diets · fitness

Don’t get sucked in by the rhetoric of “eating clean”

Here's some clean eating for you: Oreo soap.
Here’s some clean eating for you: Oreo soap.

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:

detox by having a liver

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.”

They say:

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:


10 thoughts on “Don’t get sucked in by the rhetoric of “eating clean”

  1. Maybe we should talk about the fallacies of many detoxification diets/mixtures.

    It’s difficult to see a good close friend who knows and wants to lose weight. She never prepares a meal at home. So eating out all the time or snacking on the run, is probably contributing a lot to her weight management challenges. I dutifully follow her into health stores and she occasionally buys a detox mixture or zooms in on organic fruits here and there. Nothing for a complete healthy meal. This has been going on for over last 5 years.

    So we do socialize in restaurants, sometimes we walk or bike (activity is not really a negligent matter. ) or we socialize at my home where I have prepared a meal.

    I’ve re-introduced to a diverse, large farmers’ market.
    I’ve written a blog post about poverty, healthy diet (yes, folks it’s possible if it’s a traditional Asian diet.) and a paean to my mother…and her mother who has been very healthy and active @79 yrs.

    I don’t know what else to do. Except be a friend.

  2. I eat cleanly…. I don’t diet. My life revolves around each meal. Each meal is given great thought because I’m feeding myself, a teenager with significant health issues and a person who is a very choosy vegetarian. I don’t use the word ‘cheat’ because cheating shrieks of failure. If everything is in balance then I am happy. Why do I eat cleanly, because it works for me. I’ve spent years in and out of hospital with no end of gastric issues and for the first time in my life, I’ve found a way of eating that does not exacerbate my symptoms or leave me with disabling symptoms that render me unable to leave the house. Foods like hummus are great and although I can’t eat it, I still make it for other family members. There’s a belief by some that low fat foods are a good option, the reality is that these are often full of sugar and a chemical shit storm.

    I also eat what’s in season and what is grown locally.

    I’m not sure who, THEY are but if I fit into that category then I take umbrage that you would think I would criticise your way of eating. Absolutely not. I have forbidden foods because I’m unable to eat certain foods due to allergies and quite horrendous parasitic infections of my gut. Forbidden foods exist for many because there’s the potential that they can kill, as in the case of my son. If you wish to label me as ‘self righteous,’ go right ahead but I’m not judging anyone else on their eating habits and neither would I, unless they asked for my help.

    1. “Eat clean” is inextricably bound to value judgments about food (and eaters) that center on purity, purification, and virtue. The place I most often encounter the “clean eater” is in the fitness community, where the idea is often yoked to the equally problematic “train dirty.” Both prescriptions encompass narrow, rigid rules about what “counts” and what is “good” (as in, makes you a good or even superior person) vs what’s a waste of time or a harmful detour.

      Choosing healthy foods and avoiding foods that cause serious health issues is not “eating clean.” It’s just being sensible about your individual choices. And rejecting the idea of a “cheat” is basically rejecting a centerpiece of “eat clean.” Every “eat clean” example I’ve encountered has explicitly addressed “cheats” as a necessary evil, whether a weekly relaxation of rules in order to control binge urges or as the “price” of socializing normally with people “who don’t get it.”

      My rules are different from yours. I focus on specific nutrients that I tend to undereat if I don’t keep an eye on them, and then my main framing approach involves maintaining weight stability, so for me it’s not really about specific foods at all. Because of the vagaries of my tastes, though, I’ve been assumed (bizarrely) to “eat clean” or be a vegetarian or any number of things because my food choices are unconventional. (My main “philosophy” is that “no foods are good or bad; it’s all in whether the portions suit your goals.”) So I think it’s extremely important to distinguish harmful philosophies like “eat clean,” which has more in common with revivalist religious traditions than individual accommodation, from happening to enjoy fresh foods, minimal processing, and sustainable/small-footprint sourcing practices.

  3. Thanks for this common sense essay! It drives me crazy to see so many ways in which we try to tie food to morality. Or, for that matter, to health. Sure, we .have some basic needs we need to take care of by eating, but it is disturbing to watch the changes in what is good, and what is not. Fats? Carbs? Paleo? Vegan? Raw? Let’s just try for variety and thoughtful eating, and let the rest of this nonsense go.

  4. Great article. It reflects a lot of what I’ve been thinking. “Detoxifying” your body is patently ridiculous, and a great way to sell some really expensive juices.

  5. I think that it’s more complicated than either the “eat clean” people or the author of this article make it out to be. Eating in moderation is difficult for a lot of people in our culture, for a multitude of reasons, societal and evolutionary.
    I don’t believe that is in inherently unhealthy to eat one cookie every once in a while. However for a lot of people, it’s harder to eat just one cookie than to not eat any at all.
    I don’t think that long term health issues will arise from my eating one piece of pizza. On the other hand, my body doesn’t feel great when I eat pizza, even one slice. I notice it. Even though in another sense I enjoy eating pizza, the yucky I feel after hardly seems worth it.
    I agree that moralizing our food choices isn’t healthy.
    But ignoring the fact that the collective eating disorder already exists, saying, “everybody should just practice moderation,” doesn’t help either. Most people (or at least most women) I know don’t have that as an option.

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