Why I No Longer Call Myself A Clean Eater

Whole food may be the key to health, but lately I've seen clean eating spiral out of control. Here's why I no longer call myself a 'clean eater.' 

Almost 3 years ago, when I first started my blog, I wrote a post about which food ingredients and additives to 'avoid like the plague.' At the time, it got a lot of traction. And by traction, I mean 12 people read it instead of the usual 3.

Now, I cringe a little inside when I think about that post. It's not because my photography or writing was awful (it was) or because the science has changed. It's because my views on clean eating have evolved since then, and I worry that for those 12 people, it contributed to the food fear that permeates our society.

Years ago when I first 'discovered' clean eating, it was a revelation. Although the dangers of eating too much processed food and the health benefits of whole food were stressed throughout my education, as a new dietitian working in a hospital, I was much more concerned with things like calorie control for weight loss, saturated fats for heart health and carbohydrate counting for diabetes. Things that also make me cringe a little inside.

When I started learning more about clean eating and began to look back at my education and experience with that filter, paying attention to numbers made less and less sense. I saw that focusing on filling, whole foods and identifying satiety levels was much more effective (and sane) than calorie counting and portion control. I realized limiting glucose-spiking processed foods and filling up with plants protected the body against disease, and didn't require any mathematics. Clean eating changed how I eat personally, and how I practice nutrition, both to great benefit.

Now, before I get into my issues with it, let me just say that I still 100% get behind the basic principles of clean eating. Making most of your diet whole food is the absolute best thing you can do for health. There are dozens of ingredients in the food supply that frankly, should not be allowed. I still evaluate a foods healthfulness based on the ingredients list, not the nutrition facts.

Basically, I believe in the power of whole food, but I don't like what 'clean eating' has become.

Somewhere along the way, clean eating morphed from a balanced way of eating into an almost cultish ideology. Clean eating advocates, like Food Babe, have created an atmosphere where anything with a chemical sounding name is toxic. Where fear of pesticides has made people afraid to eat something as simple as a conventionally grown apple. It's almost impossible to eat anything from a box or can without a well intentioned, but judgmental 'do you even know what's in that?'

Last week, Nigella Lawson, the celebrity chef, started trending when she stated 'people are using clean eating to hide an eating disorder.' She's right. Granted, any type of diet can be used to hide, or can morph into an eating disorder - paleo, vegan, calorie counting, etc. But clean eating has spawned it's own special kind, orthorexia, a severe obsession with avoiding food considered unhealthy, harmful or unclean to the point where it negatively impacts everyday life. I've seen clean eating advocates laugh it off as a creation of the food industry, but it's real. No, not everyone, or even most people, who aim to 'eat clean' have an eating disorder, but for many it becomes a life disrupting obsession. I've had more and more clients suffering the physical effects of an eating disorder - hair loss, fatigue, anemia, weight loss, loss of their period - but they're not obsessed with being thin, just clean.

Although not rare, the transition from clean eating to eating disorder is less common and generally occurs in people already at risk. What concerns me more about clean eating is that it's become just another diet, and along with that, come the physical and mental consequences of dieting - weight fluctuations/regain, low self esteem, stress, chronic disease, fatigue, anxiety...the list goes on. My main issues is the name. Calling food 'clean' implies anything 'unclean' is dirty, shameful and disgusting. Essentially, it sets up a good food/bad food dynamic. Labeling food as 'bad' creates fear. Fear causes you to think about it more, thinking about it more causes you to crave it, craving leads to eating, and eating the 'bad' food leads to feelings of guilt, shame and inadequacy. When you feel guilty, shameful and inadequate, you eat more 'bad' food. Thus the cycle of dieting and bingeing/overeating continues.

The thing about militant clean eating is that it ignores real life. Processed foods have their place at the table. A very small place, but a place nonetheless. No, most processed foods are not nutritious (some are!), but if it takes a little processed food to make a eating mostly whole food realistic, what's the harm? Or what if you just really, really like cheese puffs? Wouldn't it be nice to enjoy them without setting off a guilty spiral of overeating?

Want to 'eat clean' (for lack of a better word) without feeling crazy around food? Remember these points:

  • Stop calling it clean eating. Just stop.
  • Aim to eat more whole, unprocessed foods. They taste great, nourish your body, and will make you feel amazing.
  • Look for a shorter ingredients list when possible, but don't freak out over it. If you're eating mostly whole foods, a little bit of preservative or emulsifier won't be the death of you. 
  • Organic food is great for the environment and limits your exposure to pesticides and herbicides, but if you're eating a diet that includes a wide variety of foods and is centered around (but not exclusively) whole food, your dietary exposure is pretty limited anyway. If you can afford/have access to organics, great, if not, no big deal. 
  • I don't care what's in it, a double-stuff oreo is freaking delicious.

Still feeling overwhelmed? I'd be happy to work with you on finding peace with food and that ever elusive real life balance. Check out my coaching services page or shoot me an email at Rachael@RachaelHartleyNutrition.com to set up a complimentary 15 minute phone consultation.

Now, would love to hear your thoughts. Have you ever tried to 'eat clean?' If so, what was most difficult for you? Was it sustainable, or no?