I am over the moon that more and more people are focusing on choosing lots of whole and minimally processed foods. I love that people are reading ingredient lists, cooking more from scratch, and thinking about where their food comes from.
“Clean eating” has become a sort of shorthand for this way of life.
Yet the more I hear it, there’s something about the term–“clean eating”–that bothers me. Three things, actually:
1. It can imply that some foods are “dirty”
If whole wheat flour is a “clean” ingredient, is homemade bread made with all-purpose flour unclean? I’m especially concerned about using these confusing terms with children, who are prone to take things quite literally. Will your child worry that the canned beans at Grandma’s are filthy? Will your kid tell his classmate that his Lunchable is dirty?
2. It gives a “health halo” to foods
The label “clean” is now placed on all kinds of foods beyond oats and organic apples. On Pinterest, you’ll find Clean Eating Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Bites and Clean Eating Peanut Butter Fudge.
I worry that the “clean eating” label is giving these goodies a health halo, making people think they are wholesome foods you should eat all the time when they’re actually still…cookie dough and fudge (read: The Trap of Clean Eating Treats).
Cutting back on ALL sources of added sugar is important, and swapping honey and maple syrup for white sugar in a recipe doesn’t mean the cookies are now on par with vegetables. Honey and maple syrup are still sources of added sugar.
3. It makes a moral judgment on eating
“Clean” is good, pure, virtuous. The opposite? Bad, impure, and wicked.
I always encourage people to think about how food makes them feel physically (read My Number One Trick For Eating Right). But connecting eating to self-judgment can have a negative impact on your relationship to food, especially when you start thinking “I was bad because I ate this” or “I was good because I had that”.
If you’re strictly following a clean eating lifestyle, what happens when you eat something that doesn’t meet the definition of clean? Will you feel guilty and consider it “cheating”?
Choosing mostly whole and minimally processed foods IS the smart way to go and plenty of people follow “clean eating” in a sensible and reasonable way.
But as with anything, it can also be taken to extremes and turned into a competitive sport.
I’ve seen lists of clean eating rules that advise against eating “anything from a box, can, package, or bag” or the even more challenging “eat only foods with one thing on the ingredient list”.
Eating shouldn’t come with a set of rigid, hard-to-follow rules. In some circles, those beautiful red raspberries in the photo wouldn’t meet the definition of “clean” because they’re not organic.
There’s even a concern that an obsession with clean eating can spiral into an eating disorder for some people. I shared this article “When Does ‘Eating Clean’ Become An Eating Disorder?” on my Real Mom Nutrition Facebook page recently and it resonated with many of you–check out the conversation.