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The Problem With Clean Eating

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The Problem With Clean Eating

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Recently, I created a reel for @blogilatesdotcom about things that we’re told are normal or healthy but are actually highly influenced by diet culture. The list included things like using smaller clothes as motivation, crash dieting for events, detoxing and… clean eating.

ICYMI, it was also my debut into the world of dancing on social media and it was just as cringe as it was entertaining.

Anyways, that video sparked quite a bit of conversation in the comments about clean eating.

I’m not trying to put anyone who commented on blast – I actually welcome these questions and conversations (as long as everyone is kind, respectful and open to learning).

I wanted to put all of my thoughts about the problem with clean eating in one place, with sources and data to back those thoughts up. I’m not one to get on my RD high horse and yell at people to listen to me just because I have a million years of education (at least it felt like a million) and some letters behind my name. Sources are everything. So here we go.

What is ‘clean eating?’

There’s no official definition for clean eating. That’s part of the problem.

Generally, the goal is to eat whole foods (ideally organic and in season), and to limit processed foods, added sugar, salt, and certain types of fat. Clean eating guides typically recommend looking for short ingredient lists and avoiding certain ingredients altogether (like preservatives).

We can all agree that this looks great on the surface, right? Eat the most nutritious food, and avoid the processed foods, chemicals, and sugar. Logically, this seems ideal.

There was a time when I believed this too. In college, I shared the clean eating Pinterest graphics like that one about being fast, cheap, easy, or fake, and saved boards of clean eating recipes. But looking back, the diet culture written between the lines is so obvious. So let’s dig deeper.

Clean eating labels foods as “good” and “bad”

Who’s deciding which foods are “clean” vs. which ones are…”dirty?”

And before you tell me this isn’t a problem because some foods are healthier than others, the fact is that it’s just not that black and white. Food isn’t good and bad, healthy and unhealthy. There’s a lot more to our food choices than nutrition content. Food is also cultural, social, and emotional. Things like convenience and cost matter.

Labeling ignores these factors and puts unnecessary shame on food AND the people who eat the “bad” food.

Healthy or diet culture?

There is no “official” definition to diet culture, but if you search through articles written by dietitians and other health professionals, they all say something similar. Diet culture:

1. Values body size and appearance over physical and psychological health2. Encourages food rules3. Normalizes labeling food as good or bad

A survey of 118 participants from 5 different countries was conducted to better understand the term “diet culture,” and guess what? The theme was the same. It found that most participants identified diet culture as a moral hierarchy on bodies and food, social pressures about food, and guilt around eating certain foods.

Clean eating has become another diet.

I said it. Don’t come for me.

As you get further into clean eating (and that isn’t hard to do, thanks to countless unqualified wellness accounts pushing bad advice), the rules become more strict. The message also becomes more about guilt and shame.

“Eat clean and only buy foods with ingredients you can pronounce. Oh, and btw sugar will kill you, oils will kill you, and chemicals will kill you. High fructose corn syrup? Go ahead and dig yourself a grave. While we’re at it, gluten is bad and so is artificial sugar.”

Cue the picture of perfect abs to accompany these claims, even though clean eating supposedly “isn’t about weight.”

Is it always that extreme? Of course not. The point is that on the surface, clean eating seems to be about health. But thanks to the rules, guilt, and fear used to “motivate” someone to eat clean, it’s easy to fall into something that isn’t healthy at all.

Clean eating and disordered eating

Re: the Instagram comment above: “as long as it’s not obsessively strict.”

We could say that about a lot of diets, right? It’s not just my opinion that the trend to ‘eat clean’ IS often strict and DOES often lead to disordered eating habits. There are resources all over the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website, including this fact sheet discussing exactly that.

Although clean eating isn’t recognized as a DSM-5 diagnosis (AKA an official eating disorder), NEDA is clear about the restrictive nature of clean eating and it’s progression to orthorexia – a fixation on “clean” eating.

Here’s what orthorexia looks like:

– Cutting out food groups– Compulsively checking food labels– Fixation and/or fear of certain ingredients– Refusing to eat anything not deemed as “clean” or “healthy”– Stress when accepted foods aren’t available– Obsession with what others are eating– Avoiding social situations based on food options

This isn’t healthy, no matter how clean your diet is. It takes a toll on your mental health and over time, could lead to malnutrition.

Another common experience with clean eating is developing a binge eating habit, where someone will eat “clean” most of the time, and then give into cravings and binge on “bad” foods.

Now let’s consider the constant exposure of clean eating rhetoric to pre-teens and teens on social media.

If it weren’t for social media, would clean eating even be trendy? It’s concerning for this age group, because they’re already so vulnerable to body image issues and dieting.

Should we have rules around food?

I thought this comment was so interesting because of course we’re all familiar with food rules, like:

– Control your portions– Limit sugar– Don’t give into cravings– Don’t drink your calories– Avoid processed foods

I’ll admit I’ve counseled people to follow every one of these at some point in my career as an RD (in my hospital days). But are rules and control really the answer? DO we need to be following these rules to be healthy?

We can’t ignore what these rules do to our relationship with food, and how THAT affects our health in the long run. After years of learning and experience seeing how this plays out firsthand, I say there’s a better way.

Let’s focus on nourishment instead

Should we be mindful about what we eat? Absolutely. But studies have shown again and again that restriction does more harm than good.

Let’s flip the script and focus on how we can add nutrition to our diet, instead of restricting what we “shouldn’t” be eating. Add greens to your sandwich. Toss some hemp seeds and berries on your waffles. Snack on a few almonds with your favorite chocolate. Load that taco with veggies, avocado AND cheese if that’s what you love.

Not only is it a lot more fun to be creative with food this way, but you’ll discover that you can eat healthy without being at war with yourself.

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