The term “clean eating” has become synonymous with healthy eating. Take a look at any mainstream news outlet, instagram, or overhear a group of friends talking about health and diet and you’ll likely hear or see something about clean eating.
At the outset it seems harmless enough, even virtuous to “eat clean.” But what does it mean to eat clean, and why are people interested in and trying to eat clean? Even restaurants are marketing their use of clean foods. Let’s take a look at what it means to eat clean, what the benefits are, and what are the potential downsides of clean eating.
What does it mean to “eat clean”?
There is no easy answer to this, as no established definition for clean eating exists. It’s not a term regulated by the FDA, the FTC, the USDA. But you will see it used by restaurants, bloggers, and news outlets, in advertising, and social media. It’s not a food label, not a diet. To some it’s a way of eating, more of a lifestyle. To others it may be types of foods or a list of ingredients they eliminate from their diet. It can be confusing. What’s clean to one person may not fit the definition of clean to another person. There are some common principles, however, among most people who eat clean:
- They focus on whole, real foods, and reduce or eliminate processed foods, avoiding additives like dyes or preservatives.
- They try to use organic and/or non-GMO foods.
- They tend to eliminate, or greatly reduce, refined sugar from their diet. They also avoid refined, white flours.
- They may practice mindful eating and eat frequent small meals each day.
What are the benefits?
There are a number of clean eating principles that most people could benefit from if they practiced them.
- Consuming more whole, unprocessed food is something most dietitians would like to see people do more of, as many processed foods contain excess calories, fat, sodium, or sugar, along with unneeded additives. Fruit and vegetable consumption would likely increase too, which is a key part of a healthy diet.
- Reducing the amount of refined sugar in the our diet is another benefit, as consuming too much sugar has been associated with several health risks, such as heart disease, obesity, and periodontal disease. Using whole grain or whole wheat flours instead of refined flours would boost fiber intake along with other essential nutrients.
- Eating frequent, small meals throughout the day lets you nourish your body without overwhelming it with excess calories at larger meals.
- Eating mindfully helps you become more aware of what you are eating and more in tune with your body’s signals of hunger and fullness.
What are the potential downsides?
While eating clean can be part of a healthy lifestyle, there are some things to consider.
- Does “clean” automatically mean healthy or nourishing? Not necessarily. Depending on how you define clean, you could still consume food with more calories, fat, and sodium than your body needs, even if it’s made entirely from ingredients you consider clean. Food choices are about more than how ‘clean’ it is.
- Even it an item is free of refined sugar, that doesn’t mean it’s free of, or low in, other sweeteners. The product could still have a lot of sugar in it through the addition of honey, maple syrup, or other sweeteners that are considered “clean.” Once these sweeteners are broken down in your body via digestion, it doesn’t matter much if it comes from white sugar or maple syrup. It’s still sugar, and too much of it poses the same health risks. Honey and maple syrup can be good substitutes for white sugar, but we still need to watch the amount used.
- Not all processed foods are created equal. Some can be great additions to a nourishing diet, like canned beans (for people who don’t have the time or know-how to prepare dried beans), frozen vegetables, lower sodium canned vegetables, fruits canned in water, or frozen fruits. They may not be considered “clean” – because they’re processed – but they can be a healthy addition to the diet.
- The term “clean eating” encourages us to label food as clean or dirty, good or bad. When I started practicing dietetics, we encouraged people not to label food as good or bad. Doing so promotes a sense of guilt and shame if we eat a food on the bad list, which in turn can sometimes lead to overeating or binge eating. Labeling food this way doesn’t promote a healthy lifestyle or attitude toward food.
- Clean eating also resides on the slippery slope of status, attaching itself, in a way, to high values or morals, almost virtuous. The old adage “cleanliness is next to godliness” applies here. We don’t want to be dirty, or eat food that’s not clean, because it’s not the right thing to do. When we do consume or buy food for our family that’s not “clean”, feelings of guilt and failure can follow. Food is neutral, and not something we should judge on moral grounds.
- Strictly following a clean eating regimen can easily lead into an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. This is called orthorexia, a type of eating disorder for which one really needs to see a health professional for treatment. If your healthy eating interferes with daily life causing anxiety and fear around eating, talk with your health care provider.
How do we solve the clean eating conundrum?
Clean eating has a number of healthy principles we can follow, but we should not be so rigid that our quest for healthy eating, via clean eating, becomes unhealthy.
Adopt the principles of eating whole, unprocessed food most of the time, reduce refined sugars and flours, and eat mindfully. Pay attention to what you eat and listen to how your body responds to the food you consume. Then choose those foods that make you feel good physically and mentally, that give you energy, and that you enjoy.
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But, please, let’s do away with labeling food, or a way of eating, as good or bad, clean or dirty. It can get in the way of truly making healthy choices for your body.
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Finally, don’t let feelings of guilt or shame enter into your food choices. Choose food, not based on fear or guilt, but rather choose food based on what you enjoy and what best nourishes your body.
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