The REAL Truth About Clean Eating

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
If you strike up a conversation about food and health, chances are someone will start talking about clean eating. The idea is that you’re supposed to eat whole, minimally processed foods and avoid refined ones. Is there some merit to this, or is clean eating just another bogus fad? The answer: A little from column A, a little from column B.

What Clean Eating Gets Wrong

First, the bullshit: There’s actually no official definition of clean eating. People make similar points when they talk about it, but if you dig deeper, you’ll find that every clean-eating program has its own rules and agenda. Some focus on choosing organic and locally grown foods. Others recommend going vegan. Some say you should eat minimal carbs and consume them in combination with protein. Still other clean-eating advocates say that even certain whole foods, such as wheat and dairy, are “toxic” to many people. Some proponents even have rules about how often to eat.

So, if you were interested in trying to eat “clean,” you could drive yourself crazy attempting to implement all the rules of the various programs — and you would potentially end up with a severely restricted diet (more on that shortly).

However you define clean eating, the label obviously has moral overtones. Foods that don’t fit into the "clean" category are, by implication, unclean. This sets up a situation in which foods get cast as good or bad — and can easily cause people to feel significant shame and fear if they eat something they “shouldn’t.” “There’s this perception that we’re one bite away from catastrophe,” says Evelyn Tribole, RD, a registered dietitian and author who specializes in eating disorders, intuitive eating, and celiac disease.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Tribole points to the “war on obesity” as a major factor in the rise of clean eating: Public health campaigns and media reports that encourage dieting and weight loss often end up causing deep shame in the very people they attempt to help. “So, it makes sense that people would want 'cleanliness' to absolve that shame,” she says. Those who don’t have access to or can’t afford "clean" food, meanwhile, get yet another message that they’re not good enough.

Of course, the vast majority of nutrition professionals agree that labeling foods as “good” and “bad” is unhealthy and unnecessary. And, that brings us to the biggest downside of "clean" eating and the cultural fixation on nutrition: All that shame and stigma could trigger orthorexia nervosa, an eating disorder defined by an obsession with healthy eating. People with the disorder compulsively monitor ingredients and feel the need to cut more and more foods out of their diets; this can lead to decreased quality of life, and possibly even physical symptoms of malnutrition such as missed periods, hair loss, and heart abnormalities.

Many health professionals say they’re seeing an increasing number of clients for orthorexia. It’s not currently in the DSM (the manual that mental health professionals use to diagnose psychiatric conditions), but there’s a movement afoot to make it an official diagnosis. Treating clients for orthorexia requires helping people avoid extremes and become more flexible in their approaches to healthy eating. As Tribole explains: “There’s nothing wrong if you aspire to [eating fresh, locally grown food] as your foundation, but if it’s causing you a tremendous amount of anxiety and organizing your whole life, then that’s a problem.”
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
What Clean Eating Gets Right

Of course, there are some good things about the clean-eating movement. Some of the approaches that “clean eaters” preach really do make sense as guidelines — just not as mandates. Here are five tips from the world of clean eating that would be smart to incorporate (flexibly) into your normal way of life:

1. Make whole foods the basis of your meals.
There’s a reason nutritionists advocate filling half the plate with vegetables and fruit, making most of your grains whole grains, and eating lean protein: In numerous long-term, large-scale studies, these dietary patterns have been associated with lower risks of chronic disease and lower overall mortality. So, opting for whole foods in favor of highly processed items makes sense — but, this doesn’t mean you’re “being bad” when you don’t eat this way, or that you’re going to keel over if you go a few days without vegetables.

2. Eat when you’re hungry, which probably will mean five or six times a day. This is one of the more obscure tenets of clean eating, but it’s true that eating three meals and two to three snacks is in line with your body’s natural rhythms of hunger and satiety. Worried the extra snacks will lead to weight gain? Research actually shows an association between greater eating frequency and lower body weight. So, listen to those hunger cues.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
3. Eat protein and/or fat along with your carbs. Again, this may seem like a strange principle to fall under the umbrella of “clean” eating, but it’s backed by sound science: Your blood sugar will rise less in response to a meal or snack that includes carbohydrates, protein, and fat than it will to one that includes carbohydrates alone. High-fiber foods also have a lower impact on blood glucose levels. Avoiding the sugar spikes helps you maintain good energy levels throughout the day and may help reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
4. Consider how your food choices affect the environment, and choose sustainably produced options when you’re able to. Small changes really do add up, and voting with your dollar is a good way to help build a better food system.  

5. Cook from scratch when you can. Nutritionists have long advocated home cooking as a way to improve health. That’s because takeout joints and restaurants are primarily concerned with flavor and their bottom line, not with nutrition; they often use liberal amounts of fat and salt to make the food taste irresistible, plus large portion sizes to lure customers. Recent research supports the recommendation to cook at home: In a 2014 study of nearly 10,000 adults, those who more frequently cooked dinner at home had better-quality diets overall than those who cooked less (regardless of whether they were trying to lose weight).


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