Clean Eating Is a Crock

Cut_and_Cubed_Mangos (1348x884)If there’s one thing that sets my teeth on edge it’s when people start going on and on about how they’re “eating clean.” I’m not the only one. In “The Unhealthy Truth behind ‘Wellness’ and ‘Clean’ Eating,” Ruby Tandoh argues that “wellness” and “clean eating” are more sinister than they might appear.

Though they don’t cause eating disorders, they can be used to mask them. They depend on demonizing certain foods and singing the praises of others. Instead of proposing moderation, they insist upon elimination and all-or-nothing thinking.

She first came upon wellness in the hopes of getting away from her eating disorder. Instead of calorie counting, the wellness approach was all about self-care and choosing “good foods” while avoiding “junk.” More than anything, it’s promoted as “a lifestyle, not a diet.” Despite no calorie-counting, it’s a quite rigid way of eating:

Orthorexia is a preoccupation with “right” and “wrong” foods. Although it doesn’t yet have an agreed upon diagnosis among clinicians, a spokesperson at beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, told me that there has been an anecdotal increase in the number of people who suffer from the disorder in the recent years, and explained that “this may be exacerbated by the emphasis on what is termed “healthy eating”, which may prompt people to go beyond taking care and moving into fixation or obsession.” Some consider orthorexia an eating disorder, while others place it closer to OCD, but regardless of its diagnosis, its symptoms – anxiety around “Bad Foods”, dietary inflexibility, a concern with physical health at social and emotional expense – seem to be on the rise.

She goes so far as to suggest that “wellness” and “clean eating” are actually a rebranding of “dieting.” They involve the same fat-phobic central assumption.

Fat is as the heart of wellness, though you’d never guess it by the way the industry brands itself. Tess Ward is quick to point out that her “Naked Diet” isn’t a diet diet, but a lifestyle diet, just like the how that Madeleine Shaw separates her calorie-counting past and her gluten-free present. Again and again, Deliciously Ella shuns any claim that her diet is about “deprivation”. Wellness isn’t a diet, we’re told, but something clean and sustainable, far from the baseness of ‘diet talk’, weight-loss and bodies.

And yet throughout these books – the very same ones that tell us to locate our self-worth not in how we look but in who we are and how we feel – there is a consistent, entrenched fear of fatness. When Deliciously Ella allays our fears that “things like avocados and almonds will make you fat,” she leaves that foundational anxiety around fatness intact as a valid concern. When Madeleine Shaw boasts that her lifestyle tips can create a “leaner, healthier physique,” you could be forgiven for wondering where her “be your own cheerleader” pep went.

She ends her piece recommending well-rounded meals and snacks that include a variety of foods from a range of food groups and that give us pleasure.  And she includes a plug for intuitive eating, which works well for me, though not all of us at the blog are as enamoured by it.

This post is not saying that there is something wrong with the foods recommended as part of a wellness approach. Rather, it’s meant as an invitation to think about the moralizing and demonizing of some foods in the name of wellness. Granted, mangoes and strawberries, celery and zucchini, fresh greens and whole grain bread are healthy foods with all sorts of nutritional value.

But if you’re rigidly stuck on the idea that some foods are permissible and others forbidden, and if fat-phobia is the motive behind the method, then maybe it’s time to branch out, enjoy a few things that are on the wrong side of your list, and relax already. There is nothing “dirty” about not eating clean.

Here are some of our other posts about clean eating, detox/cleanse diets, and demonizing foods:

Why Food Is Beyond “Good” and “Evil”

Non-Dairy Ice Cream Cleanse

Living Clean without Eating Clean

Don’t Get Sucked in by the Rhetoric of Eating Clean



15 thoughts on “Clean Eating Is a Crock

  1. This is so true. I watched my older sister struggle with orthorexia as she flitted from diet to diet, always sure that this one was the one, only to lose weight and then gain it back when the strictness of the diet was impossible to follow. There was veganism, pale diets, kale diets…you name it. I used to wish that I could wave a magic wand and help her keep the weight off forever. Now, I wish that I could wave a magic wand and create a society that accepts her so that she didn’t feel the need to live like that.

  2. Excellent post, thanks for pointing out the dirty side of clean eating. I feel bad discouraging people from “clean eating,” so I just don’t say anything. On the other hand, any time an athlete told me they were doing the “zone” diet back in the day, I told them they were idiots as I was scarfing down my pile of pasta.

  3. I know my family has expressed an interest in what I did to lose over 135 lbs this past year. They always stress that as “long as I don’t lose too much…” They really don’t need to worry but I do understand how it is possible to go from one healthy relationship with “bad” food to the next unhealthy relationship with “good” food. It is quite the swinging pendulum right? It saddens me when people stick to diet fads like its some sort of Dogma.

  4. I would like to play devil’s advocate for the sake of looking at both sides. In reading a lot of clean eating literature, I have found that a lot of authors do advocate an 80/20 rule, which means that you eat clean 80% of your diet and 20% not so much. Also, many authors encourage the use of healthy fats such as avocados, olive oil, coconut oil and the like daily. Chemicals, not fat, are generally the no-no. Essentially, it is more of a focus on foods that provide good nutritional value, like fresh fruits and veggies; but try to not overload yourself in empty nutrient calories such as pop tarts and chips. I am sure there are extremist, as with any “lifestyle” diet/approach to food, but if you look more to the originators and not the extremists, most of the food choices are pretty balanced. Whole grains, healthy fats, fruits, veggies, meat….they are all included.

    1. I think the language of “clean” is part of what gets under my skin. I agree with you that the focus is on foods with a high level of nutritional value, but in what sense is that “clean”? And as opposed to what? “Dirty” eating? I just find the language around it to be highly troubling. And I almost never see anyone who is “clean” eating being completely okay with the 20 of the 80/20. It’s always “I shouldn’t” or “this is my ‘cheat’ meal/day” or some other judgmental, shaming attitude towards the 20% that is not “clean.” It’s always viewed as some kind of slip. I understand that it claims to promote balance by focusing on what can be included, but in the end, it groups foods into TWO categories: clean and not. And the foods in the “not” category are the “decadent,” “sinful,” “bad” choices that we “shouldn’t” eat.

      1. This is such a tough subject to approach, and I love this post and the comments, as it’s important to be able to discuss what’s going on with the desire to eat more healthy foods, to manage the industrial food system we are saddled with, and to feel less burdened by the moral edicts of “being good” and “being bad” with respect to food. I want to echo what Tracy said above about how the talk of “being on a cheat day” or “getting back on track after eating a piece of cake” can be burdensome. For me, eating a piece of cake at a birthday party isn’t off-track– it’s a meaningful (for me) part of my eating/social practices. It’s not “dirty” or “bad” eating. It’s eating. It’s a part of how I interact with food and people and events. Navigating that. given particular health goals, is difficult, but it’s not (or, rather, in my view, shouldn’t be) a moral enterprise.

      2. I totally agree with you on the clean vs dirty categories. I don’t view food that way either. I think like anything else, they attempted to find a better term for more healthy eating and unfortunately, clean did not quite fit the bill. Quite honestly, I think we should stick to terms like nutritional instead of clean, but the more we try to simplify or fad something, the more complicated we tend to make it. The reality is what are you eating that your body can use and what are you eating that has zero benefit; and are you consuming more of the former than latter. I agree it is all just craziness, I just like to play devil’s advocate every once in a while. It brings on good debate and often good data. Great post and response 🙂

      3. I agree and see both sides to this! btw enjoyed this post. I think the word clean is used to portray a feeling that a growing number of people have about the modern food industry. It’s true to say that our grocery shelves are filled with ingredients not found in nature and not meant for daily consumption in the purpose of supporting our bodies. We keep seeing a rise in obesity, chronic conditions, etc. and people are looking to their diets to make a shift. I think by “clean” what most people mean is staying more true to nature in their food groups by eating things not “dirtied” up with a cocktail of fake ingredients. (JUST to clarify I by no means eat “clean” lol i try to eat as much unaltered food as possible though) “The food babe way” is a great book to look into for people curious about a healthy way to eat better without trying to cut out all these important food groups. Highly recommend!

  5. Thrilled to find this post! I found the interrogation of the moral connotations of food and bodies especially thought-provoking. I’m in the process of researching and writing an article ‘inspired’ by Deliciously Ella called “Wellness is a Capitalist Monster Dressed as a Feminist”. Feel free to check it out if it’s of interest! Thanks again for this article.

    1. Thanks for this. Will definitely check out your article, which has a fabulous title and sounds like it’s right in line with my own thinking on this. Love hearing from like-minded people who are also taking on these issues in their writing.

  6. Hrmmm…. going to comment on the opposite side of things. I do understand where you are coming from but at the same time “clean eating” has completely changed my world around and in the complete opposite way you mentioned. I’m healthier than even and I don’t really look at it like clean vs dirty- clean is just a word and it doesn’t really encompass what clean eating resembles. I’m just one person but for me it’s worked amazingly in my lifestyle.

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