The Slippery Slope of Dieting & Clean Eating 

Clean eating is popular in our culture and is viewed as a “healthier” way of eating. It entails eating whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, eggs, whole grains, and nuts, and avoiding processed and packaged foods. 

Because this version of “healthy eating” recommends limiting or eliminating certain foods, food groups, or ingredients, it is a diet and can slide down the slippery slope into an eating disorder.

Unfortunately, for some people, diets (even if considered a “healthy diet”) can lead directly to eating disorders, even a clean eating diet. 

An eating disorder is a serious mental health 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, limit, or don’t eat certain foods from these lists. 

Following a clean eating program includes only eating “healthy foods” that are considered “good” and limiting or not eating foods that are considered “bad.” Following good/bad food rules as part of a clean eating program also qualifies as disordered eating behavior, which could, in time, deepen into further disordered eating and develop into a full-blown eating disorder. Eating disorders are complex mental health illnesses with very serious medical complications that require a highly specialized treatment program to get better. 

What Is Dieting?

Dieting entails restricting the intake of calories and food in an attempt to lose weight. It can involve limiting or eliminating certain foods, food groups, or ingredients and emphasizing some foods over others. While some people modify their diet due to a medical condition that requires food elimination (such as a diabetes diet or a gluten-free diet due to Celiac disease)), most people diet to lose weight or change their body shape. 

Between 2015 and 2018, more than 17% of U.S. adults followed a special diet.2 The most common version restricts calories to help people lose weight. 

More than 17% of U.S. adults followed a special diet.

Between 2015 and 2018, more than 17% of U.S. adults followed a special diet.2 The most common version restricts calories to help people lose weight. 

People who diet usually have strict regimens, specific rules, and elaborate rituals. They often do the following:

  • Plan: Plot out when to eat, what to eat, and how much to eat. 
  • Research: Look up ingredients and check labels to determine if a food fits the plan. 
  • Persist: Each meal becomes a test of resolve to stick to the plan. 

But the reality is diets fail for most people. People may lose weight in the short term but gain it back, plus more, in the long term.3

What Is Clean Eating?

Those on a clean-eating diet typically only eat foods that are unprocessed, whole, or “clean.” These can include fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, nuts, and legumes. People who follow a clean-eating program eliminate processed foods and refined grains. They may also not eat cooked foods, gluten, dairy products, added sugar, or processed meats. 

Following this diet isn’t easy, and shopping for and preparing meals can be very time-consuming and expensive.

Some people eat cleanly to lose weight, and some follow the program for perceived health benefits. They believe eliminating certain ingredients, foods, and food groups they perceive as “bad” or “unhealthy” can help them avoid heart disease, diabetes, and other medical conditions. But this hasn’t been proven. 

Our health is largely influenced by genetics and what are called social determinants of health, such as:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Gender orientation
  • Environment
  • Level of education
  • Economic or social status
  • Access to quality healthcare

These are not within our control, and our eating habits do not have a significant impact on health, despite common beliefs that they do.4

How Diets Can Lead to Eating Disorders 

Most diets are restrictive in some way, whether by reducing calories or food consumed, eliminating certain foods, food groups, or ingredients, or fasting. Restrictive eating patterns can cause disordered eating and lead to negative health consequences.5

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. Even participants who followed a moderate diet were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who didn’t.6

Studies like this demonstrate how restricting your food intake can lead directly to the development of an eating disorder, as restriction typically becomes more extreme as attempts to lose weight fail and disordered eating behaviors intensify. 

Dieting is a strong predictor of developing an eating disorder. The diet cycle explains how eating disorders can develop, starting with restriction. Restriction of food to just clean eating meals leads to feelings of deprivation that result in food becoming more tempting and your metabolism slowing to conserve energy due to lack of sufficient food. This produces intense cravings, as the body interprets this as starvation and shifts into survival mode. This, in turn, sets people up to binge, which they then feel guilty about and resolve to reverse by more severely restricting.7

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. Any diet involves restricting food in some way, which is a disordered eating behavior and can morph into something much more dangerous. 

Experts recommend asking yourself how much time you spend thinking about food, weight, and body image.8 If you’re spending more and more time focusing on food and your eating habits, it could be time to get help. 

Common warning signs of an eating disorder include:

  • Focusing on numbers: Counting calories, weighing yourself frequently, measuring your waist?
  • Emotional state: Fluctuating moods based on appearance, amount of weight lost, food eaten, or time spent exercising  
  • Comparisons: Comparing yourself to others and unrealistic media representations of ideal body shape and size 
  • Appearance: Having a distorted perception of your weight, shape, or body size  

Getting Help For an Eating Disorder

Extreme dieting may not seem dangerous because it’s so common and accepted in our society, but it is a form of disordered eating and can quickly progress into an eating disorder. If you suspect you or someone you love may be sliding down the slippery slope of dieting toward an eating disorder, it’s never too early to get help.9

Eating disorders are very complex mental illnesses that can have very serious, even fatal, medical complications. They do not go away on their own and require specialized treatment.

Remember, a clean eating meal plan does not necessarily equate to a healthy lifestyle.


  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. Hall KD, & Kahan S. (2018). Maintenance of Lost Weight and Long-Term Management of Obesity. The Medical Clinics of North America; 102(1):183–197. 
  4. Javed Z, Valero-Elizondo J, Maqsood MH, Mahajan S, Taha MB, Patel KV, Sharma G, Hagan K, Blaha MJ, Blankstein R, Mossialos E, Virani SS, Cainzos-Achirica M, & Nasir K. (2022). Social determinants of health and obesity: Findings from a national study of U.S. adults. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.); 30(2):491–502.
  5. Anderson A. (2020). The Problem with Dieting: Eating Disorders Affecting American College Students. University of Michigan. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  6. 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.
  7. Disordered Eating and Dieting. (n.d.). National Eating Disorders Collaboration. Retrieved September 28, 2022.
  8. Eating Disorder Types and Symptoms. (n.d.). ANAD. Retrieved September 28, 2022. 
  9. Eating Disorders. (n.d.). National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved September 28, 2022.

Last Update | 10 - 20 - 2022

Medical Disclaimer

Any information provided on the is for educational purposes only. The information on this site should not substitute for professional medical advice. Please consult with a medical professional if you are seeking medical advice, a diagnosis or any treatment solutions. is not liable for any issues associated with acting upon any information on this site.