In recent years, the “clean eating” dietary trend has swept the nation. Hip cafés, grocery stores, and restaurants are now advertising “clean” labels, promises and menus. Yet despite its widespread attraction, there is no standard definition of what “clean eating” is.
As a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist (RDN), I often have people tell me that they “eat clean” or “want to follow a clean diet.” My response is always the same. “What does ‘clean eating’ mean to you?” Not surprisingly, I’ve never gotten the same answer twice. The idea of “clean eating” is open to interpretation.
The “clean eating” craze can attribute much of its popularity to social media hashtagging and food photos, but not to reliable scientific evidence. “Clean eating” is a mixed bag of fact and fiction. Many of the food phobias, polarized guidelines, and elaborate health claims associated with “clean eating” are unfounded in scientific research.
Additionally, since the public understanding of “clean eating” is so variable and dynamic, well-intentioned attempts to “eat clean” impose a long list of ever-changing and frequently unsustainable food rules. Such patterns are of significant concern to nutrition experts, as very restrictive dietary approaches tend to be unrealistic and exceptionally difficult to follow long-term.
“Clean eating” also does not ensure a balanced diet. In fact, the more constrained a person’s dietary choices, the greater the likelihood of incurring nutrient deficiencies. A closer look at some of the black-and-white rules of “clean eating” exposes significant flaws in its reasoning. Consider the “clean eating” statements below, all of which can be false and misleading.
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The Myths of “Clean Eating”
“Don’t eat anything your great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize as food.”
“We need to start eating like our ancestors used to.”
It is undeniable that food manufacturers today produce and sell more convenience foods, pre-packaged items and shelf-stable food products than at any other time in history. However, foods that have withstood the test of time are not inherently healthy. And novel food choices are not necessarily unhealthy.
Historical data proves that humans have consumed high-calorie foods such as chocolate and sweet pastries for hundreds of years. Additionally, someone who lived 100 to150 years a would easily recognize potato chips, which were invented in 1865.
Yet that same person would not recognize kiwi fruit, which was first brought to the United States in 1962. Other foods renowned for their nutrient density, such as quinoa, turmeric and sushi, have only been introduced to the United States in the past 45 years. Therefore, application of this “clean eating” rule limits access to highly nutritious foods that have only become available through advancements in food trading, crop growing practices, and commercial food availability.
“Don’t eat anything with more than ‘X number’ of ingredients.”
“Clean eating is when I can see all of the ingredients I am eating.”
“A food is clean if there are as few ingredients as possible.”
The number of ingredients in a product is not a foolproof measure of a food’s nutritional quality. Pork rinds, which are loaded with fat and sodium and have zero fiber or vitamins. But they have a very short ingredient list – pork rinds, lard and salt. Similarly, it is not difficult to find a box of five-ingredient peanut butter chocolate chip cookies on a grocery store shelf. Such cookies are high in calories, fat and added sugars. In contrast, a loaf of Ezekiel Bread, which is packed with whole grains, fiber, and B vitamins, is made with ten ingredients.
“Simple” has become a marketing buzzword. It gives consumers the impression that a food is wholesome and thus more nutritious. Yet the “simple ingredients” used in these specialty cereals, crackers, cookies, ice cream, teas and juices are often refined flour, sugar, salt, cream and/or oil – foods that do not provide any nutritional punch. There is certainly no shortage of these ingredients in the typical American diet. If 90 percent of a product is comprised of a trendy version of fat or sugar, it is still not providing a healthful, educated choice.
“Don’t eat what you cannot pronounce (such as a chemical sounding name).”
Scary or complicated names do not automatically equate to harmful properties. For instance, bulgur and amaranth, two very nutritious, ancient grains, are unpronounceable for some people. Also, some of the chemical compounds used as food additives are necessary for food safety. An example is potassium sorbate, which prevents the growth of bacteria that causes foodborne illness and spoilage.
“Don’t eat anything pre-packaged.”
“You should only choose foods without a label – nothing from a box, bag, or can.”
Indeed, the nutritional value of fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, fatty fish) is indisputable. However, a lack of packaging is not a surefire way to identify a food’s nutrient content. There are some truly healthy foods that come in packages, such as flash-frozen broccoli and dried chickpeas.
“Don’t eat anything processed or refined.”
“Avoid all foods that have been heavily processed and stripped of nutrients.”
“Eat whole foods only – foods that haven’t been tampered with in a lab or a factory.”
A food is classified as “processed” if any deliberate change has occurred in the food before it is available for consumption. Frozen dinner entrees, microwaveable macaroni and cheese, and gumdrops laden with artificial colors would surely be identified as “processed” foods.
Yet by the same criteria, ground coffee beans, pasteurized milk and applesauce would also be considered “processed” foods. Therefore, a “processed” food does not mean that all the nutrients have been removed. Sometimes “processing” is the only way to preserve nutrients and freshness!
“Eat only foods that are pure and perfect, the way nature delivered them.”
What makes a food pure or perfect? Likewise, what makes a food impure or imperfect? This categorization of foods is extremely subjective.
“Choose only natural foods. “
“Stay away from anything that is unnatural.”
Like “clean eating,” there are no guidelines or regulations around the use of word “natural.” Any food or beverage can be branded as “natural.” Many people assume that the word “natural” is synonymous with “organic,” which is incorrect. Organic foods and food products have strict production and labeling requirements. These food producers must under certification and adhere to high standards.
“No junk food.”
“None of the bad stuff.”
“Junk food” is another term with no real definition. Words such as od, bad, right, wrong and junk are not applicable to food. Food does not have a moral value.
Calling foods “bad” invokes guilt on those who enjoy them. Eating and enjoying food, even foods that aren’t the most nutritious, should never be done with guilt or shame. The more negatively you think or speak about food, the more problematic your relationship with food will likely become. Learn to eat with satisfaction, rather than with judgment.
“Clean eaters eat only raw, plant-based foods.”
The benefits of eating plant-based foods are well-documented in scientific research and societies all over the world. Still, this statement is contradictory some plant-based foods, like butternut squash and lentils, cannot be eaten in the raw form.
“Clean eaters only use sea salt.”
“Added sugars, white sugar, and high-fructose corn syrup are not allowed on a clean diet. You can only use natural sweeteners like honey, agave nectar, maple syrup and molasses.”
The sodium content of sea salt (as well as Himalayan salt, pink salt, rock salt and kosher salt) is no different than that of iodized table salt. By the same token, “natural sweeteners” are still considered to be sources of added sugars by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These “natural sweeteners” supply a concentrated source of calories and raise blood glucose levels just like white sugar does.
“No preservatives, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavors, food dyes, color additives, toxic binders, stabilizers, emulsifiers, fat replacers, monosodium glutamate (MSG), nitrates, nitrites, sulfites, BPA or partially hydrogenated oils.”
This is an enormous catalogue to try to keep track of, particularly since the food industry is constantly engineering new ingredients and incorporating these compounds into the food system. What is your rationale for avoiding one of these ingredients? What about the entire list combined? Excluding foods and entire food groups can be extremely tricky and demanding, especially if it is not medically necessary.
The nutritional value of a food is determined based upon the food as a whole. Better health is derived from food, not from singular nutrients or a “free from” claim placed on a label. Bananas are not only healthy because they contain potassium. There is no accurate or objective way to assess a food’s nutrient quality based upon one specific ingredient.
“You should only to restaurants that offer clean foods – nothing fried or high in sugar.”
Just because a restaurant claims to offer “clean foods” does not mean that all the food on the menu is healthy. A significant percentage of the foods served at such restaurants are high in calories, saturated fat and added sugars.
Many people who tout the evils of gluten don’t even know what gluten is. There is little scientific evidence that individuals who do not have celiac disease (an autoimmune disease that affects only a small fraction of the population) or a non-celiac gluten sensitivity will benefit from a gluten-free diet.
“No white foods.”
You can presume that the reason behind this is to minimize the consumption of refined grains such as white bread and white rice. Nevertheless, it is very oversimplified. Plenty of brown breads and non-white multigrain products are also refined grains. Use of this faulty principle eliminates a variety of nutritious foods that just happen to be white, such as cauliflower, yogurt, milk, navy beans, skinless turkey breast, and white fish.
Good Intentions, But Remove Fear from Your Diet
The practice of “clean eating” likely began with od intentions. But it has morphed from cultivating a sense of awareness about food into a diet-driven system. There is an implication that if you do not “eat clean,” then what you eat is otherwise dirty or unhygienic. If you don’t engage in “clean eating,” then you are probably sloppy, lazy and making yourself sick. This simply is not true. Educating yourself about food is one thing, but food shaming is another. Nourishment is intended to be gentle, not militant.
A shift in mindset can transform your ideas of “clean eating” into a call to action to understand where your food comes from. Who grew it? Connecting with the story behind your food fosters a deeper appreciation for it. Nurture a constructive relationship with food by learning more about it. Get to know the face behind your food. Consider visiting a farmers’ market or joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
Introduce new varieties of produce to your family. Do more cooking at home. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store. Question the legitimacy of food “claims.” Opt for foods in season. When food is grown under the appropriate growing conditions, planting and harvesting is less time intensive, and the overall crop yield is greater. In-season foods are also more nutritious. Studies have found that some crops deliver up to 300 percent more nutrients when grown in season.
Choose foods that are produced locally. Food travels an average of 1,500 miles before it reaches your table. Food sold in grocery stores travels 27 times further than food found at farmer’s markets. As food is trucked, shipped and flown around the world, a tremendous amount of fossil fuels are burned, contributing to climate change, acid rain, smog and pollution. Not only is this destructive to the environment, it also results in price inflation.
Selecting locally sourced foods is more cost-effective, invests money back into your community and empowers small family farms (one of the most impoverished populations nationwide). Freshness is also guaranteed. Locally-grown produce is allowed to fully ripen on the vine, bush or tree before being picked at the peak of ripeness, typically with less than 24 hours between harvest and market.
My recommendation for anyone interested in improving their diet to think about food in terms of “transparent” rather than “clean.” Choose foods that really are what they say they are. Is your protein bar really a candy bar in disguise? Is the nut-flavored spread on your morning toast only pretending to be made from actual nuts? Could you have purchased all of the ingredients in a food and made it yourself (but didn’t have to, because someone else made it for you)?
Food should be a cause for pleasure, not panic. For most people, it is entirely possible to eat more healthfully without living in terror or actively avoiding certain foods altogether. If there is one thing to cut from your diet, it is fear. Reading labels, checking sources and employing mindfulness are all behaviors that can promote a healthier life. Obsessing about ingredients, compulsively scrutinizing food labels and constantly reading about a “cleaner life” are not a part of a healthy lifestyle.
For more information on diet changes that will work for you, consult your primary care provider. Looking for more ideas to lead a healthier lifestyle? Read more of our dietitians blogs under our Food for Thought series.
About UPMC Harrisburg
UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.