Clean Eating: The good the bad and the ugly

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For a few years now, everybody has been talking about ‘eating clean’, but what exactly is ‘clean eating’? A ‘clean’ diet is essentially an unprocessed food diet, which only includes wholefoods (‘pure foods’) bought in their natural form. Therefore the diet also advises the exclusion of processed sugar. There appears to be variations of the diet, which can recommend excluding other food groups/ components in foods such as; gluten, grains and dairy products. This diet can therefore range from simply trying to have a more wholefood diet to being very restrictive.

The concept of ‘clean eating’ has some positive health messages such as; increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables, encouraging home cooking and whole-grains. Therefore, on the surface the diet appears ‘healthy’ with its followers posting photos of sweet potato toast topped with guacamole or homemade granola and coconut yoghurt for breakfast. However, one of my concerns with ‘clean eating’ is the insinuation of certain foods or food groups being ‘dirty’ as I believe this can encourage unhealthy food beliefs to develop. Insinuating a food as dirty almost installs a fear of the consequences of eating this without scientifically justified health risks. This fear can develop into a condition called ‘orthorexia’, which is a type of eating disorder where its sufferers become preoccupied with eating only ‘pure’ or healthy food. This typically results in restrictive eating due to the exclusion of certain food groups.

Whilst some variations of the diet do not promote the exclusion of certain foods/ food groups, those doing so are putting themselves at risk of nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin D and iron. All food groups should be enjoyed in moderation, unless there is a medical or ethical reason for excluding these (and why live without bread if you don’t need too!).

In my opinion, ‘clean eating’ seems to be another example of evidence based nutrition taken out of context. Why do I think this? Yes, generally processed foods tend to be unhealthier options for example, ready made sauces generally contain more salt than homemade ones, processed sugar in cakes and biscuits do not have any nutritional value and processed meats often contain higher amounts of saturated fats. However, the evidence-based recommendation was to include these foods in MODERATION, a key word that seems to have omitted and resulted in a fad diet. Moderation is important for a number of reasons but the main reasons from my perspective are:

  1. You should neither live to eat nor, eat to live. Finding that balance is crucial.
  2. Overly restricting can lead to the development of unhealthy habits and relationships with foods such as bingeing and restricting
  3. The removal of certain food groups from your diet increases your risk of nutritional deficiencies if steps are not taken to adequately replace these with alternative fortified sources. This is an unnecessary affliction unless there is a medical or ethical reason for excluding certain food groups.

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