The Slippery Slope of Dieting & Clean Eating 

Can you have too much of a good thing? If you’re following a diet, including a so-called clean eating program, the answer is yes. Unfortunately, for some people, diets lead directly to eating disorders.

An eating disorder is a behavioral condition characterized by severe disturbances in eating habits accompanied by distressing thoughts involving food and/or body image. [1] People with eating disorders often categorize foods as good or bad, and they eat from these lists depending on their mood and feelings of self-worth.

The good/bad food lists you make to follow a clean eating program could, in time, deepen into further disordered eating. When that happens, you could need a treatment program to get better. 

What Is Dieting?

A diet is a restrictive eating program in which people emphasize some foods over others. While some people diet due to a medical condition that requires food elimination (such as a diabetes diet), most people diet to lose weight or change their body shape. 

Between 2015 and 2018, more than 17% of the U.S. adult population followed a special diet. [2] The most common version restricted calories to help people lose weight. 

People who diet usually do the following:

  • Plan: You plot out when you’ll eat, what you’ll eat, and how large each portion will be. 
  • Research: You’ll read ingredients, check labels, and determine if a food you’d like to eat fits the plan. 
  • Persist: Each meal becomes a test of your resolve to stick to the plan. 

Because diets often involve restricting food choices, most people gain all the weight they lose while on a diet. Diet culture tells us that we will be happier if we are thinner. Many will repeatedly diet, vowing to do better each time. 

What Is Clean Eating?

No specific meal routine or regimen is definitively associated with the clean eating movement. Everyone interprets the idea in a slightly different way. Most people who use this diet focus on eating unprocessed or “clean” foods.

Variations of the clean eating diet eliminate the following foods:

  • Cooked foods
  • Gluten 
  • Dairy products 

In general, people who follow a clean eating program hope to eliminate processed foods and refined grains. They strive to eat like their ancestors did, preparing all of their meals at home with simple ingredients that move quickly from the farm to the table. 

Following this diet isn’t easy. People must pay a lot of attention to what meals are made of and how they are prepared. They must read ingredient lists, talk to cooks, and strive to grow or prepare all of their foods at home. 

Some people follow the clean eating program to lose weight. Eliminating trans fats and processed snacks can help people to eat fewer calories. 

But some follow the program for perceived health benefits. They believe eliminating some ingredients could help them avoid heart disease, diabetes, and other medical conditions. 

Can Diets Lead to Eating Disorders? 

Most diets are restrictive. You’re told what you can and cannot eat, and you know you’re following the program properly when you eliminate all of the forbidden foods from your life. Restrictive diets like this can cause disordered eating.[4]

In a study of adolescents, researchers found that participants following extreme diets were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who didn’t. Participants who followed a moderate diet were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who didn’t. [5]

Studies like this demonstrate how restricting your meals can lead directly to the development of an eating disorder. Most people follow a cycle like this: [6]

  • Restriction: They choose a meal plan and decide what they can and cannot eat. 
  • Deprivation: The forbidden foods become more and more tempting, their metabolism slows, and they feel desperately hungry. 
  • Breaking: Cravings win—they eat forbidden foods and break their diet. 
  • Guilt: They feel terrible that they couldn’t stick to the diet. 
  • Unhappy: They want to lose weight and change their body shape, so they choose a new and more restricted diet. 

Participants following extreme diets were 18x more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who didn’t.

With each pass through the cycle, the diet gets more and more significant and severe. People also become more adept at restricting their eating. They pay attention to their meals, restrict even more foods, and become skilled at following a diet. 

In time, people can place all foods into the forbidden category. They may eat very little, resulting in malnutrition. Others can grow so desperate for the forbidden foods that they binge on them. They cycle through periods of deprivation and bingeing.

Has Your Diet Become an Eating Disorder?

We often think of eating disorders as black-or-white illnesses. In reality, disordered eating exists on a spectrum. Sometimes, a diet can morph into something much more dangerous. 

Experts recommend asking yourself one question: “How much time do I spend thinking about food, weight, and body image?” [7] If you spend what seems like an unusual amount of time focusing on diet, it could be time to get help. 

Common warning signs of an eating disorder include:

  • Focusing on numbers: How often do you weigh yourself or measure your waist circumference?
  • Emotional state: How often are your moods driven by how much you’ve lost or what foods you’ve skipped? Does the number on the scale in the morning dictate how your day will progress?
  • Comparisons: How often do you change your diet to help you look like someone else? How much do media representations of ideal body shape and size influence your eating?
  • Appearance: Are you dissatisfied with the way you look? Do you diet to change your shape or size, or are you dieting to get healthy?

Eating disorders are diagnosed by medical professionals. Each type of eating disorder has diagnostic criteria, and you must meet guidelines to get a formal diagnosis. But it’s not necessary to have all of the signs and symptoms to get help. [8]

Some people have disordered eating patterns (like extreme dieting) that don’t fit neatly into categories like anorexia or bulimia. People like this still need help, and they can get it. 

Getting Help For an Eating Disorder

It’s easy to become concerned with weight, body shape, and appearance. It’s also hard to stop following a diet, especially when your meal plan has become integral to your life. When you’ve spent hours each day preparing clean eating meals, you may wonder what to do instead. 

Disordered eating is very responsive to treatment. A program typically includes the following elements: [8]

Checking your height, weight, blood work, and overall body condition can help your doctor determine if your meal plan has caused physical damage.

Extreme diets can significantly limit your caloric intake so much that you’re at risk for physical illness. Your doctor should spot those conditions and design a treatment plan accordingly.

Your doctor will use interviews and screening tests to help diagnose an eating disorder. Even if you don’t fit into a specific eating disorder category, your doctor must understand your thoughts and feelings about your body to help you. 

So-called talk therapy is designed to help you explore the thoughts and feelings that drive your disordered eating. 

How do you feel about your appearance? How does restricting your diet make you feel? What thoughts trigger your need to limit your meal plans? You can discuss these questions and more in counseling sessions. 

Some eating disorders, including binge eating disorder, respond to medication management. Your prescription could help curb the urge to overeat, and your distressing feelings could lessen.

Some people with disordered eating have underlying health issues, such as depression or anxiety. These mental health issues can be effectively treated with medications. While medications are rarely the only treatment for these conditions, they can significantly help some people. 

Medical professionals can help you understand what’s healthy for you to eat right now. Together, you can decide what a typical day’s worth of foods might look and taste like.

It can be difficult for some people to return to typical eating habits after following a diet or clean eating. Counselors can sit with you during meals to help you process your feelings and make progress.


  1. Guarda A. (2021). What Are Eating Disorders? American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  2. Stierman B, Ansai N, Mishra S, Hales CM. (2020). Special Diets Among Adults: United States, 2015 to 2018. NCHS Data Brief, no 389. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 
  3. Anderson A. (2020). The Problem with Dieting: Eating Disorders Affecting American College Students. University of Michigan. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  4. Hursthouse N. (2020). Which Diet is Right for You? Heart Foundation. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  5. Memon AN, Gowda AS, Rallabhandi B, Bidika E, Fayyaz H, Salib M, Cancarevic I. (2020). Have Our Attempts to Curb Obesity Done More Harm Than Good? Cureus, 12(9):e10275. 
  6. Disordered Eating and Dieting. (n.d.). National Eating Disorders Collaboration. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  7. Eating Disorder Types and Symptoms. (n.d.). ANAD. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  8. Eating Disorders. (n.d.). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved September 28, 2022.

Last Update | 10 - 20 - 2022

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