The dirty truth about “clean eating”

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!

Image: Good House Keeping

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.

Image: Fabletics

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


8 Comments Add yours

  1. avofoodies says:

    Hi Stefanie! I’m Stephanie (almost name twins! haha) , a newbie on your blog but I can tell already that I’m going to love your blog! This post is SO SO powerful. As someone who is recovering after losing 20+ pounds in 3 months, the word “clean eating” does strike a bad chord in me. I lost weight tracking 1,200 calories a day in MyFitnessPal and while some people around me were concerned about me, I told them that I was simply eating “clean.” However, while I was eating high quality/nutritious foods (I like to say that instead of clean eating), I wasn’t eat enough of these foods. And now recovering and trying to rethink my attitude on food, it’s hard to eat that cake or that cookie if people keep on labelling it as “dirty food.” I’m already taking a huge leap of faith by eating that cake but now that you label it as dirty, what am I supposed to do? So all in all, thank you for this post, Stefanie. I look forward reading more of your blog posts! xo, Stephanie

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Stefanie says:

    Hi Stephanie, Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’m so glad you found this post helpful for you. Wishing you all the best in your journey to achieving food “neutrality” once and for all. Stef


  3. nina says:

    Hey Stephanie, funny I should come across your blog today as I have just written about this, what is it? Do I understand it?
    I think I do quite well in the term that people call ‘clean eating’ in the morning with fresh fruits and oats or pancakes made with just eggs or egg whites with a banana, but the I struggle with the whole concept if I’m honest….. I work out hard and am trying to get the inside of my body to reflect this, so your blog intrests me a lot, I have a healthy diet but like my teachers always said ‘could do better’ ha ha……
    I will watch your blog with intrest 😀


    1. Stefanie says:

      Hi Nina, Thanks for your comment. I think what I was trying to get at that we should abandon this idea of clean eating and avoid food labelling as it cultivates food fears. Food is food. Yes there are choices that nourish your body more than others, and it’s okay not always be “perfect”. Lifestyle choices aren’t about being “perfect” it’s about maintaining good physical health without sacrificing your mental health (i.e. labelling other food that is not “clean” as “dirty” can lead to food fears and in some cases forms of eating disorders for some people).
      Hope this makes sense for you?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Stefanie! I recently came across this post, and I absolutely love it. I love how you took such a risk with this, debunking such a commonly used term… I’m sure this wasn’t an easy post to write, but you really pulled it off. I am a dietetics and journalism double major, and I’ve never thought about the negative connotations the words “clean eating” can conjure, and I appreciate you brining this to my attention. I will be more careful when using this term in the future. I have used the expression several times on my blog with the intention for it to mean wholesome, natural, minimally processed foods, but you are right in the sense that it can be a harmful to throw around, especially for those with/recovering from disordered eating. Like you said, food is food, and thus nourishment. No food is completely good or bad, and therefore nothing truly deserves the label “dirty” or even “clean,” because what does that even mean?
    Feel free to check out my blog where I post healthy recipes and tips for eating healthfully as a college student.

    In health,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stefanie says:

      Hi Dena,

      Thanks for the comment! I’m so glad you’re open minded and can reflect on your own use of the term, in light of my blog post. I hope that we can continue to neutralize the connotations around food when writing as student dietitians. Keen to check out your blog.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks! Best of luck with your studies, and I’m excited to read future posts!

        Liked by 1 person

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