion becomes obsession and leads to a new eating disorder – orthorexia nervosa. This idea that started as simple as eating as healthy as possible turns into the all-consuming obsession to eat the best quality of foods or suffer the dire consequences of the “unhealthy” food intake!

Individuals start to become so involved with the health value of their food intake that they avoid going out with friends for a meal, cut out people from their life entirely, and judge others around them for not caring about their health like they personally do. Their self-esteem takes a hit when they have a little “cheat” on their diet, sometimes leading to depression or all out binge sessions that are much more damaging to the body than simple moderation of foods that don’t contribute as much to health.

If you know me, you know I’m about evidence-based approaches, just like my Optimal Training philosophy. So, now, lets optimize nutrition.

The Myth Of Clean Eating

What is clean eating anyways? Ask 100 people who follow this type of nutritional plan and you will probably get about 50 different answers. For some, clean eating is Paleo. Others will say clean eating is just “Lean & Green”. Some people say if something has an ingredient label with more than one item, it’s unhealthy. Some say if you can’t pronounce an ingredient, you shouldn’t eat it. Blah, blah, blah. Whatever the definition is, some things are almost universally hated.


Sugar is something that is demonized by most clean eaters. As it turns out, sugar isn’t as damaging to your health or your body composition as you may think. Check out this article by Layne Norton – The Science Of Sugar And Fat Loss. It goes into great detail about research involving sugar and body composition. Cliffs – sugar intake doesn’t negatively affect body composition as long as calorie intake is properly implemented for fat loss. Mark Haub, a Human Nutrition professor, proved that sugar intake (and high fat intake too) doesn’t negatively affect your health or body composition by following “The Twinkie Diet”. All he did was make sure his calorie intake was properly implemented for his fat loss goal – see a pattern here.

Certain Types Of Fat

Saturated Fat gets a bad wrap. A meta-analysis of 21 studies concluded that no significant evidence exists to prove that saturated fat intake leads to a higher risk for Coronary Heart Disease or Cardiovascular Disease [1]. Some studies out there do exist that show that saturated fat intake can be replaced with unsaturated fats to lower risk-factors of these diseases. However, you should take into account that we exercise regularly, a huge step towards lowering the risk for many diseases. Take that into account with the fact that we control our calorie intake properly. That means we should be eating saturated fat daily to reap the health benefits that come along with its intake.

Staying along the fat intake line, Cholesterol is always demonized. I’m going to just leave this topic right here – lower cholesterol levels lead to a reduced life span! Cool story Cheerios – that little bee wants us to die earlier haha.

I want to make a note here – trans fat is bad. Sorry, clean eaters got one thing right! 😉 (just playing guys and gals, I know you mean well by eating clean)

clean eating - gluten

Gluten is the hot topic of recent years. If you have Celiac Disease, avoid it. If you don’t, you are probably experiencing the placebo affect of this trend. Research has basically concluded that a huge portion of people who think they are gluten intolerant really aren’t, and they are just believing what they want to believe. 🙂


Preservatives are a huge issue. Thousands of people are out there spouting that preservatives are slowly killing everybody and causing every major disease known to man. Some of these preservatives are vitamin C, regular old sodium chloride, and vinegar. Yep, real killers there.

All jokes aside, yes, there are some preservatives that have shown some bad side effects in studies. HOWEVER, this comes back to the idea of consuming way more than a typical person would consume. The reality is that these preservatives and additives are studied well and are approved to human consumption in the levels that they are found in the foods you buy. If you want to be careful, just stick to eating these foods every once in while. I don’t have a huge issue with people avoiding preservatives, but do it with the facts first. Don’t just blast everything that has an additive or preservative.

Artificial Colors and Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners get a bad rap about being carcinogens and are believed to be nothing but bad. The reality is, there are hundreds of studies that prove the safety of these compounds. Just read the safety profiles in this article and you will see. Note – even that article tries to bash these compounds while stating there safety profiles. The takeaway – the bashing is the author’s opinion and the safety profiles are based on scientific studies…I wonder which is more reputable.

Artificial colors are another ingredient that is receiving some backlash. You can read about the story in this article. Hyperactivity is the main concern with artificial colors basically. However, even though large studies have shown that higher intake of artificial colors shows a higher amount of children with hyperactivity, I really want to discuss this a little. What is the most common source of artificial colors: cereals, candy, “juice”, etc. All of these are favorites of children. Maybe, we should question if sugar is the actual culprit here, since all of those foods are really high in sugar. This might be the one way you can get me to say sugar is bad hehe. Maybe try limiting sugar intake for your kids and the artificial color intake will drop also.

But, since we are all adults – there isn’t much evidence to state that artificial colors are bad for you. If you choose to drop them, you can find alternatives to your favorite foods easily. Plenty of companies are putting out foods without artificial colors nowadays anyways.

Eating Clean – The Issue

Cutting out entire foods/food groups is no good. Certain foods/food groups are great sources of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, etc. Cutting out any without an equal replacement can lead to nutrient deficiencies. For example, vegans can struggle to get all of their nutrients in without animal products[2], iron being one of the main problems for young women[3].

I’m not specifically picking on vegans. I respect that they have an actual reason to eat the way they do – instead of what the latest trend is, like being gluten-free. But, the problem exists regardless of what kind of clean eating you do. Most clean eaters religiously cut out certain foods and stick to the certain foods they believe to be the healthiest.

You cut out saturated fat, high cholesterol foods, sugary foods, foods with more than one ingredient, etc. and you start to risk your overall health. You become obsessed and risk the health of your social life. I mean, is it worth it? The data is there to suggest that you aren’t really eating healthier than someone who eats the foods they want with the proper calorie and macro intake.

If you want to read more about the myth of clean eating, check this article out. It is one of the best written/researched articles on the topic!

Why Is Their So Much Hate On Certain Foods/Ingredients

The first answer: food companies are in business. Gluten-free companies don’t make any money if you find out that you can actually eat gluten and be fine. Companies love to charge more for products with no preservatives or artificial colors. I mentioned Cheerios earlier – they make a lot more money if you think lowering your cholesterol is healthy and you skip the breakfast meat for a bowl of some Honey Nut goodness.

The second answer: most people don’t control their food intake like that should. When people eat too many calories and over-consume certain things – they become bad for your health. Eating 5 burgers from your corner fast food joint probably leads to too much saturated fat and an increased risk for heart disease. Then, the idea forms that saturated fat should be avoided to lower the risk for heart disease.

That’s the problem though. Some things are easier to over-consume if you don’t know much about nutrition and how you should be eating to optimize your health. Overeating processed meats, like lunch meat and hot dogs, raises the risk for colon cancer. Moderate your intake and you’ll be fine. Same thing goes for preservative intake – crazy amounts have shown to cause cancer, but you can easily avoid eating that amount if you know what you are doing. You can also overdose on vitamins, minerals, and even water. For some reason, you don’t see these demonized.

What Now?

Hopefully you have opened your mind and evolved from your simplistic clean eating habits. Moderation is all you need to maximize health and improve your body composition. Enjoy pizza when you want to. Eat that ice cream after dark, carbs after dark won’t hurt you. Remember, control your calorie intake and, even better, your macro intake and you will be golden. That is the reason that IIFYM has become such a popular nutritional plan. Eat the foods you want and still get your goal body and stay healthy = winning.

Just remember, this isn’t an excuse to only eat candy, ice cream, pop tarts, and whatever other foods you love. You still should be eating vegetables, fruits, lean protein, etc. You should have a balanced fat intake between saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated. You should worry about your fiber and electrolyte intake. You should still worry about eating for your overall health – just not to the level of developing orthorexia, something that many involved in the fitness industry are guilty of!


[1] – Siri-Tarino, P. W., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., & Krauss, R. M. (2010). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition, ajcn-27725.

[2] – Craig, W. J. (2009). Health effects of vegan diets. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89(5), 1627S-1633S.

[3] – Waldmann, A., Koschizke, J. W., Leitzmann, C., & Hahn, A. (2004). Dietary iron intake and iron status of German female vegans: results of the German vegan study. Annals of nutrition and metabolism, 48(2), 103-108.

Milo Martinovich

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