The Social Cost Of Clean Eating, According To Science

Photo: Alexandra Gavillet
Put down the goji berries, step away from the maca powder and please, please consign that spirulina to the bin (we all know it tastes rank, just admit it). The backlash against clean eating may have been and gone, but many of us are still consumed by it – particularly as it's never been easier to order an oat milk cappuccino or a raw vegan 'cheesecake' while socialising with mates.
However, while eating 'clean' and cutting out unprocessed food may make you feel healthier, it's probably not doing much good for your social life. According to a new study, published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, 'clean dieting' and the disorder that results when it's taken to the extreme – orthorexia nervosa – carry a fair amount of social stigma.
Researchers Suzanne M. Nevin and Lenny R. Vartanian carried out two studies to work out just how people perceive clean eaters and those with orthorexia – and the findings suggest you might want to back away from the kale, turmeric and coconut oil if you care about having a social life.
In the first study, participants were asked to read a passage describing a clean-eating woman, a woman with anorexia or a woman whose diet wasn't mentioned. While the woman with anorexia was evaluated the most negatively, the woman following a so-called clean diet was judged more harshly than the woman whose diet wasn't described.
The second study examined people's perceptions of orthorexia. In it, the volunteers read a vignette of a woman with orthorexia, another about a woman showing identical orthorexic behaviours but who wasn't labelled orthorexic, a woman with anorexia, or a woman whose eating wasn't described. The women described as having orthorexia nervosa and anorexia nervosa were regarded equally harshly and more negatively than the control target.
In conclusion, Nevin and Vartanian wrote that eating clean and showing behaviour consistent with orthorexia nervosa could potentially be associated with control and blame in social settings, which explains the social stigma surrounding them.
"The present research provided support for the suggestion that there may be adverse social ramifications for clean dieting behaviors, and found that this effect was particularly pronounced when the behaviors were described in a more extreme manner (i.e., orthorexia nervosa)," the pair wrote.
They continued: "Developing a better understanding of the stigma toward various forms of disordered eating is an important step toward alleviating the social burden endured by individuals with those conditions."
If you are struggling with an eating disorder, please call Beat on 0345 634 1414. Support and information is available 365 days a year.


R29 Original Series

Watch Now
A look at the subcultures around the world that colour what we wear — and why.
Watch Now
Explore the world's most vibrant cultural and culinary centres—in 60 seconds, of course.
Watch Now
The craziest trends, most unique treatments, and strangest subcultures in the beauty world.
Watch Now
Millennial survivor-woman Lucie Fink dives headfirst into social experiments, 5 days at a time.