I’m going to be completely upfront here: I have no clear idea what ‘clean eating’ means. I think that’s at least partly because it means different things to different people. But mostly, I think it’s because, objectively, it doesn’t actually mean anything at all.
To the uninitiated (i.e. me), ‘clean eating’ smacks a bit of elitism. Why? Well, what springs to mind when you think ‘clean’? Words like ‘pure’; ‘virtuous’; ‘natural’? All nice words, but perhaps there’s a hint of judgment, too; an implication that whatever isn’t ‘clean’ is ‘unclean’; as in ‘dirty’; ‘contaminated’; ‘bad’.
This adds, potentially, a layer of morality and even religiosity to the notion of clean eating: just as some religions prohibit the consumption of various foods as ‘unclean’, so clean eating rejects foods which don’t fit under the ‘clean’ rubric. Take it another step, and you associate people who eat clean with goodness and purity, and people who don’t with contamination and sinfulness.
That’s one powerful little word. Thank you, English language, for your sophisticated nuances and your contextual entanglements.
However you wish to define clean eating, I’m not a devotee. I’m not generally faddish, and I’m deeply suspicious of diet and lifestyle advice emanating from people on social media with no relevant experience or qualifications. I like to keep things simple, so I find Michael Pollan’s advice from his book Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, eminently sensible:
Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.
Of course, things get a little tricky when it comes to working out what constitutes ‘food’, and a short way down that road Michael Pollan and I part ways – not least because Pollan’s perspective, though thought-provoking, is that of journalist and an observer, rather than of a scientist or researcher with pertinent expertise. But the basic proposition holds: eat fresh food in moderate amounts, and don’t skimp on the vegetables.
So why am I interested in understanding clean eating? Basically, because I have friends whose passion for clean eating verges on obsession, and I’m at a loss to explain it. I mostly avoid eating with them, as I’m less likely to become entangled in a dscussion about their food philosophy if eating is not part of our interaction, but it’s not always possible, and occasionally I find myself trapped.
I’ve asked how they know a food is ‘clean’, and received in response a sigh, followed by a lecture on how it’s ‘clean eating’ not ‘clean food’. It’s a lifestyle, not a diet.
All right, then. Next question. What does ‘clean eating’ mean?
Ah. It’s about being healthy and happy (and also hot); it’s being aware of what you’re putting in your body; it’s focusing on wellness and supporting your body’s natural healing processes; it’s about improving your life.
So far, so vague.
The core of it seems to be about unprocessed food. As basic dietary advice goes, I don’t see anything revolutionary about that, provided you don’t get too fancy about what constitutes ‘unprocessed’. Sure, excessive amounts of white flour, white sugar and highly salted cured meats are not good for you. I don’t think that’s controversial in any way. But some processes are essential. Cooking is a process, and is frequently necessary to make the nutrients in our food more bio-available. Coconut oil manufacture is a process. Vanilla extraction is a process. Freezing and canning are processes which preserve food for times when fresh food is scarce. Where does clean eating draw the line?
The answer (you guessed it) is that it depends. One friend thinks clean eating means avoiding ‘chemicals’ and anything ‘artificial’, as well as excluding gluten and dairy (she’s neither coeliac nor lactose-intolerant). Another is fine with dairy and gluten but excludes GMOs and only buys organic. A third excludes ‘preservatives’, which seems mostly to be about not eating pre-packaged foods with a long shelf life, as she has no issue with salt (provided it’s pink Himalayan crystal salt). Oddly, none of them have a problem with protein powder or dietary supplements (or Botox , either, as it happens), although carbohydrates are potentially evil and refined table sugar is poison.
They are deathly afraid of (mostly unspecified) toxins.
It seems that ‘clean eating’ is a-cobbled together set of rules that reflects whatever is currently being lauded or demonised within the social media bubble in which the eater moves. These rules are generally underpinned by superficially reasonable assertions. Eat often to keep calories burning efficiently across the day. Eat organic because organic farmers don’t use synthetic pesticides or GMOs. Drink lots of water because your body is 60% water, preferably purified so there are no disease-causing contaminants. Avoid preservatives and artificial additives, which can cause allergic reactions and make you ill or fat. Gluten, chemicals, sugar, simple carbohydrates, meat and dairy products are all foods to be avoided or minimised because they are toxic or overly processed or high in saturated fat or any combination thereof.
It’s quite idiosyncratic, which makes it hard to pin down. And perhaps that’s the point. Clean eating means whatever the eater wants it to mean. Certainly my friends argue amongst themselves about it; they can become quite heated over the relative merits of glucose v fructose, soy v almond milk and whey v pea protein powder.
It’s true that many of the recipes they force upon share with me both look and taste great. They tend to use whole, nutrient dense foods which are fine as part of a balanced diet and, which, fortunately, I happen to like (except kale; I loathe kale). There is no evidence to suggest, however, that they do the things that my friends regularly claim for them: detox your body, alkalinalise your blood, boost your immune system, make you happier, make you smarter, burn fat. They are usually labelled ‘healthy’, but generally come with high kilojoule counts, which can be a problem if you equate – as a surprising number of people do – ‘healthy’ with ‘low kilojoule’. They are also often touted as ‘sugar free’, which makes me wince when honey or maple syrup or dates are key ingredients.
So that’s my personal experience. What does the science say?
Basically, there isn’t any evidence to show that ‘clean eating’ is better than any other kind of eating, primarily because there is no consensus about what ‘clean eating’ is. There is compelling evidence to suggest that a healthy diet should consist of a variety of whole, fresh foods including fruits, vegetables, animal and/or plant-based proteins, whole grains, legumes, pulses, nuts and seeds; that highly processed, low nutrient and/or high fat foods such as cakes, biscuits and fried foods should be limited; and that portions should be controlled.
So far as the clean eating philosophy runs with this, it is supported by scientific evidence. Beyond that, not so much.
It seems that as with many other popular dietary trends, clean eating has a core of common sense obscured by a haze of misinformation, pseudoscience and straight-up nonsense. Some unsupported assumptions that surround clean eating include:
- Certain foods help maintain an optimal blood pH (they don’t, because food does not affect your blood pH)
- Certain foods detox your body (they don’t; your body has its own detox mechanism – your liver and kidneys – and does not generally require assistance, unless you happen to be suffering from heavy metal poisoning, and then you need chelation therapy, not a strict dietary regimen)
- Additives and preservatives are inherently bad (they aren’t) and should always be avoided (they shouldn’t; it depends on the particular additive/preservative and the quantity used – salt being a case in point)
- If it’s natural, it’s good for you (not necessarily: death cap mushrooms are natural, as is ultraviolet radiation and tetrodotoxin)
- Organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally grown foods (they aren’t) and organic pesticides are better than synthetic pesticides (a pesticide is a pesticide, however it’s produced)
- Gluten is toxic (no, it’s not, in normal amounts, and unless you’re unlucky enough to be a coeliac, there’s probably no reason to avoid it)
- There are no safe chemicals (yes, there are; in fact, pretty much everything has a chemical structure, including you; the safety of a chemical is about the dose, not the fact that it’s a chemical)
- Your body can heal itself of any disease, provided it is optimally nourished (it can’t)
None of my clean eating friend group buys into all of these misconceptions, but each one accepts some of them.
All of this leaves me still confused about my friends’ devotion to clean eating. I have quite a few clean eating recipes that I use regularly – but then, I had recipes that met the criteria for clean eating in my repertoire long before my friends took it up. Insofar as I try to eat mostly fresh, whole foods; limit my sugar, fat and salt; and prepare most of my own meals, I suppose you could say I follow my own, albeit relaxed, version of clean eating. You could, but I wouldn’t, because (in case it’s not clear) I don’t much like the term.
But perhaps that’s the attraction: the simple word ‘clean’, with all its positive connotations. Clean is pure; and pure is good. Good is healthy. Healthy is happy. Therefore eat clean.
That would make clean eating less about health and nutrition, though, and more about what food symbolises in our lives. It’s food as magic: believing that if we perform the correct rituals, food will protect us from ill-health, and disease, and unhappiness. It’s an attitude that only the privileged can afford to maintain; clean eating, at least as practised by my friends, is almost prohibitively expensive. It is also only possible when there is food in abundance.
So, no, I don’t think I’ll be joining the choir and I’ll continue to avoid lunch dates with my clean-eating friends, unless we’re eating at an organic, vegan, gluten-free, family-friendly cafe, where I can eat a raw coconut-cream banana maple toffee pie purely because it tastes good and then play with the babies while my friends dissect I Quit Sugar.