What does ‘clean eating’ even mean? 5 things to know

The “clean eating” movement began as a well-intentioned effort to encourage people to eat more vegetables and less processed food. It’s since exploded into the zeitgeist with such force it’s become downright mainstream.

Photo: Sara Dubler

When I was 21 years old, I cut gluten and dairy out of my diet.

I wasn’t lactose intolerant. I didn’t have celiac disease. Truth is, I’d been reading a lot of blogs (it was 2013, after all) and had noticed the gluten-free, dairy-free trend among many of the glamorous and beautiful women I followed. Their bright, fresh, beautiful lifestyles featured plenty of vegetables, the occasional smoothie, and a healthy dose of aspirational optimism.

A year later, I entered my first weight-lifting phase. My meals became lean and protein-packed — Tupperware stuffed with chicken breasts and broccoli overtook my fridge.

The year after that, I tried going vegan. I’d just watched the documentary Forks over Knives, and, horrified by the idea that my carnivore ways were making me fat and sick, I attempted to overhaul my diet to be completely plant-based, not a refined food or animal product in sight.

During each of these phases, the phrase “clean eating” hovered at the forefront of my mind. Eat clean. Fuel my body. Avoid “bad” foods. I experimented, hungered, and struggled in search of the version of “clean” that worked for me.

I know now what I didn’t know then: That all three of those dietary phases were just different manifestations of the same problem: I loved finding ways to hate my body and obsess about food.

The “clean eating” movement began as a well-intentioned effort to encourage people to eat more vegetables and less processed food. It’s since exploded into the zeitgeist with such force it’s become downright mainstream: search #eatclean on Instagram and you’ll find more than 47 million photos. Of Amazon’s bestselling cookbooks, 18 out of 20 are health food related. Almond milk and oat milk arrived on grocery store shelves. Between 2009 and 2014, the number of Americans on gluten-free diets nearly quadrupled.

Eating clean and green has never been more popular — and yet the term can be interpreted so many different ways.

What does “clean eating” actually mean?

At its core, “clean eating” means consuming only unprocessed, whole foods. However, what constitutes a food as “unprocessed” and “whole” can be deeply subjective. Do grains count? Some would say no, while others exalt in the glory of whole wheat and brown rice pasta. What about dairy? Plenty of people would say milk is whole, and yet many gurus within the health space consider the entire food group irredeemable.

What began as something of a universal truth — vegetables are good for you, processed foods are not — snowballed into a highly-commercialized belief system complete with its own factions, splinter groups, and (yes) extremists. Somewhere along the way, it convinced people like me I can only truly “be well” if I drink cashew milk and collagen smoothies.

What makes food ‘dirty’?

Don’t get me wrong: I love and appreciate healthy food. I understand that, in many ways, “eating clean” is extreme because it’s needed to be. In a country where soft drink sizes rival literal buckets, added sugar lurks where you’d least expect it, and obesity rates are spiraling out of control… is it really a surprise that a health food movement would rise up to challenge a fast food world?

“Our food system is in desperate need of reform. There’s a danger that, in fighting the nonsense of clean eating, we end up looking like apologists for a commercial food supply that is failing in its basic task of nourishing us,” wrote food journalist Bee Wilson for The Guardian. “Shouldn’t we give clean eating due credit for achieving the miracle of turning beetroot and kale into objects of desire?”

#EatClean is the equal, opposite reaction to a seriously screwed-up food system. Newton’s Third Law, but with coconut oil.

But can there be too much of a good thing? While encouraging people to eat fresh, healthy food instead of drive-through cheeseburgers is great, the movement runs the risk of providing people another outlet for food obsession.

“It has a perfectionist, black-and-white feel to it. Food is now categorized as either ‘clean’ or ‘unclean.’ Perfectionism generates anxiety and demoralization because it sets an unattainable goal,” wrote Dr. Sherry Pogato for Psychology Today. “The perfectionist dieter feels failure every time she eats something ‘unclean.’ ”

I wrote recently about my experience living (and eating) in Stockholm, Sweden. While living there, I ate bread with butter and cheese daily, along with an impressive amount of full-fat cappuccinos and wine. While I still ate plenty of vegetables, a hefty portion of the food I ate there would be considered “unclean.” Oddly enough, I’d never felt better in my life. I walked every day, exercised some, and consumed nutrient-dense foods — but also didn’t feel guilt overindulging in other foods I enjoyed.

I was, in a word, moderate.

When I was stateside, that moderation was much harder to maintain. America is a country of extremes.

“Why do we find it easier to do the Atkins diet or a gluten-free diet than to just be sensible and practice moderation? Sugar is obviously bad for us, but I’m not going to give up a brownie once in awhile,” Chef and food writer Gizzi told British Vogue. “There are some foods out there that are dirty. I mean, there are some really dirty burgers out there, and junk foods have grim ingredients lists. But burgers can be clean and brownies can be clean – use good ingredients and make them yourself at home. As far as I’m concerned, the sensible thing is to have as varied a diet as possible most of the time, and every once in awhile, just say fuck it.”

I’m inclined to listen to Gizzi.

Here are three tips to practice more moderation with food:

Cook at home when you can

Life gets crazy, so eating every meal at home might not be feasible — but aim to cook more meals than you don’t. This way, you can make sure you’re getting essential nutrients the majority of the time and can rest easy when you help yourself to that donut at work or eat out for lunch on a busy day. Check out The Everygirl’s weekly meal prep ideas here.

Say no to fad diets and trends

Generally speaking, any diet asking you to omit entire food groups is designed to deliver fast (but completely unsustainable) weight-loss results. They’re popular because of the instant gratification they provide, but they aren’t suited to long-term success — which is why 97 percent of dieters gain back the weight they lose. Making small positive changes — like walking more or eating extra servings of veggies per day — will improve your health in ways that will actually stick.

Be generous with yourself

You are a smart, capable woman with too much shit to do to waste any more time at war with your body. Cut yourself some slack and remember that life (and food!) is meant to be enjoyed. I know this sort of paradigm shift is easier said than done, but start putting in the work to get there. Treating your body with respect doesn’t just mean eating salad and hitting the gym. It means recognizing it for all the awesome stuff it lets you do — and quitting punishing it just because you feel you should.

This article first appeared on The EveryGirl.