Clean eating has been a bonafide trend for the past decade, but what does “clean eating” actually mean? While there’s no official definition for “clean” in the context of clean eating, it typically means food that’s whole or minimally processed, organic, natural, local and fresh. However, many clean-eating advocates aim to avoid all traces of added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives and artificial colors and flavors, and other additives. Here’s what you need to know about the benefits—and potential risks—of clean eating.
Seeking safe food. There’s real benefit in eating more whole and minimally processed foods, but not in fearing ingredients that have been shown to be safe. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop some companies from using language in their marketing like “don’t eat ingredients you can’t pronounce,” “food should be clean” and “the kind of food you would feed your family.” This not only taps into safety fears, but it implies that if food isn’t clean, it’s dirty, or that if it’s not chemical-free, it’s chemical-laden. The truth is that foods aren’t that black or white. For example, even organic agriculture uses pesticides—most are natural, but some are man made.
In fact, the U.S. food supply is one of the safest on the planet, says registered dietitian Jen Bruning, MS, RDN, LDN, a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “With so many foods available in the grocery store, it’s easy to forget is that food comes from the ground, and the ground is dirty! Keeping food safe is a tough job, and the U.S. does this very well considering the large scale of food production in this country.”
Because consumers perceive that “clean” foods are safer and higher quality, they’re often willing to pay more. Accordingly, “certified clean” labels are starting to appear on some processed foods, although there’s no standard definition behind them, so criteria may vary widely.
The disease-proof myth. There is abundant evidence demonstrating the role of a nutritious, balanced diet for staying healthy and preventing chronic diseases. Clean eating can be a genuine way to eat a nutritious diet based on fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, with healthy fats and either plant- or animal-based protein food for balance—while reducing sugar and ultra-processed foods.
However, for some people who adopt clean eating, the desire for perfect health and the pursuit of a perfect diet takes on a greater urgency, leading to a rigid diet that bans several foods or food components, including sugar, grains—especially gluten-containing grains—soy, legumes, meat and dairy. In many cases, this is encouraged by wellness bloggers and celebrities who have no nutrition qualifications or evidence to back up some of their promises, which often include claims that their version of clean eating will change your life or cure your health issues. It can also lead to nutrient deficiencies if food choices become very limited.
“Most Americans are not getting enough fruits, veggies, fiber and whole grains as it is—avoiding some types of produce because organic wasn’t available, or was beyond your budget, means missing out on healthy foods and vital nutrients,” Bruning says. “And it’s not just physical health that can suffer—mental and emotional health can also suffer, along with financial health if you’re eating foods outside of your means because you’re under the impression they are healthier for you.”
Food as identity. In some cases, clean eating, especially in its more rigid forms, can become less of a diet than an identity, crossing the line from, “The food I eat is clean” to “I am clean.” In susceptible people, the ideal of a clean and pure diet could even lead to orthorexia, a form of disordered eating typically defined as “an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating,” or possibly to an actual eating disorder.
“When the desire to eat clean or pure foods reaches the point where an individual is restricting foods or missing out on social occasions, dropping weight quickly or finding themselves constantly thinking or worrying about food, then this desire to eat more healthfully has taken an unhealthy turn,” Bruning says.
The big picture. Clean eating, when done well, should broaden your food world, not shrink it. Focusing on eating more fruits and vegetables and cooking more from scratch will give you more of the nutrients you need for good health while reducing intake of ingredients that might concern you—you don’t even need to use the term “clean.”
“Today many of us have access to foods from all over the world so don’t follow the same diet our entire lives. We also have information about the possible benefits of different diets from many sources, thanks to the Internet, and can become attracted to the bold claims made by fad diet promoters,” says registered dietitian and cultural anthropologist Robyn Flipse, MS, MA, RDN. “Whether adopting a new diet to improve one’s health, appearance or social group, it is important to check with a nutrition expert, like a registered dietitian, to make sure you are getting what your body needs.”
—Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN