Why the clean eating movement is harmful to my anorexia recovery

SpunOut.ie volunteer Emma talks about the fitness and clean eating movement on social media and the impact it can have

Written by Emma O'Toole


Content Warning: This article includes mention of eating disorder triggers and food choices.

I was diagnosed with anorexia, depression and anxiety at the age of 13. After seeking treatment abroad, I am happy to be alive and discharged from hospital since March 2017.

Why Orthorexia is damaging people’s wellbeing

In treatment, I ate many different types of food, most of which my eating disorder had made me avoid for so long. Although at the time I knew it was important to tackle ‘fear foods,’ the minute I came home, my anorexia started freaking out and I felt I needed control over my food choices again. I jumped on the fitness/orthorexia bandwagon. Orthorexia is an obsession with “proper” or “healthful” eating. It can include unhealthy obsession or fixation on eating certain types of ‘good’ foods and rigidly avoiding ‘bad’ ones. People with orthorexia become so fixated on eating ‘healthy’ that it damages their wellbeing.

Some of the warning signs of Orthorexia are constantly checking ingredients lists, concerns about the health of ingredients, cutting out food groups, and distress when ‘healthy foods’ are not available.

The gymshark movement was growing and everyone was sharing what they ate for the day and all their gym gains.

I soon went from eating a wide variety of foods, to very few types of foods. I read all the Instagram posts and online articles I could find about why sugar was the devil, why we should cut out all processed foods, why dairy is killing us, why E numbers are the ultimate no go area, and why eating clean was the only and best way to live.

Buying into the clean eating movement

Let’s be real. Anorexia or any other eating disorder, will seek a new way to get control over you when another way is vulnerable. Diet culture is dangerous, and it contributes to eating disorders. And yet, diet culture is still a socially acceptable form of restricting food. People are always obsessing over carbohydrates, quitting sugar and doing juice cleanses to detoxify. I’ll admit I fell into this trap. The dude promoting whole foods 100% all day everyday seemed appealing to me. I would tell myself, “I want to eat the best way possible if I am going to eat.”

This meant, no processed food of any kind. If I went to the cinema, I brought my own snacks because I thought the snacks at the cinema were harmful to consume. I always brought my own lunch to college because I did not want anyone else preparing my food.

It soon became apparent that I got a buzz from checking the organic certification on food products, and low sugar content. It was a new form of control, but I lived in absolute fear that someone might offer me a crisp and I would have to decline the offer. I did not eat out much, but if I did I always readjusted the meal to make it “cleaner.” I would never order what I really wanted to eat. My decision was fear based and the choice was without a doubt the “healthiest” option. I felt pride in avoiding the chips as a side. I think it’s extremely difficult to recover in this day and age, because eating disorder behaviours can easily be covered up by the wellness movement or the fitness industry. In this culture, eating disorder behaviours are labelled as ‘healthy’ behaviours.

Recovery is an ongoing process

How can we escape the articles, the endless Instagram posts, those horrendous shakes you drink for a meal? I get so triggered by those shakes, because I had to drink many meals in recovery without a choice. The memory still haunts me and seeing people choosing to drink their meals deeply upsets me, diet culture has truly caught them too.

I began to look down on those who ate at McDonalds, or ate chocolate bars every day even though I fought so hard to challenge my fear foods in hospital with the support of care professionals. Let me tell you, you get cravings, you crave something sweet and when you tell yourself to have the “natural” version of whatever your craving, I guarantee it does not satisfy the feeling. It feels like you’re actually bullying yourself.

I actively searched for and followed people promoting extreme diets or girls who went to the gym everyday. Nobody noticed too much and I convinced everyone I just loved this way of eating. Now for someone with an eating disorder, eating food is something that takes a long time to actually be okay with and recovery is an ongoing process. I still hear the voices in my head telling me that the “wellness industry” is another way to restrict my eating. That voice still tests me and convinces me that I’m making the wrong decision and that I’m still not quite good enough.

Remembering the importance of your recovery

I believe it’s important that we place our recovery as number one priority while surrounded by diet culture trying to profit off of us.

If you’re in recovery, my advice is to unfollow all fitness, clean eating, or foodie accounts. I began following artists, poets, dancers, dreamers, and yogis. If you follow accounts who normalise any eating disorder behaviours, it can feel like this behaviour is fine, and this can be the fuel to keep an eating disorder going.

It’s not fair to have fought so hard to be able to eat again, and now to still focus on food 24/7. Life is too short and your happiness deserves respect.

All foods can fit into a healthy diet and be enjoyed. We should all challenge diet culture and call it out. I ate oreos for the first time in two years the other day and it was a big deal.

We all deserve to be free from food rules, obsession and body hate, but it takes courage, bravery and strength in this age. Now I know my eating disorder recovery means way more to me than diet culture will ever care about me.

Our work is supported by