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  • Writer's pictureCaroline Young

Here’s the Dirt on Clean Eating

The term literally makes me cringe. Search the hashtag “cleaneating” on Instagram and you will find images of super-lean women taking mirror selfies at the gym. There are also photos of low-calorie, “ice-cream” and “milkshakes,” plates of only vegetables, and a bunch of guys’ washboard abs. All of these photos are sending the same message: Eat clean, and you’ll be a much more attractive person with a better life than the one you already have – the one you have while you’re eating … dirty.

When it comes down to it, clean eating is just another DIET — another way to keep us fearful of food (and really, life), ashamed of our desires, unavailable to pleasure, disempowered and detached from the real expert – our bodies!

Here are three reasons why (there are more, but I’ll spare you my ramble) I don’t stand behind clean eating, and why it’s actually the opposite of healthy:

  1. Clean eating could lead to nutrient and energy deficiencies.

Often, clean eating includes cutting out whole food groups, such as dairy or grains – two food groups that include foods full of essential nutrients our bodies and minds need to thrive, and to prevent disease. For example, one clean eating plan I found on a popular media site does not include any grains or dairy sources. Dairy products are a source of calcium and vitamin D that we need for healthy bones and teeth (plus, they’re frickin’ delicious). And grains include fiber – important for digestion and regularity (and let’s get real, everyone wants to poop everyday), carbohydrates – the body’s preferred energy source, folic acid — especially important for pregnant women as it can prevent birth defects, and other essential B vitamins –important for optimal energy and overall health.

Plus, clean eating plans often do not provide enough energy (calories), and/or it is often coupled with under-eating and over exercising, which can put the body into negative energy (or calorie) balance and create physiological stress. In women, this type of stress can lead to functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA), a condition where women lose their periods. If FHA persists long enough, serious consequences, like infertility and osteoporosis, can occur.

  1. Justifications for eliminating certain ingredients or nutrients are often not realistic or backed by science.

Clean eating guidelines say to avoid processed foods, refined grains, preservatives and foods with ingredients difficult to pronounce. First of all, “processed” means so many different things depending on who are you are talking to (cooking is processing!). It’s not necessary to eliminate all refined grains, like white bread and pasta. Sure, whole grains are more nutrient-dense but eating white carbs is not unhealthy – going out of your way to avoid them and depriving yourself is actually the unhealthy habit.

Plus, it’s just not scientifically sound to recommend exclusion of foods with “science-y” – sounding ingredients like sodium erythorbate (a preservative), alpha tocopherols (a nutrient), or mono- and diglycerides (an emulsifier found in peanut butter) because they are not harmful to human health, and serve specific purposes, such as preventing rancidity and even foodborne illnesses.

  1. Clean eating can easily morph into disordered eating, which can cause serious (and sometimes life-threatening) physical, emotional and mental problems.

It is a concept that supposedly enhances health but can actually do the opposite – when it becomes an obsession, disordered eating or an eating disorder in disguise. Clean eating guidelines ususally include lists of “good” and “bad” foods. Trying to stick to guidelines like these (and ones mentioned above) creates added stress and fear around food, instead of providing healthful benefits. And focusing too much on eating healthfully can backfire, and cause physiological and psychological imbalance. Severe food restriction (often seen in clean eating) can actually lead to binge eating driven by deprivation, as well as social isolation. It can lead to full-blown eating disorders like orthorexia, which is defined as a “fixation on righteous eating,” or an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.

Unfortunately, there are many online, un-credentialed bloggers who support clean eating that are suffering from their own eating disorder or disordered eating behavior. If you enjoy following healthy lifestyle bloggers, notice if they tend to exclude whole food groups from their recommendations, suggestions or recipes without a medical diagnosis such as Celiac disease (in which gluten must be avoided), or if they tend to promote the idea of severe restriction and the good-food, bad-food mentality. If so, keep in mind that this is not a balanced approach to nutrition or a healthy lifestyle, and consider un-following them.

If you are in recovery from an eating disorder or chronic dieting, be aware that adopting a clean eating plan is often a slippery slope back into the disorder, or simply a way to mask or transfer disordered behaviors.

If you or a loved one is struggling with an eating disorder, disordered eating or chronic dieting, please seek help and/or send me a message via my contact page – recovery is possible.

In true health,




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