The phrase “clean eating” never arose in nutrition school, and the only time I have seen it appear in a peer-reviewed journal article was in reference to behaviors that could be described as disordered eating. That should tell us something.
Pop culture nutrition is, after all, quite different from scientific nutrition, and “clean eating” resides squarely in the former. Given the nature of “clean eating,” let us look in that direction for its definition. “Clean eating is a deceptively simple concept,” according to Fitness Magazine. “Rather than revolving around the idea of ingesting more or less of specific things (for instance, fewer calories or more protein), the idea is more about being mindful of the food’s pathway between its origin and your plate. At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or ‘real’ foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible.”
Unsaid is the prevalent cultural implication that “minimally processed, refined, and handled” foods – “clean” foods, in other words – are healthier than foods that do not fit this description. While the concept of emphasizing foods that are less processed has some merit, the message is so oversimplified and rounded off that it is more problematic than useful.
For someone trying to keep his blood sugar steady, whole grains might be more conducive to achieving this goal than more refined grains would be because the former tend to be higher in fiber and protein compared to their white counterparts, which are stripped of these nutrients during processing (although these nutrients, and others, are sometimes added back via fortification).
In other cases though, foods that are more processed might actually be the better choice. For example, I think of one of my patients, a young woman who had lost her period for many months due to nutrient deficiency, and it was not until we increased her intake of more-refined foods – which tend to be more calorically dense – that her period returned.
What constitutes a healthy choice for someone really depends on the individual, their needs, their preferences, and other factors that are unique to them. One of the problems with the way our society talks about food is the individual gets lost. For example, we talk about foods being “good for you” or “not good for you,” but who is the “you” in question? Almost always, the phrases refer to a monolithic representation of the population that probably does not take into account the unique characteristics that separate each of us from the pack. Talking in generalities has its place (No matter who you are, drinking paint thinner is not good for you.), but way too often that kind of oversimplified talk is misleading at best and damaging at worst.
Consider the good/bad food dichotomy embedded within “clean eating.” Foods unworthy of the “clean” label are, what then, “dirty”? If you have ever dieted, remember what it was like to consume foods that were frowned upon in the context of the diet. Most likely, ingestion of a small amount of a forbidden food triggered overconsumption of said food, not because of any objective qualities inherent to the food, but rather because of the overarching subjective eating experience. We eat a little bit of “dirty” food, figure today is ruined anyway, so we might as well have some more – whether we intuitively feel like more or not – and resolve to start over “clean” tomorrow.
Clean vs. dirty, good vs. bad, sin vs. virtue, these are issues of morality and spirituality that have infiltrated the world of nutrition. Alan Levinovitz, a religion professor who has taken to writing about nutrition in recent years because of the intersectionality of spirituality and food, explains, “It’s terrifying to live in a place where the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, or ADHD, or the causes of weight gain, are mysterious. So what we do is come up with certain causes for the things that we fear. If we’re trying to avoid things that we fear, why would we invent a world full of toxins that don’t really exist? Again, it’s about control. After all, if there are things that we’re scared of, then at least we know what to avoid. If there is a sacred diet, and if there are foods that are really taboo, yeah, it’s scary, but it’s also empowering, because we can readily identify culinary good and evil, and then we have a path that we can follow that’s salvific.”
Hence, we invent a construct of “clean eating” that is based less on science and more on profound issues of humanity. Understandable as this behavior may be, I cannot say strongly enough: Our relationships with food become much less fraught when we remove issues of moralization, sin, and virtue from our food choices and eating behaviors.
Many of my patients with eating disorders (EDs) and/or disordered eating have engaged in “clean eating” at some point in their lives. The practice of eating only unprocessed, organic, additive-free foods that have the highest nutrient value seems to be the diet du jour for many people right now. And I get it – many of us want to live the longest and healthiest lives we can, and one of the ways we can take care of ourselves is by being aware of what food we put in our bodies. Take a look at any viral “food science” article or video online and you will hear doctors, dietitians, and other health care practitioners and researchers telling you that if you eat this one food (or don’t eat this one food), you can expect to live longer (or die sooner) – as if every food decision we make over the course of the day has the power to lengthen or shorten our lives. It makes it seem like we have so much control over our health, that if only we eat the right things, we will never have illness and will live forever. Of course, this is just not true (case in point: fitness guru Bob Harper’s recent heart attack).
Given the oversimplified and misleading fashion in which food-related information is often presented in the media, nutrition must seem like an ever-changing landscape. Sure, the field is evolving just like every other facet of health care, but not as radically or quickly as the public is led to believe. Every month, a new “super food” is unveiled and promises to improve our energy, stave off cancer, prevent heart disease, and so on and so on. Never mind that just a month earlier this food might have been on the “unhealthy” food list (I’m looking at you, coconut oil.). The point is that nutrition is always evolving, and trying to keep up with all of the foods we “should” and “shouldn’t” eat is exhausting. Yet, so many of my patients are obsessed with eating only the most nutritious, healthiest foods. They emphatically believe that some foods are inherently virtuous and clean, worthy of being ingested, while other foods are a waste of money and have no business being called food. And I believe that this is a big problem.
Food is not just fuel. Let me repeat this again. Food is not just fuel. Food is connection; it’s tradition, rituals, and how we care for ourselves and others. Food can elicit some of our most cherished memories (e.g., grandma’s famous chocolate chip cookies), and food can comfort us at times. I know that “emotional eating” has been deemed a problem by many, but really, it’s okay to eat emotionally at times. In fact, it’s completely normal! For people with EDs and disordered eating, sometimes the act of eating food can be agonizing, physically, emotionally, and mentally. I can’t count how many times I have heard some version of the following from my patients: “I wish I didn’t have to eat food, that I could just get all of my needed nutrients from an IV. It would make life so much easier.” These types of sentiments break my heart.
For individuals with EDs or disordered eating, breaking foods up into “good/bad” or “clean/unhealthy” categories is de rigueur. By having clear-cut rules about what is okay and not okay to eat, these individuals feel safer and in control (Of course, we know that really, the opposite is true – these rules control the individual.). In my work with my patients, I try to help these patients challenge their food rules. This might be having them eat a formerly loved food that they have not allowed themselves to eat due to perceived lack of nutritive value. We will also discuss the value of eating a wide variety of foods, that all foods fit, even Oreos. For most of these patients, they feel that eating less-nutrient-dense foods is a waste of time, that they are “empty calories” and have no business being eaten. I have had to justify more times than I can count why Oreos might sometimes be a better choice for a snack than an apple.
What it comes down to is this: Is eating “clean” really improving your life? Aside from perhaps improving some physical health markers, how are the other aspects of your life? Are you able to share meals with others? Are you able to partake in your child’s birthday cake? Are your food rules running your life or limiting it? These questions are what I would ask a “clean eater” to consider.