What is “clean eating”?
Clean eating is a buzzword used on every corner of the internet to describe a virtuous way of eating that focuses of less processed, additive free foods. Clean eating is a relatively new term, and its rise to popularity has paralleled the current fitness craze. Our line of sight has become overwhelmingly burdened with photos of tanned and chiseled six-pack abs that are scattered across sites like Instagram. Because of this, our generation has lost grasp on what normal and completely healthy bodies actually look like, and how to go about maintaining them. This obsession with abnormally low body fat percentages, toned muscles, and thigh gaps has changed more than just the way we view our bodies. This incessant need to look a certain way has dramatically damaged the way we perceive our food. Food is now thought to be something that either makes you fat, or makes you skinny. That idea is both untrue, and unhealthy.
Generally speaking, clean eating is an excellent practice. I fully support eating more whole foods, and ditching most prepackaged food-like-substances. Eating whole foods is a great way to increase the nutrient density of your meal, and get naturally attuned to your hunger and satiety signals. But, attributing virtue to food and supporting all-or-nothing behavior practices creates disordered eating practices. This can cause you to lose touch with the innate wisdom your body possesses, that has the ability to tell you when you are hungry, and what you need to properly fuel in order to support cellular regeneration and meet your metabolic needs.
How “clean eating” can create a toxic mindset and impair lifelong weight maintenance.
1. The idea that some foods are clean, and other foods are unclean lends to the idea that food is either good or bad.
Food is not black and white. Some foods are not clean, while others are dirty. That is just not true, unless, of course, you dropped your steak on the ground and firmly believe in the 10-second-rule. Or, you forgot to rinse off your non-organic apple. In that case, your food might actually be dirty, and that is also fine. You probably won’t die from eating a dirty apple. What plays a more negative role on your health than a dirty piece of fruit is a dirty mindset. Looking at foods as black and white doesn’t promote balance and it is not maintainable. It is absolutely okay to want to make healthier food choices. And, if you can eat “clean” 100% of the time that is great, but there should be no guilt associated with eating foods that are not deemed “clean”. When you assign virtue to food, you are propagating the idea that you are either a good or bad person based on your food choices, and that, my friends, is also untrue.
2. Your understanding of “clean eating” may cause you to sacrifice nutrient density.
Because “clean eating” is a new term the interpretation of this way of eating can vary quite largely. Most people would consider a meal consisting of brown rice, broccoli and a chicken breast to be a “clean” meal. To me, that meal is devoid of variety when is comes to micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and contains a relatively high amount of phytonutrients, which act as anti-nutrients preventing the absorption of much of the nutrition that is present. Most clean eating guides suggests limiting fat, sugar and salt. I understand the importance of limiting added dietary sugars as they have no nutritional purpose in our diet, but salt and fats are entirely biologically necessary. Eating a diet of strictly unprocessed foods requires some addition of table salt to meet our daily sodium needs. More importantly, fat is the most underrated macronutrient. Fat is essential for countless biological processes including maintenance of brain health, supporting cellular regeneration, and hormonal balance which plays a huge role in the storage (or burning) of body fat. Hormonal imbalances can lead to weight gain, increased fat storage and infertility. Vitamin and mineral intake also plays a significant role in your metabolic rate and ability to use food as energy. Eating a repetitive diet that lacks nutrient variety can lead to nutrient imbalances and deficiencies, which can result in impaired ability to lose or maintain weight, relentless cravings, and lower energy levels,
3. Feeling like you need to eat a certain way to be healthy or worthy can create disordered eating behaviors.
I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on this idea. This is a real, and very well known phenomenon. When you surround yourself with arbitrary, self-imposed diet restrictions, you begin wanting what you can’t have. If you happen to cave into these desires, you begin to feel guilt that you normally wouldn’t associate with eating these otherwise acceptable foods.. Any type of diet that makes you feel like eating something off-plan is cheating is not a sustainable diet. Dietary restrictions make you feel well, restricted. Even in circumstances when food restrictions are placed on an individual with a completely healthy relationship with food, it is very likely that they could end up with disordered eating patterns. The fact that “clean eating” is usually paired with a calorie deficit makes it even more dangerous in developing these behaviors. The Minessotta Semi-Starvation Experiment is probably the most well known example of this. In this study 62 healthy men were given a calorie restrictive diet, and ended up developing preoccupations with food, and weight, lower self-esteem, and disordered eating behaviors including binging which lasted well past the refeeding period, and guilt associated with overeating. You can find a decent synopsis of the implications of this experiment here.
4. An all-or-nothing mindset with food can lead to periods of restricting and overeating which is metabolically equivalent to yo-yo dieting.
There has been countless studies on the negative effects of yo-yo dieting on our metabolism. While studies have not demonstrated consistent effects in all individuals who undergo weight cycling, It is known that some individuals are more susceptible to the negative effects of calorically restricted diets and weight fluctuations. Women who already suffer from hormonal imbalances or who have had histories with disordered eating behaviors are more likely to be impacted by such weight changes. Eating inconsistently can cause the body to want to hold on to fat, making it difficult to lose, and harder to keep off. Eating in a way that you can sustain for your entire life is important for maintaining long term mental and physical health, and requires a certain level of balance and forgiveness.
Tips for lifelong health and [eventually] effortless weight maintenance:
- Educate yourself about nutrition and health promotion. Develop your own nutritional dogma. Your understanding of nutrition should be fluid, and continuously expanding.
- Be you own advocate. And for goodness sake, don’t drink the media’s health koolaid. You don’t need pills and potions, 8-week fitness plans, a diet superfood drink, or six-pack abs to be healthy.
- Eat when you are hungry. Eat foods that nourish your body. Remove foods that you don’t tolerate, that cause you to be unwell, or that cause gastrointestinal distress.
- Constantly work towards developing a better relationship with food, and with your body. Removing food restrictions is the single most effective thing I can recommend. Be consistent with your efforts, and be consistently forgiving towards yourself when you’re not.
- Health is a spectrum, not a destination. Your body can be healthy at a variety of different weights. First work towards achieving health, and the rest will follow.
- Lastly, be realistic about your body goals. You are an a unique snowflake. No one in this world has the same history with food and weight, genes and metabolism as you do. It is perfectly okay to want to be stronger, or more confident, but doing that with a distorted body image is damn near impossible. Find peace with yourself. You are beautiful already, start with that.