It’s a divisive term in the world of nutrition, but what is clean eating? In this article, we’ll try to give a balanced view of clean eating and our stance on it here at Erbology.April 28, 2022 5:22 pm August 10, 2021 3:31 pm
What is clean eating?
The term ‘clean eating’ means different things to different people, which is perhaps why it produces such a range of emotions in us. Are you a ‘clean eating’ fan, or do you detest the term? It’s quite possible that there’ll be members of both camps reading this article.
At its heart, clean eating encourages you to eat whole, unprocessed foods and avoid processed ones. The idea is that these foods are ‘clean’ of the unhealthy ingredients common in processed foods.
Again, there are different ideas around this. However, common examples might be high levels of sugar, fat, salt or artificial ingredients such as preservatives.
But depending on your interpretation, there can be much more to clean eating than that.
To some people, clean eating means cutting out whole food groups, completely avoiding sugar, or adopting a lifestyle which focuses on healthy eating – even to the point of doing more harm than good.
Where does it come from?
It’s tricky to say exactly when clean eating entered the zeitgeist, but it seems to be around the early 2000s. Even then, there we radically different interpretations of the term.
The Guardian pinpoints a Canadian model called Tosca Reno as the first to celebrate clean eating in her 2007 cookbook. In it, she explained how she had lost weight by eating home-cooked meals, plenty of vegetables, and avoiding processed foods such as white flour and sugar.(1)
Yet by 2009, a Uruguayan cardiologist named Alejandro Junger was giving dramatically different advice. In his book, he told people that they should remove all ‘toxic tigger’ foods from their diet in order to reach peak health.(1)
This included completely eliminating caffeine, dairy, eggs, sugar, wheat and vegetables such as tomatoes and aubergines.
Later on, in the 2010s, many bloggers, chefs and influencers latched onto the term as its popularity began to skyrocket.
The great debate
Whether you believe clean eating is a good or bad thing will depend on how you interpret the term.
There is overwhelming scientific evidence that most of us should be eating more whole grains, fruits and vegetables. In fact, that’s just about the only area of nutrition where there is consensus!(2)
Similarly, there is plenty of evidence that eating a lot of processed foods can increase your risk of diseases.(2)
For some people, eating more wholegrain foods, fruit and vegetables and avoiding processed food qualifies as clean eating.
However, for many of us ‘clean eating’ refers not just to simple dietary advice like the above. Instead it has come to signify an entire lifestyle which depends on only eating foods which are deemed ‘pure’ or ‘clean’.
It is often unclear exactly what makes a food ‘clean’, or why other foods are excluded from diets of this type.
The controversies around clean eating
In the late 2010s, there was a boom in clean eating. Countless books were published, Youtube channels created, and Instagram accounts taken over with images of beautiful, nutritionally-balanced meals.
Yet soon after, there was a backlash.
One of the main complaints against the clean eating trend is that it was mainly lead by non-experts. For example, many of the influencers creating beautiful imagery and ‘clean’ recipes didn’t actually have much experience in nutrition and diet.(3)
This lead some people to question whether they could really trust what these influencers were saying. In fact, in 2017 the British Dietetic Association called ‘clean eating’ their ‘number one worst celebrity diet to avoid’.(4)
Is clean eating actually unhealthy?
Others, including the British food writer Ruby Tandoh, saw clean eating as a gateway to dangerous eating patterns.(5)
An article published in a scientific journal called Nutrients looked at 45 food blogs dedicated to clean eating displayed ‘widespread promotion of attitudes and behaviours associated with dietary restraint’.
The article explains that ‘dietary restraint’ means an ‘obsessive effort to restrict and control calorie intake and food choices’.
The authors noted that some of these blogs encouraged their readers to eliminate whole food groups such as grains. The scientists stated that this was not in line with evidence-based nutrition guidelines and might increase the long-term risk of chronic disease.(1)
"One of the main complaints against the clean eating trend is that it was mainly lead by non-experts. Many of the influencers didn’t actually have much experience in nutrition and diet."
Clean eating, privilege and thinness
Another part of the backlash around clean eating centred around the idea that many of the influencers and chefs involved in it were thin, beautiful white women.
In essence, they were selling a lifestyle. Suddenly, eating salad for dinner wasn’t a chore; it was profoundly aspirational. By eating the right things, one was putting the work in to get the same flawless, glowing skin, silky hair and tiny waistline as the influencer herself.
Some people questioned if this wasn’t just a repackaging of the age-old pressure on women to be as thin as possible. This is especially important due to the implication that foods which are not deemed ‘clean’ are in some way shameful or ‘bad’.
Meanwhile, others began to think that clean eating was only open to people who looked a certain way and had a certain amount of money.
As we know, privilege and wealth do play a role not just in clean eating, but in healthy eating in general. A study in 2009 found that around 15% of the UK population could not always afford the foods they wanted to eat. These people tended to have worse dietary habits and greater risk of poor health outcomes than the general population.(6)
Clean eating, which often promoted foods only available in specialist health food shops, was simply a more extreme example of this.
So, what are the positives?
While it is certainly problematic, the clean eating phenomenon has a positive side as well.
To provide context, let’s look at the average diet of people in Western countries. It won’t surprise you to hear that it’s not that great!
The Western diet is characterized by a high proportion of processed foods, sugar, salt, and saturated fat.(7) Scientists have linked the Western diet to an increased risk of obesity and ‘civilisation diseases’ such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke.(8)
Put in that light, encouraging people to eat less processed food and replace it with whole grains, fruit and vegetables seems like quite a good idea.
Clean eating recipes, books and videos can offer inspiration as to how to include more healthy foods in your diet. They can also teach you how to use healthy ingredients that you’re not familiar with, such as some of the more unusual grains (millet, amaranth and farro, we’re looking at you).
The main issue here is whether you take inspiration from parts of clean eating, or whether you adopt it as a full-time lifestyle. The former is probably more likely to lead to healthier outcomes, while the latter can cause problems for your long-term wellbeing.
Clean eating has changed consumer demand
Another positive effect from the trend for healthier eating is the consumer demand for products which do not contain chemical ‘nasties’. This has put pressure on the food industry to change its ways.
A report from the Centre for Science in the Public Interest found that some manufacturers had responded to public demand by removing certain artificial ingredients, such as the sweetener aspartame, from their products.(9)
That said, there’s still a long way to go. The report notes that there were still other ingredients in the same products which they would consider unhealthy.
However, it is evidence that consumers can influence the food industry by ‘voting with their wallets’, and putting pressure on manufacturers to produce better quality food.
Clean eating itself was born out of a consumer demand for healthier alternatives to the food that was readily available. Better education around nutrition and a greater interest in healthy options means that healthier food is gradually becoming more accessible to all of us.
It opened the playing field for people with genuine food intolerances
Clean eating often promotes eliminating foods such as dairy or gluten from your diet.
There isn’t any scientific evidence that this could be beneficial to your health unless you have an allergy or intolerance to these foods.
However, the sudden upsurge of interest in ‘free from’ foods has undoubtedly helped raise awareness of real food intolerances, such as gluten and lactose intolerances, or celiac disease.
Because of the swell in demand, it has become much more common to see ‘free from’ foods catering to allergies and intolerances in supermarkets and food shops.
It also encouraged food producers to be more inclusive when creating their products, making shopping and eating easier for those with dietary sensitivities.
What’s the Erbology take on clean eating?
At Erbology, we believe that most of us living in Western countries could benefit from eating fewer processed foods and more organic whole foods, such as whole grains, vegetables and fruit. This is based on nutritional guidance supported by nutritionists and scientists.(2)(8)(10)
However, that’s a slightly different message from what many of us have come to understand by the term ‘clean eating’.
While there are some positive things to take away from it, there are also negatives. This is particularly true if you look at clean eating as an all-encompassing lifestyle choice, cutting out whole food groups without consulting a doctor or nutritionist and feeling upset with yourself if you ‘fall off the wagon’.
We believe that food should be a source of joy, fun and exploration; it should work hard to care for your body and provide the energy and nutrients you need to live well.
As such, any diet which makes you feel bad about eating, or isn’t available to everyone, doesn’t sit well with us.
Clean eating, we think, should be left in the late 2010s. Instead, let’s focus on eating natural foods that nurture our body and mind.
At the end of the day, our motto is ‘food to make you feel good’.
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