Ambwani S, Shippe M, Gao Z, Austin SB (2019) Journal of Eating Disorders 2019 May; 7: 17 doi.org/10.1186/s40337-019-0246-2
Although “clean eating” is widely propagated through social media and anecdotal reports in the popular press, there is almost no scientific research on this potentially risky dietary strategy. The current investigation explored definitions and perceptions of “clean eating” and its associations with indicators of disordered eating among diverse U.S.-based undergraduates.
Undergraduates (N = 148, Mage = 19.41 years, 70.3% women) were asked to define “clean eating” via an open-ended question and then read vignettes featuring five “clean” diets, all of which caused mild functional impairment across multiple domains. Participants rated the extent to which they believed the diet was 1) “healthy,” 2) reflective of “clean eating,” and 3) likely to be adopted by them. Finally, participants completed questionnaires to assess body appearance evaluation, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, eating disorder symptoms, and symptoms of orthorexia nervosa.
Open-ended responses indicated that participants defined “clean eating” in varied but overwhelmingly positive terms. Repeated measures ANOVAs indicated that the “meal substitution” vignette was perceived as the least healthy, least “clean,” and least likely to be adopted, whereas the “new” (balanced) diet vignette was rated the highest on these domains. Correlations among diet perceptions and indicators of disordered eating were positive and significant.
“Clean eating” is likely a heterogeneous phenomenon that is viewed favorably by U.S.-based college students even when it is linked with functional impairment and emotional distress. Ongoing examination of “clean eating” could clarify the potential benefits and risks posed by this dietary strategy and thus inform eating disorder prevention efforts.