As a student dietitian, you would expect that I jump for joy when someone tells me their new diet is “basically just clean eating”. But in reality, I groan every time I see a smoothie bowl with #cleaneating tagged alongside it.
3 reasons why I hate the term “clean eating”
1. Is the rest of the food dirty?
So if you define “clean eating” as fruit, veg, lean meats, legumes & nuts and wholegrain carbohydrates with some dairy then you’ve described a pretty balanced diet that most nutritionists and dietitians promote. However, you just labelled everything that doesn’t fall into those categories as “unclean” or “dirty”. No food is “clean” or “dirty” – unless of course, you’re literally eating unwashed lettuce or food contaminated with Salmonella. Food is food – some are just better at meeting your body’s needs than others. And it is more than okay to eat some junk food on occasion without this overwhelming sense of guilt and need to “cleanse” this “dirty” food away with super healthy eating or exercising. That is certainly not healthy for your mind!
2. How does it affect those with eating disorders?
“Clean eating” seems to be a term birthed by social media, a place where essentially anyone of any age can access these messages. Young people with a vulnerable sense of self-image are particularly susceptible to these kinds of buzzwords on social media. They can become obsessed with “clean eating” stating their eating habits are simply because they want to be healthy which can quickly turn into an eating disorder. A serious mental illness which can stay with them for their entire lives.
Whilst #cleaneating is getting you some more likes on Insta, consider who’s seeing these messages and how they’re interpreting it. Often it’s easy to think that we as a Western society have the opposite problem with overweight and obesity being a huge issue, surely some “clean eating” messages would do everyone some good? Just consider the other end of the spectrum where this advice can be taken too far or play on the mind of a person with an eating disorder.
3. What does it even mean?!
“Eating clean” can mean something different to everyone. It could mean not eating dairy or lean meats or sources of carbohydrate. Then it’s just like any other fad diet out there, leaving out a food group for some perceived health gain. When it’s well known that each food group provides a unique set of nutrients that our bodies require each day to thrive.
The other side of “clean eating” which I find particularly frustrating, is this idea that eating a salad for lunch but having a high sugar pre-workout drink or zero sugar energy drink before hitting the gym is “clean”. Those concentrated sources of nutrition in the form of a powder or capsule are hardly WHOLE foods which have been declared as a key cancer prevention guideline. It is always best to get your nutrition from food, not supplements as there are many ways nutrients interact within foods that we don’t yet understand, and simply isolating them doesn’t mean it’s better for you.
So, what do I propose instead? I say that we should call eating whole foods what it ACTUALLY is – wholesome eating. Not clean, not dirty just whole foods that nourish our body. And whilst this may be the exact same foods you had when you called it “clean eating”, labels DO matter sometimes. #wholesomeeating