“Clean Eating”--Gwyneth Paltrow’s doing it. So is Panera Bread. Spend any time on Instagram, and you’ll inevitably see the hashtag #eatclean. But what is clean eating exactly? In this week's Nutrition Mythbusters, we’ll take a closer look at eating clean and why this term is confusing and in many ways, meaningless.
The concept of clean eating started innocently enough. Eat more whole foods—fruit instead of juice, plenty of vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and healthy fats, while avoiding high sugar and high sodium processed foods. As a dietitian, I’m all in on this. Cooking at home and reading food labels are all positive, health-conscious behaviors.
Over the last couple of years, however, clean eating has taken on a more extreme definition. If you eat gluten or if you dairy, you’re doing irreparable damage to your body. If you aren’t buying from the local farmer’s market or at least shopping organic, you might as well not even bother. Processed foods and GMO’s are killing us all. FoodBabe and Dr.Oz, and celebrities like Paltrow perpetuate these fears and shame.
Myths like this hurt families, particularly those with lower incomes. If a mom can’t buy organic apple because of cost, then she might not buy apples at all. Orthorexia, an eating disorder rooted in obsession with only eating “healthy” or “pure” foods, can be a potentially dangerous consequence of the clean eating mindset.
It's important to know that the term clean eating has no federal definition. It's a marketing term. A manufacturer can slap a “clean” label on just about anything, even if it’s full of unhealthy ingredients. Honey and agave are still sugar. Organic cupcakes are still cupcakes. An energy bar may have just as much sugar and fat as a candy bar. Conversely, many processed foods are perfectly healthy choices. Bagged spinach, canned tuna, a packet of almond butter, or steel cut oatmeal are all examples of foods that are processed.
Instead of worrying about eating clean, work on balance. Veggies and fruits in all forms (yes, even in cans) should fill half your plate. Choose whole grains most often, even those with that villain gluten (unless you have Celiac disease of course). Enjoy lean protein, dairy, and healthy fats in all forms. Avoid reading websites that tout restriction of whole food groups. And every once in awhile, indulge without shame. A piece of pizza or a burger is not the end of the world—it’s part of living.