The Line Between Clean Eating and Orthorexia

I frequently advocate for cleaning up your diet, aka avoiding processed food, focusing on unprocessed meat, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds, unrefined grains.

I have to keep in mind the fine line between endeavoring to eat as healthy as possible, and drifting into the eating disorder orthorexia, a pathological to a fault obsession with eating clean.

Obvious caveat: Depending on who you’re talking to, any effort on your part to eat clean may seem to a given person pathological, given the average Western person’s poor dietary and lifestyle habits. Taking a serious interest in your diet quality when others won’t is not what I’m talking about.

Orthorexia more specifically is obsessive, to where you simply cannot eat anything that isn’t by your definition healthy. It often leads to a strict, very limited definition of what foods you can eat.

This is also not to say that gluten-free, carnivore, or vegan diets and similar fall into this. Orthorexia is more so that you get so particular that adhering to your diet of choice becomes fundamentally difficult.

Needless to say, just about anyone else’s dietary or cooking choices typically becomes a problem to someone with orthorexia. Restaurants and holiday dinners are often an impossibility for someone with orthorexia.

I advocate for eating clean with a mindset that you should still be allowed, within occasional reason, to eat foods you like but generally shouldn’t eat.

I still eat foods like pizza, hamburgers, drink the occasional beer, in-between my cleaner and healthier meals and snacks. I’m sure many of the ingredients in curry ramen, one of my favorite dishes, are foods I’d generally avoid eating otherwise. I’ve probably given Fausto’s Mexican Grill enough money for fried tacos to pay their rent for a few months. Don’t think from my frequent advocacy that I don’t ever violate the code and not eat these foods. I totally do.

I just follow a sort of 80/20 mindset to eating them. Most of the time, I choose to eat clean, eat healthy, eat to effectively fuel my body and spur recovery. And sometimes, occasionally, I go ahead and eat what would otherwise be considered garbage… even knowing it’ll make me inflamed, cause me to retain water, possibly not feel great energy-wise the next day, etc.

Sometimes, it’s worth it, and I don’t have a problem doing it. Because I know, the next meal or snack afterward, will probably go back to the healthy, whole foods I usually eat.

Your diet is a body of work, much like your training is a body of work. Your training is not made or broken by one workout, any more than one meal or snack can make or break your entire diet. It’s your habits and choices over a long period of time that determine your long term health, fitness, and body composition. You still do need to get it right most of the time: If you’re repeatedly making unhealthy choices, it’s going to add up long term. But enjoying a meal that isn’t on the list here and there between solid healthy choice after solid healthy choice is not really a problem.

So, I don’t want to write an advocacy piece on eating disorders. Hopefully you’re not at the point of orthorexia. And if you are and in too deep I hope you can seek out some help, whatever that entails.

But I want to make clear that, while I seek to make ideal choices as often as possible, I don’t have a problem with going off-plan and eating something fun now and again. Don’t let an adherence to a good diet hamper those opportunities.

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