Just as holiday baking and the frenetic activity of the season descends upon us every December, so does its inevitable companion: talk of “clean eating.”
British chef Nigella Lawson rightly identifies clean eating as a fad diet that can be used to mask eating disorders. She also believes, as do I (see my post “‘You’ve Lost Weight, You Look Great’ Isn’t a Compliment”), that telling someone they’ve lost weight is not something we should regard as a compliment. See more about Nigelia and her new book here.
We’ve discussed clean eating a few times on the blog. I’ve talked about living clean without eating clean. There’s also clean eating’s close cousin: the detox or cleanse. Read about the ice cream detox here. And if you weren’t aware, everyone with a functioning liver detoxes constantly:
So let me just reiterate a basic truth: it makes no sense. It’s a silly fad that uses moralistic rhetoric to suck some people into feeling bad while others can be self-righteously good because they’re eating “clean.”
What is clean eating? There’s a whole magazine and website devoted to it, and here’s how they define it:
The soul of clean eating is consuming food in its most natural state, or as close to it as possible. It is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation, leading to an improved life – one meal at a time.
They even have their rules (yes rules, not guidelines) for eating clean, including “know thy enemies.” This kind of thing is “red light talk” for me. You know, I’m a big fan of the idea that food is beyond good and evil. So when people start talking about food as the enemy, even processed food or food that is high in sugar and has no nutritional value, my guard goes up.
Because that’s when the moralizing starts, and that’s not good for us or anyone else:
When we moralize foods into good, bad, evil even, we deny ourselves permission and set ourselves up not just as failures, but as moral failures.
If the foods that made people feel so bad weren’t forbidden or “sinful” in the first place, they’d be less attractive and people would be less likely to eat more of them than is comfortable.
That’s what I said over two years ago and that’s what I still think today.
They like to say its not a diet. But really? Something qualifies as a diet, as far as I’m concerned, if there are forbidden foods that are “thine enemies.” For clean eaters, that’s anything processed or “not natural.” According the clean eating website’s article about the “7 golden rules of clean and lean eating,” clean eating is about whole, unprocessed foods like: fresh fruit, fresh veggies, legumes, nuts, and “farm-fresh eggs.”
You’re supposed to choose fresh over refined, stock up on protein, go for whole grains and natural sugars, “police” your salt and sugar intake, eat 5-6 small meals a day, “walk it off,” and of course, “don’t drink your calories.”
The main thing you need to understand to be able to successfully eat clean is to know what foods are processed and what foods are good for you.
But the dichotomy between what’s processed and “what’s good for you” is false. I’m not even going to get into details. But it’s not all that straight forward. Is bread processed or not? Is it good for you? Does processing something automatically make it bad for you? What about canned goods? Hummus? These are processed but not necessarily unhealthy (which I take it is the main point here).
Red meat is natural, as are all manner of animal products, but are they good for you? Not if you read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas M. Campbell II, and the many others who advocate a vegan diet.
So natural=healthy and processed=unhealthy is way too simplistic a way to approach eating. And to think of one as “clean” and the other as “dirty” is just nonsensical. To me, I’m eating clean if I haven’t dropped my food on the floor and picked it up again. I’m eating clean if I washed my apple before I bit into it. I’m eating clean if I got all the dirt off the celery sticks.
Clean eating as a “lifestyle” is just another way casting some foods as evil and others as good. There’s nothing wrong with eating whole foods. But let’s not get caught up in the rhetoric that makes us think of food in terms of the permissible and the forbidden.
Clean eating plans are diets. Don’t be taken in by their shiny allure. They’re just another fad. Temporary, potentially dangerous, and just another way of making us feel at times good about ourselves, and at times bad about ourselves. Your diet isn’t dirty. You don’t need to cleanse. You’re not full of toxins.
If you want to learn how to make Oreo soap, here’s a tutorial: