5 Problems With “Clean Eating”

I’ve been concerned with the focus on “clean eating” for a while, but I started thinking about it again after seeing a segment from Samantha Bee about women’s health and pseudoscience.

The video talked about ways women are targeted to buy products that will make them “clean,” often by removing toxins of some kind, even though none of these products or detox options need to have any science to back them up. (Men may try to detox as well, but not in some of the ways women do – there’s no Goop for men.) Bee also pointed out that this focus on “toxins” is linked with the fact that women’s bodies are often considered unclean.

And she reminded me that there’s no true definition of what “clean” or “natural” even means, for bodies or food. As long as companies or “gurus” don’t promise that something will cure you, they can sell pretty much anything they want.

All this got me thinking again about the idea of “clean eating” and why it’s so problematic.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, this is the idea that for proper nutrition, people should only have certain types of foods that might be considered “clean.” This approach often focuses on whole, unprocessed foods, but it can also include cutting out sugar, carbs, gluten, and more.

To be clear, eating whole foods can be perfectly fine. Experimenting by removing certain food groups can also be helpful if you’re trying to determine whether you’re having reactions to certain foods.

The problems come in when this becomes obsessive and when you start adding the word “clean” to it. Here are five reasons this approach can be damaging.

#1: Orthorexia

One of the first and biggest problems is that this focus on “clean” foods can lead to orthorexia (also called orthorexia nervosa). This is an unhealthy obsession with eating in a way that the person has decided is healthy, often taking this to extreme measures.

Although orthorexia isn’t an officially recognized eating disorder, awareness has been increasing over the past two decades. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, some signs of orthorexia include:

  • Restricting certain foods, such as cutting out all sugar, all dairy, all gluten, etc.

  • Narrowing food choices down to a small group of items that are considered “safe”

  • Becoming highly distressed when those “safe” foods aren’t available

  • Displaying a compulsive interest in nutrition information for foods

And the irony is that while the person is focused on being healthy, the result is often the exact opposite. People who struggle with orthorexia may become underweight because of all the restrictions, and they often spend hours thinking about food and obsessing about making the right choices. That extreme focus adds to their anxiety if they don’t have access to their preferred foods, none of which is good for their mental health.

#2: Poor Nutrition

Depending on how far someone takes this, another side effect of “clean eating” can be poor nutrition. Once someone starts restricting foods, they may cut out so much that they don’t get enough essential nutrients, or they may simply not get enough calories.

This is especially true for those who use clean eating in an attempt to lose weight or get to a certain size. As Sandra Kronberg, founder of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative, noted: "It could become a health hazard and ultimately, it can be fatal.”

#3: Social Impact

Even if you get adequate nutrition, “clean eating” impacts your social life, something I’ve experienced first-hand.

Several years ago now, I had some odd health issues, and my doctor suggested that for 30 days, I should eat only meat, fish, nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables. I didn’t think about it at the time, but it was a pretty “clean” diet in the sense of not having anything processed or refined. I couldn’t even have eggs, grains, lentils, or beans. Then after a month, I could start reintroducing things slowly to see if I noticed any problems.

This was a challenging time for sure. This was back when we could see each other in person, but I had a very hard time eating with anyone or going out to eat. I felt bad about asking anyone to make only foods I could eat, and other people sometimes felt bad about not being able to offer me things I could eat.

Luckily this didn’t last too long, and I was able to isolate which foods were truly problematic. But even for those foods, I only have trouble if I eat them regularly. Having them now and again is fine, and I don’t worry about it anymore.

But I can imagine how stressful and isolating it would be to never feel like I could relax about some of those foods, or to feel like eating a cookie or a piece of bread was somehow toxic. Traditional holiday foods would go out the window, and it would be nearly impossible to travel.

And unless I only ate with other people who had similar eating restrictions, it would be very hard to share meals.

#4: Morality and Judgment

Another huge problem with the “clean eating” idea comes with the word “clean.” It implies that other foods are “dirty,” and that, by association, people eating them are also “dirty.”

Even if you don’t start out thinking this way, if you consistently consider your type of eating to be “clean,” you start noticing more how others are eating. You may find yourself comparing their food to yours and feeling superior because of your “clean” foods.

That unfortunately leads to judging other people for how they eat. You might see someone have a piece of pizza and feel a sense of disgust. You start to wonder how they could possibly eat something like that. You might decide that they don’t care about their health.

And in some ways, you have no choice but to think this way. It’s the only way to justify how much you’ve restricted yourself and all the effort you’ve put into eating a certain way.

Things work out better if you can avoid the “clean” label and recognize that different bodies have different needs at different times.

In that case, you can more easily recognize that you’re making a choice to eat a certain way because it works for you, and other people eat in a way that works for them. But even then, it takes some practice to avoid slipping into the judgment trap.

#5: Classism

That brings me to my final point – this all brings up issues of classism.

To go gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, all-organic, or whatever other option you define as “clean” – it takes effort. It also takes time and money, something that a lot of people don’t have, especially people with lower incomes who may be working multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

And let’s not forget access to those “clean” foods. Not everyone has a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe’s or farmers’ market nearby where they can easily get some of these items. Far too many people live in food deserts and don’t even have access to fresh produce, let alone organic produce.

I found a nice summary of the problem in an article on FoodInsight.org: “Clean eating has become a privilege of consuming nicely packaged foods with influencer-approved ingredients (many of which do not reap the claimed benefits!). We can’t ignore that clean eating is for those who have access and can afford to shop at upscale grocery stores or fresh farmers markets.”

Exactly.

Too Many Downsides of Clean Eating

If you have access to lots of fresh, whole foods, and the time to prepare them, and that’s what you prefer to do – go for it! I do a lot of that myself.

But if you don’t have access or time or the inclination to eat that way, I’m not going to judge you for not “eating clean.”

Instead, I’ll keep my focus on helping people have a healthy relationship to food.

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