When clean eating becomes an obsession

When I was 20 I was inadvertently starving myself. I had recently developed an intolerance to dairy, and in response to the constant feeling of sickness and bloating, I cut out dairy entirely — and anything that might contain even a smidgen of it. Baked goods with butter, anything that contained whey protein (which is a lot of things), anything I didn’t have an exact list of ingredients for.

Being in university at the time, the majority of my meals came from the school cafeteria; I was distrustful of everything but the salad bar. Months down the road, I had to drop out of my strength training class and was getting winded walking up stairs. After tracking my daily intake of calories, I was informed by a nutritionist that I was eating just enough to keep my organs running. Whoops.

Having been a chubby kid coming from a health conscious family, I was overjoyed to be told for the first time to “eat more carbs!” At the same time however, I recognized that I was walking a dangerous line. Though I had grown out of my chubbiness, I was still carrying the psychological burden of being “too fat.” Being forced into a strict diet had given me a taste for extreme self-control. And I was losing weight.

As punishing as it felt, it also felt great. Powerful. I was finally in control.

I may not have been ruled by my cravings any longer, but I was deluding myself to think that I wasn’t ruled by food. I was a slave to it more than ever. It ruled my thoughts. I saw how easy it would be to fall down the precipice into a full-blown eating disorder.

I am not the only one with that story. In fact, the narrative is becoming so common in our “clean food” obsessed culture that the phenomenon has been linked to an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa. The term literally means “a fixation on righteous eating.”

Maybe I was pre-disposed to my obsession with diet. When I was 16 my family moved from mom-jean Maryland to shiny Southern California. I was introduced to the ideas of “clean living” for the first time; in fact it was a common hobby amongst the families we knew in our church.

Eating clean meant going beyond organic and free-range foods; we were in the land of renouncing microwaves, replacing salt with liquid amino acids, and visiting alternative doctors who prescribed expensive vitamin supplement regimens (only available through that doctor, of course).

Healthy eating is important, as is thoughtfully avoiding foods that adversely affect your body. There is no arguing with that. I have seen some of the clean living practices benefit many individuals.

But in the back of my mind I still have questions.

How much of the clean eating practice is born out of fear rather than an informed knowledge about how to care for your body? The fact that orthorexia is defined as “righteous eating” implies that the diet can be a form of self-salvation. And even Christians, who find their salvation in Christ, can be tempted to self-purify through legalistic eating practices.

The Apostle Paul states the opposite when he writes about the eating of food offered to idols: “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.” But we are also told to love and respect those who hold differing opinions on food and diet. Clearly the phenomenon of clean eating did not begin with Gwenyth Paltrow and her starlet friends.

It is a difficult issue to parse through, and one that I do not claim to have a better handle on than anyone else. I’ve lived both sides of the coin: that of slipping slowly towards orthorexia, and that of consciously eating a healthfully balanced diet.

There’s no denying that God wants us to take care of our bodies. But we need to be mindful of how an obsession with physical health can overtake the health of our spirit.


Photo (Flickr CC) by Alexander Lyubavin.