The term “clean eating” has been in vogue for years now. But what does it even mean? There’s the running joke that, “oh, I’ll just spray this pizza with Windex; then it’s clean!” But honestly, that’s probably less ridiculous than calling certain foods clean, and others are dirty. Clean is a subjective term, depending on who you ask. Here are a few examples of how different groups define the word:
- Paleo: Only “caveman” food. Nuts, meat, berries, vegetables, etc.
- Vegetarian: no meat
- Vegan: no meat, eggs, dairy
- Holistics: no processed food
Based off these examples, clean food is vastly different to each group. But the problems with “clean eating” are more than semantic. Let’s move onto the more sinister aspects of this nutritional misconception.
Missing Elements of Nutrition
Let’s take look at the staples in many fitness enthusiasts’ diets: chicken, rice, broccoli, oatmeal, eggs, nuts, fish, olive oil, etc. For many, things such as fruit, dairy, and bread are a no-go. What’s unfortunate about the exclusion of certain food groups is the lack of variety, which creates a lack of essential nutrients. A wide, varied diet allows for the diversity of vitamins and minerals necessary to keep your body healthy.
Another issue that can develop from a severely limited diet is the potential for too much or too little fiber. Since some “clean eaters” don’t track what they eat, it’s entirely possible to be out of a reasonable fiber range. There are negative effects associated with both too much and too little. Too much fiber can lead to cramping, diarrhea, constipation, gas, and malabsorption. The issue with malabsorption is that fiber binds to nutrients. With the influx of too much fiber, this raises the potential to pull essential nutrients out of the body and not allow for absorption. The issue with too little fiber is the potential for constipation, weight gain, and blood sugar fluctuations. Both extremes are clearly not optimal for a healthy body. A basic formula to follow is about .2g of fiber per pound of bodyweight.
The Mind Games of Clean Eating
One of the most damning aspects of “clean eating” is the negative mental effect. It’s very easy to fall into an all-or-nothing mindset. While eating healthy, nutritious food is important, the question of mental balance comes into play.
Have you seen those women at the gym marching in place in between their sets? I have. It’s obsessive and strange; trying to burn as many extra calories as possible. Being “healthy” is such a relative term. Some people try so hard to be healthy, they in turn become extremely unhealthy in their actions and obsessive mannerisms. Healthy is a term used for physical health, but just as important (perhaps even more so) is mental health. Clean eating is becoming a disorder in itself. You can call it health and wellness all you want, but when taken to extremes, it actually is a disorder.
There’s even a new term for it within the health industry these days; orthorexia. This disorder revolves around the concept of eating only “pure” or “clean” foods. This can become problematic because of the obsessive, addictive components. The individual may avoid any foods thought to be dirty, easily become extremely anxious about food, and even cancel plans with family and friends, due to being unable to control the food being consumed. Obviously, the severity of disordered thinking can vary, but it can become all-consuming; especially for females.
Another tough reality of strict “clean eating” is that in the long run, for most, it is not sustainable. As humans, as much as we’d like to think we have unfailing willpower, we do not. Cookies, chips, pasta—it’s all delicious. When using an all-or-nothing approach, odds are, instead of floating somewhere in a happy middle ground, the pendulum swings from one extreme to the next. Absolute clean, pure eating; over to full-blown binge eating. This binge eating is usually dished up with a side of shame and guilt. Not a great way to live.
Clean Eating Your Way Into a Disorder
Here’s a scenario I have seen quite often in the fitness community:
A woman discovers physique competitions, and wants to prove to herself that she can put on a swimsuit, get on-stage, and strut her stuff, showing off her hard work to the world! But where to begin? An online coach suggests she cut out gluten, dairy, sugar, and fruit. She is allowed to treat herself to one cheat meal a week. The aspiring competitor restrains herself all week; avoiding plans with friends, bringing her Tupperware everywhere she goes, scouring food labels to ensure there’s no sugar or gluten contaminating her “clean” food plan. But once Saturday hits, it’s time to give in to her cravings. She orders an appetizer, followed by an entrée, and of course, dessert, fitting as many treats into her meal as possible. Before you know it, she’s consumed 3,350 calories for dinner (total taken from a popular chain restaurant).
Fast forward to after her show. The competitor has successfully made it to the stage! Now what? Post-show blues settle in, and there’s no goal on the horizon. Inevitably, abstaining from treats becomes difficult, and the competitor starts to give in, binging on chips and pizza, and afterward, feeling horrible shame and guilt. Plus, after this intense dieting phase, these massive binges lead to unwanted weight gain, which send the competitor into another diet phase through “clean eating.” Thus starts the yo-yo of dieting, binging and an unhealthy relationship with food. I’ve seen it happen far too often.
There’s a Better Way
Here’s another scenario:
A new competitor decides to hit the stage. They hire a coach who follows flexible dieting principles and macro counting. They manage to fit a treat in here and there throughout the week, and maybe even a little more on a weekly refeed day. No restrictions, no binging. The competitor can go out with family and friends, ordering mindfully from the menu.
Fast forward to post-show. The competitor increases calories, while still enjoying the food she loves. No need to binge, no need to feel shame. There’s no massive weight gain, and no pit of shame she needs to climb out of.
Obviously, these scenarios can vary from one extreme to the other. But it’s definitely a reality. Looking at each scenario, it’s pretty obvious which competitor had an overall healthier experience. For some, yes, it’s possible to eat only nutritious, healthy foods while avoiding excessive sugar, salt, etc. But for the majority of individuals, it makes much more sense both mentally and physically to follow a mostly healthy, widely varied, nutrient-dense diet, peppered with a treat here and there.