Clear off clean eating!

A recent article in the Guardian highlighting the link between “clean eating” and the rise in health and weight concerns in young people sadly reinforced what I already knew….clean eating is still ever present in our food and health obsessed nation. The key word there is “obsessed”! A desire to eat more healthily and take an interest in improving the diet – great plan; becoming fixated on food quality, the need to eat “right” and be “good” where self-esteem becomes entangled in the purity of the diet WILL only do harm.

So when did eating food become dirty or wrong? Why should we be shamed if we decide to eat a piece of cake or fancy white bread instead of gasp, shock horror….rye?! Clean eating has become a channel for food shaming and is linked to health and lifestyle. So if you haven’t signed up to “eating clean” then you lead an unhealthy, un-pure lifestyle?? “

Clean eating” and its sister “Eat clean” need to clean up their act!

Where did Eating clean come from?

Once upon a time eating clean would have simply meant washing your fruit and vegetables! Clean eating isn't in a dietitians vocabulary or dictionary so I had to turn to google to help me find a definition:

The soul of eating clean is consuming food the way nature delivered it, or as close to it as possible. It is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation, leading to an improved life” Eat Clean magazine.

“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” – Fitness Magazine

The core principles i.e. regular meals, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, the use of ingredients in season, whole unrefined foods in their natural form etc are in line with many health recommendations (of which there is a wealth of evidence to back these up ). BUT clean eating has taken these overall recommendations and twisted them into a moral bible on eating.. It is a black or white approach to eating. One rule of clean eating I found was “DO NOT eat processed foods” Ever??? Does that mean I can’t eat my wholegrain, gluten-containing, nutrient enriched processed breakfast cereal with calcium rich processed milk?? 

Let’s get one thing straight! Many foods are processed to make them safe to eat, more accessible to us or to improve the availability of nutrients. Think tinned oily fish, breakfast cereals, pasteurized milk. All processed and all healthy!

What’s my beef with clean eating?

There are rules (and rules within rules) when it comes to clean eating which can lead to a nutritionally unbalanced diet and unhealthy fixation on food. It is thought to play a role in the development of Orthorexia, a “fixation with righteous eating”.  Social media is swamped with photos from “clean eaters”, 25,379,175 tags on Instagram (as i write this) with other links to #eatright. Relying on a processed food because you have been working late does not make you wrong! It means you are human, juggling life, work and responsibilities etc and ALL foods have their place in a balanced diet! Adhering to such a strict dietary "code" can cause social isolation,  low mood, anxiety and nutritional deficiencies.

Health bloggers; who have contributed to this rise in “pure eating” by sharing their personal journey with food and health; often have no nutrition or scientific background. All too often whole food groups are missing from their “healthy plate” with (of course) carbohydrates and gluten being the first to go. The universal avoidance of certain food groups is totally unnecessary! Unless you have a diagnosed allergy or intolerance there is NO need to avoid gluten or dairy products. Another rule I found was to “only eat foods with one ingredient” i.e. milk, broccoli, fresh fish… Follow this rule and your diet is going to rapidly become very limited! 

Clean eating also advocates the use of “healthier alternatives”. Agave syrup or honey are still free sugars just like ordinary white sugar (!!!!!) and a pimped up chocolate chai breakfast pot still means you are eating chocolate for breakfast!! AND coconut oil is still high in calories and saturated fat!

The alternative....

Its simple……its boring……….everything in moderation! Take the sensible advice from clean eating and try to cut back on processed foods high in fat, salt and sugar where possible, eat a diet rich in fruit and vegetables, legumes etc. Ignore the expensive alternatives! 

Look at your overall diet and eating patterns – does mood affect what and how much you eat? Are you striking a healthy balance? There should be no moral judgment on eating and all foods can have their place in a healthy balanced diet!

Us dietitians are expertly trained professionals who use our knowledge of science and evidence-based nutrition (still awaiting the evidence for bee pollen on your cereal…….) to help you reach your nutrition goal without compromising your nutritional status or put a hole in your wallet.