Eating Clean: Does It Mean What You Think It Means?

So-called ‘clean eating’ is no longer just a diet, it’s a lifestyle movement. So where did the idea come from, and is it for all of us?

The ‘clean eating’ movement is presented as a movement away from modern food trends—away from highly processed snacks, factory style farming, untrustworthy food chains and the perceived threat of genetic modification. Clean eating emphasises foods that are “whole” and “unprocessed”—it means cooking at home and finding good ingredients.

But do some practitioners, including Hollywood celebrities and Instagram influencers, take the whole concept to extremes? Has the pendulum swung too far in the other direction?

See Also: The Top Ten Clean Eating Myths 

Diet or Movement?

At its core, clean eating has an undeniable appeal which can’t be dismissed. All dieticians agree that we should be eating more vegetables, less refined sugar and less meat. And it’s undeniable that some of the processes used in growing, processing and packaging our food can be harmful.

But nutritionists, seeing a spike in disordered eating connected to clean eating and wellness trends, are speaking out, saying that the phrase “clean eating” has now taken on a new, misguided meaning. And the trend’s popularity can be dangerous, since aswith most wellness trends is is not based on rigorous scientific research.

“The implication is that if you’re not ‘eating clean’, what you eat otherwise is dirty, lazy or unhygienic, and that’s simply not true,” says clinical nutritionist Jaclyn London. “It’s morphed from a sense of awareness about food into a diet-driven caste system. Not only does the phrase establish a hierarchical model for eating well, it’s yet another medium for food-shaming.”

Jordan Younger, an early proponent of clean eating on her Blonde Vegan blog, discovered this the hard way. She built up a sizeable following for her extremely strict gluten-free, sugar-free, oil-free, grain-free, legume-free, plant-based raw vegan diet, but eventually she experienced health problems including hair, skin and menstrual issues, and recognised that she was suffering from orthorexia, an obsession with consuming only foods that are pure and perfect.

See Also: Unwind and De-stress with Good Nutrition 

What To Eat?

Younger started widening the repertoire of foods she consumed, starting with fish. Today, perfectly healthy, she blogs under the name The Balanced Blonde. She no longer hashtags her posts #eatclean.

But as Jordan Younger found when she moved away from strict clean eating, fierce adherents of the movement can make it difficult to advance any argument against the trend. She received irate messages from followers including death threats and lost followers by the thousands.

Her experience is indicative of some  attitudes towards ‘clean eating’ held today. No longer a decision to strive for simpler meals, it has instead become a way of life. Clean eating cookbooks are too often not just vegetarian cookbooks, but a promise of a ‘new you’.

Mostly Plants

For those who feel a bit overwhelmed by all the contradictory food rules out there, it’s always helpful to remember the words of Michael Pollan, author of several books about nutrition: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Jaclyn London echoes this advice, saying we should just be eating more plants, more often—not obsessing about whether they are organic farmers’ market greens, or merely from the corner grocer. Everything else, you can eat in moderation—even sweets. London calls this “transparent eating”.

“You know what I love about candy? It may not be ideologically aligned with #cleaneating, but it accurately represents itself as an indulgence. No one bought a candy bar thinking it was anything other than a treat!” London says. “’Transparent’ is a word I wish would take off, because it means being what it claims to be. Is your candy bar a candy bar, or is it a candy bar pretending to be an energy bar?! If it’s the latter, put it back and go for the real thing.”

See Also: Nuturing Your Diet 

Something Sweet

If the idea of a nutritionist suggesting we eat refined sugar in moderation sounds shocking, take a closer look at some of the white sugar alternatives on offer. For instance, coconut sugar, which costs four times as much as the regular stuff, is metabolised by the body in just the same way as refined sugar, and the same goes for agave syrup.

In the end, ‘clean eating’ is just a diet—a very popular diet, amounting to a lifestyle movement—but a diet nonetheless. And as with all diets, conventional wisdom still stands: most of us will benefit more from making small but sustainable lifestyle changes, rather than taking up an overly restrictive and perhaps ultimately unsustainable set of commandments.

This feature was originally published in the winter edition of Live to 100 with Dr Hilary Jones, which you can read here

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