Cooking Tips · Techniques

Clean Eating – Good or Bad?

A phrase we have all probably heard over the past few years is Clean Eating. Is it just a catch phrase, a trendy talking point or is there more to it than that? That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Since the term “clean eating” is not a regulated term, there is no one definition for it. Food manufacturers can put that label on their food products but, without an agreed-upon definition, it is pretty meaningless. Also, it can mean different things to different people.

At its most basic, clean eating is healthy eating. If you had to compare it to something that the consumer is more likely to understand, it is very similar to the Mediterranean way of eating.

It generally means a type of eating that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy proteins and healthy fats. It also means limiting refined grains, preservatives, unhealthy fats and excessive added sugar and salt. Earlier this year, I wrote a series of Cooking Tips on just this subject of cooking and eating healthy. Rather than repeat all of that in this Tip, see these prior Tips for more information.

Some Clean Eating advocates will emphasize other requirements such as:

  • Only eating organic produce. For some of the pros/cons of buying organic, see next week’s Cooking Tip.
  • Gluten Free
  • Dairy Free
  • Some will also include the environment in the list of items to consider.

Although trying to eat healthier and trying to incorporate Mediterranean eating principles is a good thing, there are cautions to be made if this “Clean Eating” is taken to an extreme. Some clean eating recommendations can be so restrictive that the intake of essential nutrients suffers.

There is even an eating disorder termed Orthorexia Nervosa (ON) that has been defined as “an obsession with proper or healthful eating”. It has not been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) as an actual disorder but is being recognized more and more.

Currently, there is no universally shared definition of ON. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, some warning signs and symptoms are:

  • Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels
  • An increase in concern about the health of ingredients
  • Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)
  • An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed “healthy” or “pure”
  • Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating
  • Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events
  • Showing high levels of distress when “safe” or “healthy” foods aren’t available
  • Obsessive following of food and healthy lifestyle blogs on social media
  • Body image concerns may or may not be present

This can lead to distress, anxiety, or obsessive-compulsiveness. According to Rachel Hartley Nutrition,

“Clean eating creates guilt and shame around food by creating hierarchies – clean, good foods vs. dirty, unhealthy bad foods. This binary approach is nutritionally inaccurate. While certainly there are foods that contain more nutrients than others, what makes a food a “healthier” choice is much more nuanced than vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Convenience, social and cultural connection, as well as other situational and individual factors all play roles that are just as important. Even if nutrition was as simple as good vs. bad foods, labeling food in such a way doesn’t actually help you eat those foods in a healthy way. Labelling food as good and bad fuels disordered eating behaviors, especially the restrict-binge cycle. In other words, thinking of a food as bad doesn’t necessarily mean you would be eating less of it, just that you would be eating it more chaotically.”

Clean eating is also very isolating as it makes it very difficult to socialize with friends/family if any sort of meal is involved. This, in itself, can be damaging to a person’s overall health.

As with so many things in life, Clean Eating is not all good nor all bad. If it helps you to get on the path to healthy eating, that is a good thing. If taken to the extreme, it can be dangerous. Let’s all make this year one of enjoying food in a healthy manner, which can greatly enhance our lives.

Image by S K from Pixabay