Clean eating is a diet concept where a person avoids refined and processed foods and those that have artificial ingredients, such as certain preservatives and additives. Instead, the goal is to eat whole, natural foods.
Just as there are varying levels of vegetarianism, such as veganism, lacto-vegetarianism, and lacto-ovo-vegetarianism, a person who eats a clean diet may have different ideas on what foods a clean diet should contain.
For example, some people on a clean diet may refuse to eat foods that have been treated with hormones, antibiotics, and pesticides, while another person may choose not to eat foods packaged in boxes or jars.
Magazines and books on clean eating often promise that a clean diet will help a person enjoy many health benefits. These can include heightened energy, glowing skin, and weight loss.
However, according to an article in the British Medical Journal, many of the claims regarding clean eating are a “loose interpretation of facts.” While clean eating can help a person feel physically better, so can less-restrictive dietary approaches.
Clean eating is undoubtedly one way but not the only way to achieve better health.
However, most people who eat a clean diet are attempting to eat a healthful diet without artificial additives. Taking a clean approach to food can be beneficial because a person is making healthful choices and eating foods that contain few preservatives and added sugars and salt.
However, there is also another far less healthful side to clean eating where a person may become so obsessed with what they are or are not eating that they miss out on a variety of healthful foods.
Fact: Just because a person eats clean does not mean they are taking the best approach for their health.
Some people can develop an obsession with finding the cleanest foods or with what they put into their bodies to the point where they mentally or physically punish themselves if they eat something they do not believe is clean. Some medical experts call this fixation orthorexia nervosa, which translates to “fixation on righteous eating.” According to an article in the journal Social Science & Medicine, many clean eating diets fall “under the banner of orthorexia.”
While people with orthorexia nervosa may be eating healthful foods, their fixation on the foods is unhealthful. Some people may start to isolate themselves from others because they are so focused on their diet and fear criticism from those who do not follow one.
The guilt a person feels and the time they put into a clean diet can cause them harm. If a person adopts an unhealthful attitude toward eating, they should see their doctor. Most treatments focus on cognitive-behavioral approaches where a person learns to recognize their obsessive thoughts.
Fact: Just because foods have additives does not mean they are unhealthful.
Some people on a clean eating diet may refuse to eat any foods that contain additives because they believe the food is not in its purest, natural state. However, there are some beneficial food additives.
Examples include vitamin D that can be added to milk to enhance bones or iron to orange juice. While these foods may not be pure in the literal sense, they can help a person achieve their daily nutritional needs.
However, some additives are not beneficial and could be described as dirty. An example is trans fats, which are added to foods to extend their shelf life. Trans fats are thought to increase a person’s cholesterol levels significantly, which can result in problems with heart health.
This is an example where making cleaner choices and avoiding trans fats can be beneficial.
Fact: A person can eat healthful foods without having to call them clean foods.
Clean eating is a movement that signifies a person is trying to make wiser choices about the foods they eat. However, a clean diet is not the same thing as a healthful diet. Many recommendations for a healthful diet do not limit foods that are prepared or packaged.
According to Harvard University, a healthy eating plate contains the following:
- A variety of colorful fruits and veggies that are not fried, such as french fries.
- Healthy oils, such as olive and sunflower oils, but not saturated fat and hydrogenated oils, which contain trans fats.
- Whole-grain breads, pasta, and brown rice, but not refined grains, such as white rice or bread.
- Protein sources, such as fish, poultry, nuts, and beans, but not processed meats, such as bacon and sausage.
- Drinking water, tea, and coffee with little or no sugar added. Limiting daily servings of milk or juice and avoiding sugar-added drinks entirely.
In short, a healthful diet does not have to be as restrictive as a clean one can be. This does not mean a person eating a clean diet is doing something bad for their health. What is important, however, is that the person has a healthy attitude toward foods. It is essential that people do not feel guilty if they have the occasional food that may not fall in the clean category.
Because there are so many approaches to clean eating, no specific research study exists regarding whether a clean diet is better than any other healthful eating approach. However, many of the more worrying myths around clean eating center on the mindset behind it, not the approach.
Excessive worry and focus on finding the cleanest foods can take the enjoyment out of eating and put incredible stress on a person when they eat.
Focusing instead on fresh, flavorful eating that is primarily comprised of whole foods, but not overly restrictive is more likely to provide the long-term results a person is hoping to achieve.