The Dangers of ‘Clean Eating’ and Food Rules in Tweens and Teens

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Many young people now take part in ‘clean eating’, a type of diet that involves eating foods considered to be healthy, unprocessed, or without certain ingredients like added sugar or saturated fats.

Clean eating is often framed as a health pursuit – a way of eating that is good for the body and mental health. 

However, like any diet, clean eating is a way of restricting the food that a person eats. Young people can become preoccupied with following clean eating rules, even when they interfere with other aspects of their daily lives.

Clean eating can become a pillar of self-evaluation whereby adolescents value themselves on their ability to follow these rules and experience distress when rules are not followed.

These thought patterns and behaviours overlap with many disordered eating behaviours and the underlying pathology of eating disorders.

Indeed, research suggests that positive attitudes towards ‘clean’ diets are linked with disordered eating attitudes, and people who follow advice from clean eating websites are more likely to show dietary restraint, a risk factor for eating disorders.

This blog explores the dangers of clean eating and food rules among young people and their links to eating disorders. It also offers information on how adolescents perceive clean eating and what actions we can take to reduce the risk of nutritional deficiency and eating disorders among tweens and teens.

What Is ‘Clean Eating’?

‘Clean eating’ doesn’t have a single meaning or clear definition. Some people use clean eating to describe diets based on whole or unprocessed foods. For others, clean eating means eliminating certain food groups such as dairy or refined sugar.

Clean eating diets often have no more nutritional value than other meals – and in many cases, young people following the diets miss out on important nutrients. While framed as a pursuit of health, the word ‘clean’ (in opposition to ‘dirty’) can suggest a kind of moral superiority where following certain diets makes someone a ‘better’ person.

Clean eating also encourages young people to categorise foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, a kind of black-and-white thinking that misrepresents the different ways that our bodies use food, as well as its place in social gatherings, relationships, and our own enjoyment.

Understanding Healthism and Its Risks

Healthism is the idea that each individual is responsible for their own health through the choices that they make. However, the premises of healthism are false.

Many things that affect a person’s health are out of their control, like their genetics, their upbringing, and their environment. Different types of oppression can also lead to poor health, including racism, misogyny, transphobia, and weight stigma.

At the same time, maintaining good health is a collective responsibility. It’s about looking after one another, creating infrastructures like hospitals and other types of healthcare, making nutritious food affordable, and so on.

The problem with healthism is that it suggests that if someone has a health issue, they have done something wrong – or they could have done something to prevent it. It places a kind of moral judgment on being healthy that stigmatises those with health issues, affecting their well-being, quality of life, and even access to treatment.

It can also underpin disordered eating attitudes and behaviours, causing people to follow strict rules in order to achieve a certain, prescribed idea of ‘healthy’ (which is often conflated with thinness).

How Can ‘Clean Eating’ Contribute to Disordered Eating Behaviours in Young People?

‘Clean eating’ diets involve food rules for a young person to follow. These rules can become a measure of self-evaluation for young people so that they feel good when they follow them and bad when they do not.

If a young person becomes preoccupied with these rules, clean eating can start to take over other parts of their life and become the primary measure of self-value and self-worth. Teenagers and adolescents may start to follow rules increasingly strictly, for example, by ruling out entire food groups despite the consequences for their mental and physical health, including low body weight.

These attitudes and behaviours overlap with those of eating disorders. Disordered eating behaviours may include restricting the intake of food, leading to significantly low body weight, and eating behaviours that cause a significant amount of distress, interfering with a young person’s everyday life.

While clean eating doesn’t necessarily emphasise body shape or weight, the false and harmful conflation of health and thinness present in many parts of society means that young people may start to measure their ‘health’ by their shape or weight, leading to an over-evaluation of shape and weight that characterises many eating disorders.

Research has found that young adults who see ‘clean diets’ as healthy (and are willing to use them) are more likely to show disordered eating behaviours and be preoccupied with body weight. Two of the most highly rated reasons for starting a clean diet included ‘for weight loss’ and ‘to feel in control of their diet’, thinking patterns and attitudes that are often associated with eating disorders.

Interestingly, the same study only found small associations between endorsement of clean eating and body satisfaction, suggesting that there may still be important differences between clean eating and disordered eating behaviours.

How Can ‘Clean Eating’ Mask Symptoms of Eating Disorders?

Some experts are concerned that ‘clean eating’ can sometimes mask disordered eating behaviours, preventing young people from accessing the support they need. Adolescents may explain their eating behaviours as a kind of healthy eating, something that is often not recognised as harmful.

This could mean that the signs of eating disorders go unnoticed, and chances for early interventions and treatment are missed.

‘Clean Eating’ and Malnutrition

When young people become preoccupied with clean eating, they may end up avoiding certain food groups or restricting their diet in other ways that prevent them from getting all the nutrients they need. This can lead to health problems such as reproductive issues, amenorrhea, osteoporosis, bone fractures, irregular heartbeats, and depression.

The National Association for Eating Disorders has warned that an obsession with healthy or ‘proper’ eating (also known as orthorexia) may have physical health consequences similar to anorexia nervosa.

What Do Adolescents Say About ‘Clean Eating’?

A research paper that asked adolescents how they perceived ‘clean eating’ found that most people were positive about the diet.

Over 90% of young people said that clean eating was engaging in something positive to promote overall well-being. 59% said that clean eating had, overall, a good impact, while only 5% identified the harmful impacts of clean eating, such as following a rigid diet schedule. 

Given the dangers associated with clean eating, a lack of awareness among adolescents may put more young people at risk of developing disordered eating behaviours and harming both their physical and mental health.

Young people may begin clean eating diets casually because they’ve heard about them from friends, social media, or other places, without understanding the potential for food rules to become a more and more important part of their lives.

Equally, young people with disordered eating behaviours may not recognise their harm, explaining their eating habits as ‘clean eating’, knowing that it is accepted and even praised by their peers.

Preventing Disordered Eating Behaviours, Eating Disorders, and Other Harm to Young People

To preventing disordered eating behaviours among young people, it can help to:

  • spread awareness about the potential dangers of clean eating diets, including the risks of developing food rules or cutting out food groups
  • take care not to reinforce ideas that being healthy is somehow a moral good or only an individual responsibility
  • encourage young people to develop critical attitudes towards media, including social media, and understand that a lot of information about diets, food, and health is false

It’s also important to recognise the warning signs of disordered eating behaviours that may underpin ‘clean eating’ diets. These may include: 

  • showing distress when ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available
  • cutting out increasing numbers of food groups
  • spending more and more time thinking about food and meals
  • frequently checking ingredient lists and labels
  • obsessively following food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ accounts or blogs on social media

If you think that a young person is showing signs of disordered eating behaviours, you should seek professional support. Disordered eating behaviours are serious mental health issues that usually require treatment to overcome.

The good news is that, with evidence-based treatment approaches, most young people make a full recovery from eating disorders and reclaim a fulfilling future.

The Wave Clinic: Making a Difference in the Lives of Young People

The Wave Clinic is a mental healthcare centre for young people, found just outside of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Our one-of-a-kind programs take a whole-person approach to recovery, supporting young people to discover their passions, reconnect with themselves, and develop the skills they need to flourish and thrive.

At The Wave, we’re experts in treating eating disorders. Our trauma-focused programs address the underlying issues of disordered eating behaviours, helping young people make meaningful and lasting changes.

Our facilities include intensive care beds and 24-hour medical care for young people at the highest risk, along with a main house that balances independence and support.

We understand that recovery from eating disorders is hard, but we make sure that young people have the chance to experience beautiful, creative, and social moments throughout their time with us, giving them motivation and inspiration for the future.

If you’re interested in finding out more about our programs, contact us today. We’re here to make a difference in the lives of young people and their families.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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