By Alex Raymond, RD, LD
In my personal opinion clean eating is a socially acceptable form of disordered eating. Clean eating is not a lifestyle change. It’s a diet. I’ve been meaning to write this blog for awhile, but I was struggling with trying to find the words. I think that’s because, quite honestly, whenever I think about clean eating, I find myself getting frustrated.
First of all. Clean eating is not a real thing. I’m not entirely sure how this movement started. I can take an educated guess and say it has something to do with our culture’s obsession with health. Being “healthy” is put on this moral pedestal. It’s something that is so highly valued in our society. If you’re healthy (aka fit a certain body type), you are a good person. Probably smart and successful too. (I know this not to be true, however it is subliminally ingrained in our society).
What we sometimes forget, is that many areas of health are out of our control. So many health factors are genetic. Take high blood pressure for example. I have a friend who is “normal” weight, fairly active, AND is a dietitian. She has high blood pressure. Almost every member in her family also has high blood pressure. She can limit all the salt she wants to and avoid eating out (as those foods do tend to be higher in sodium), but it might not make too much of a difference. As long a she has variety and balance in her diet, why should she force herself to never eat out if that’s something her friends do regularly enough that she would be missing out if she didn’t go?
Because we can’t control some of these health factors, as a culture, I believe we try to then focus in on the two things we can control. Diet and Exercise… Not to mention that our culture has a huge focus on thinness and fitness. Enter “clean eating.”
On the surface level. “Eating clean” sounds great! Who wouldn’t want to “be healthy?” And yes, I’m not denying that what we eat is a part of that. I am a dietitian after all. So, it is incredibly important to have a diet high in a variety of fruits and veggies, proteins, carbs, fats dairy products and “fun” foods. OH WAIT! That’s all the food we eat.
When it comes to clean eating as healthy eating, there are a few things we need to remember…
1. What does healthy really mean?
When we say “healthy” many times we completely forget the emotional and spiritual side of health.Clean eating, in some cases, can lead to a full blown eating disorder. Clean eating in many other cases, may not lead to a full blown eating disorder, but can certainly lead to serious disordered eating patterns. Eating disorder/disordered eating behaviors are mental health issues.
So, therefore, someone may be eating what the media defines as healthy (and really, who even gave them that job), but could be under serious emotional distress. It’s tough to lead a value-filled life under food rules. Plus, I would argue that eating clean isn’t physically healthy either. What if I wanted to have a donut? Could I have one once a month? Twice a week? Every day? It could be totally fine to have a donut everyday and still lead a “healthy” life. Moderation is different for everyone and it is also key to a balanced and nutritious diet.
2. How do you even define “clean?” And is “clean” really healthy?
As of yet. I have not really heard a defined definition of what “clean eating” actually means. “What makes a food more clean than another?” Has not been answered for me either. All I know, is that I have clients who begin to cut out food after food to have a “clean” diet. They are left with an intense fear surrounding the food that now controls their life. Imagine not going out to eat with friends. Having severe anxiety when you sit down for a meal. Not enjoying the taste of a cake on your birthday. Eating becomes shaped with rules and regulations and feeling guilty. That is no way to live. Yes, food does have to take up an appropriate amount of brain energy. I believe it is important to have a general idea of what you’re going to eat each day so you can plan ahead, grocery shop….etc. But not so much time that it’s taking over your life and eating allows for no flexibility.
Nutrition is all about balance and moderation.
You can eat all the kale you want, but if you’re not eating it with fat, then you’re body isn’t going to absorb or store the vitamin K. If you don’t have enough protein or carbs, you’re not going to feel satisfied and chances are you will be tired much of the time. Having trends like “clean eating” 100% contributes to this rigidity and shame/guilt surrounding eating. Clean eating provides more strict rules to follow. For some, this may lead down a path of a full blown eating disorder. And for most, it will prevent them from having a positive food relationship. That doesn’t sound “healthy” to me.
3. Why put a label on it?
One of my biggest issues with health in our society is that we feel the need to label people’s eating habits. “I’m clean eating.” “I’m vegan.” “I’m gluten free.” “I’m a herbo-vego-octo-pesco-tarian.” (Just kidding). Why do we have to put a label on eating? Because once you say “I’m (insert type-of-eater here),” your eating becomes a part of your identity. And food shouldn’t be like that. Why can’t we just accept that someone’s diet has a balance of ALL types of foods? The reality is. there is no one “right” way to eat, which I think can sometimes be scary to accept. But, cutting out foods and restricting yourself is not the answer.
4. What will happen if you don’t eat clean/how will you feel?
This question I think is key. In my experience, I have found that when people “fall off” their clean eating patterns, they feel terrible. Like they have done something completely and morally wrong. It is not healthy to feel badly about yourself when you eat food. If abiding by the clean eating guidelines has a moral compass for you, that’s a problem. Because at the end of the day, it’s going to make you feel worse. Sure, you hear stories about social media stars (and maybe friends too) about how awesome their bodies feel eating healthily. BUT there is so much that goes on behind the scenes that they don’t tell you.
What overall changes have you made?
Sure, eating “clean” may make you feel better at first. But I challenge you to take a look and think about why it’s making you feel better… For example, maybe you’re cooking at home more to have more family meals. Or maybe clean eating has led you to eat more vegetables. if you’re a young adult/college student, eating clean has led you to drink less alcohol. Could it be that’s it’s not actually the clean eating that is making you feel better, but that it’s the overall changes you’re making in your diet? So, it doesn’t mean you have to “eat clean” all the time! It means you can continue to make those nutritional changes AND have moderation and variety when it comes to those fun foods. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too?!
5. What is going to make you happy?
At the end of the day, eating should not have any sort of moral compass or define who you are as a person. Fueling your body with the energy it needs is essential to your life and not something to feel shameful about! That would be like if you got mad at yourself for breathing. Both eating and breathing keep us alive and well.
It’s not the food you eat that defines you. It’s how you live life close to your values.
That doesn’t mean you have to do this everyday. Just take some time thinking about what is truly going to make you happy. Not what is going to make your eating disorder or disordered thoughts happy. You are so much more than avocado toast, kale salads and acai bowls.
I am more than happy to answer any questions you may have about restrictive eating. Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call my office at 240-670-4675.