5 Signs Your Clean-Eating Diet Has Gone Overboard

Fitness salad and apple fruit surrounded by measuring tape on rustic wooden table

Has your clean eating gone too far? | iStock.com/Martinina

A serious addiction to processed foods and anything high in sugar is causing huge health problems for many Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 70% of adults over the age of 20 in the U.S are overweight, and over 36% are obese. Many are fighting back with health initiatives that aim to get healthier meals into school cafeterias and improve nutritional education, and people are listening. Some following a strict clean-eating diet might be listening a little too well.

Trends like juicing and cleanses have gained popularity thanks to celebrities and the growing blogosphere. These folks tout the importance of clean eating, and even tweet about it. It usually starts by cutting out foods from boxes or cans, but it doesn’t always stop there. Some people get so caught up in eating healthy that the list of things they avoid surpasses the list of foods they see as acceptable. It’s called orthorexia nervosa, and it’s emerging as a dangerous eating disorder. Salon explained, unlike other harmful eating habits, orthorexia doesn’t focus on the amount of food. Instead, it has to do with the perceived nutritional value.

While obsessive eating habits are typically attributed to women, this particular problem is increasingly prevalent among men. IDEA Health & Fitness Association reported men are just as likely as women, and potentially more likely, to develop the condition. If you feel like you may be a little too obsessed with healthy eating, take a look at these five warning signs to help you decide if you’ve gone too far.

1. You’ve eliminated foods or entire food groups

a man on a clean-eating diet

You shouldn’t be eliminating entire food groups from your diet. | iStock.com

Most of us could probably stand to cut down on some of the packaged foods in our diets. After all, eating boxed noodles covered in an artificial cheese sauce doesn’t do your waistline any favors. The problem comes when that desire to eat healthier starts eliminating ingredients that most people would consider healthy. The Cut explains those who suffer from orthorexia will eliminate entire food groups, leaving themselves very few options.

And while many healthy eaters will pick up some packaged items for the sake of convenience, someone with this level of obsessive eating will read nutrition labels as though their life depends on it. The article went on to say that one suspect ingredient automatically puts the food into the “never eat” category. But according to BU Today, restricting your diet too much can have dire consequences — you can become malnourished or underweight.

2. When you stray from your diet, you feel extremely guilty

a man eating junk food over healthy food

Guilt is a sign. | iStock.com

For most people, a cheeseburger or piece of cake every now and then isn’t a big deal. But someone who’s fixated on eating nothing but pure, nutritionally-sound foods doesn’t see it that way. The National Eating Disorders Association says folks with orthorexia suffer intense guilt if they stray from their restrictive diet. Their entire sense of self-esteem becomes tied to what they eat, so indulging in something considered unhealthy is seen as a failure.

It might sound surprising, but plenty of health professionals encourage frequent treats. Men’s Fitness suggests indulging in a weekly cheat meal of whatever you’re craving. The article explained regularly working these splurges into your diet can help keep you from going completely overboard after a long period of restrictive eating. It can even boost your metabolism as your body grows accustomed to eating clean all the time.

3. You judge other people’s eating habits

man on diet, woman indulging

Judging other people’s eating could be a sign you’ve gone too far. | iStock.com

Encouraging friends to eat better can be a good thing, but not when you’re micro-analyzing every last bite that goes into their mouths. People obsessed with clean eating frequently find it difficult to hide their disdain for unhealthy foods. According to Psychology Today, judging others’ eating habits is one of the telltale signs your healthy habit has gone too far.

Many people start out feeling enthusiastic about eating better, so it’s natural to want to share that excitement with friends and family. David McCandless wrote a piece for BBC about his own personal experience after realizing that he had some symptoms associated with orthorexia, particularly a feeling of self-righteousness. He explains it was hard not to broadcast his own beliefs, which makes this condition markedly different from other eating disorders.

Most who suffer from anorexia or bulimia do everything they can to cover up their obsession with food. The Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, a treatment center in Towson, Maryland, revealed many who struggle with eating disorders feel a sense of shame that causes them to keep the condition a secret. It’s also important to note, that unlike more widely recognized conditions, orthorexia is not officially categorized as an eating disorder. That could change in the future, but for now, it makes it harder to acknowledge there’s a problem.

4. You avoid social situations

lonely man

You shouldn’t be isolating yourself. | iStock.com

Getting together for dinner, going out for a drink, and throwing a dinner party all illustrate how closely food is tied to social experiences. When a person’s menu includes only low-sugar produce and fat-free protein, enjoying meals with other people becomes nearly impossible. Healthline illustrated the difficulty with the story of Kaila, a woman whose healthy eating spiraled out of control. The article says, “Her social life began to dissolve as she lost her ability to eat in restaurants or go on dates without experiencing panic at her lack of food choices.”

Remember, though, the condition doesn’t just affect women. Newsweek explains Dr. Steven Bratman, an occupational physician, came up with the term orthorexia nervosa back in 1997 after his own unhealthy obsession with eating clean foods. He found his ability to connect with others just about disappeared. Dr. Bratman told the NEDA, “My ability to carry on normal conversations was hindered by intrusive thoughts of food. The need to obtain meals free from meat, fat, and artificial chemicals had put nearly all social forms of eating beyond my reach.” These feelings of isolation are common for many people who become too tied up in eating healthfully.

5. All of your free time is spent researching and thinking about food

nutrition facts

Life should be about more than the nutrition facts. | iStock.com

More and more people are paying attention to nutrition labels in an effort to cut down on artificial ingredients, sugar, and unhealthy fats. A clean-eating obsession takes it much further, though. Eating Disorder Hope says people with orthorexia spend unusually large amounts of time dedicated to studying, buying, and preparing healthy foods. “The search for ‘healthy’ food becomes obsessive and all consuming,” the article says.

So how much time is too much time? Dr. Bratman shares a quiz he developed with Breaking Muscle. The first question indicates that a red flag is if you spend three to four hours thinking about food every day, and often stress over what’s on the menu for tomorrow. If the quiz has you answering yes more often than no, you may want to seek some help.