The Buzz: Clean Eating

What’s the buzz?
Is eating “clean” the golden ticket to health and happiness?

What does the science say?
Search for #cleaneating on Instagram or Twitter and you’ll get several million posts, with the top ones garnering over 10,000 likes. (Not to mention the 60 million results you get with just a quick Internet search.) To say this trend has taken off is an understatement.

But what does eating “clean” really mean? Well, that depends on who you ask; there is no real definition. Some define it as eating a diet based in whole foods with nothing processed or from a package. Others have a long list of off-limit ingredients such as gluten, dairy, sugar, and soy, or necessary qualities such as organic or non-GMO. Some go as far to say that only a raw, vegan diet can be clean.

Followers of the clean eating movement claim that it’s not a “diet” in the traditional sense of the word, as it as there isn’t a prescribed meal plan and it’s not specifically used for weight loss (though many follow it in hopes of shedding a few pounds). Claims of curing health problems you didn’t even know you had, like inflammation, while achieving optimal health is one of the many reasons people jump on the clean eating bandwagon.

Eating to feel your best, improve health, and reduce risk of chronic diseases is an honorable goal. But the clean eating movement, in many ways, has become so extreme (lots of food rules and lists of “good” or “bad” foods with little flexibility) that it can create an unhealthy obsession with eating a specific way. Critics of the trend (and there are many) assert that this obsession with what we put in our bodies is leading to increases in a pattern of disordered eating called orthorexia, or a fixation on healthy (or righteous) eating.

Though eating more whole foods is linked to better health, many of the versions of clean eating may be too strict.  Eliminating entire food groups can lead to nutritional deficiencies and overly limited food choices. It can be socially alienating to follow such a strict set of dietary rules and that can lead to excess stress and guilt, which may be more detrimental than a few less-than-stellar food habits. It’s also well-documented in research about dieting that dieters following an overly restrictive eating plan are likely to eventually binge on foods they aren’t “allowed” to eat.

What’s the takeaway?
The all-or-nothing mentality of clean eating can be a slippery slope. Most Americans can benefit from eating more vegetables and fewer processed foods. But following a balanced diet that is filled with mostly fiber- and nutrient-rich plants (and some fish, dairy, eggs, and meat if you choose to eat those foods) while indulging in the occasional treat continues to be the most healthful option for both your physical and emotional health.

Read more about what dietitians think about clean eating here.