The term clean eating has become a more popular concept in recent years. It’s used to describe a mostly nutrient dense diet, filled with high quality foods that support good health. Most of us are lucky to have adequate access to good quality food. Whether or not we choose to select those foods or a diet made up of mostly processed and refined foods, is a personal decision. If we are inspired to eat a diet filled with really healthy foods, when does clean eating turn into a harmful health habit?
Understanding clean eating
When nutrition experts use the term clean eating in a discussion about improving the quality of your diet, they mean that the foods you choose to eat should have a nutrient profile that supports your health, your energy levels and mental acuity, and possibly even your longevity. It’s a term that suggests that most or all of the foods you choose to eat should be whole foods like: fruits, vegetables, seeds, beans, nuts, legumes, dairy in its simplest forms (milk, yogurts with few ingredients, unprocessed cheese), healthy fats like avocadoes, olive oil and nut oils, simple egg dishes, oily fish baked or broiled (not fried or slathered in creamy dressings), chicken and veal cooked simply, occasional consumption of very lean red meats, and whole, unprocessed grains and grain products. Fermented foods and foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids are also considered quite healthy. The intent is to motivate you to swap out refined and highly processed foods for these simple, healthier foods with benefits.
Is clean eating a good principle to live by?Most of us could use this food guide to help to shift our diet from the caloric, less nutritious foods we are likely consuming in too large quantities (fast food, creamy food, treats and desserts, highly processed cereals, breads, rice, pasta, red meats on a regular basis, whole milk and processed cheeses, creamy fats like mayonnaise, tartar sauce), to limited amounts of these foods as treat moments, and mostly eating from the clean list. It’s important to emphasize the concept of mostly eating clean foods, because good habits and healthy principles can unfortunately go awry and turn into obsessive behaviors that can interfere with quality-of-life and even your health.
Can a devotion to clean eating turn into a food disorder?
We are bombarded daily by all forms of media instructing us to eat better. We are told to discard certain foods or food groups, often times by individuals who have no formal nutrition or medical education. It’s no surprise that some people can navigate conflicting studies or questionable recommendations and decide to make the best food choices they can manage, without undue stress or anxiety. Other people seem to develop an obsessive desire to eat healthy foods with a precise, unwavering devotion to the concept. The fear of having less than stellar health because of the food choices they make, inspires a religious-like intention with food choices. Welcome to hyper-clean eating.
The condition orthorexia nervosa is a formal disorder that describes a pattern of healthy eating that has become an extreme, obsessive, psychologically limiting and occasionally dangerous disorder. It has some gentle commonalities with anorexia, but is quite distinct from that serious eating disorder. Orthorexia focuses on an unhealthy eating obsession, but the person still eats regularly. Anorexia involves a dangerous obsession with weight control. The distinction does not minimize the danger of orthorexia.
Someone who chooses to be vegan or vegetarian can easily navigate the landscape of regular food and express their preferences, and make sure that there is always a source of food that allows them to stay devoted to their diet commitment. Orthorexia is more about an all-consuming constant obsession with the food choices that literally permeates the entire daily food landscape. It becomes easy to see how easily clean eating can nudge a food obsession and turn into orthorexia.
Clean eating is being nudged by pseudoscience and gurus
Individuals who do not have celiac disease or clearly diagnosed gluten sensitivity, who choose to become fervent gluten free proponents, are usually inspired by pseudoscience, and literally convert to a diet that is not necessarily healthy for them, but they are driven to eat this way with maximal commitment. You can’t reason with these clean eaters. They have literally created a food religion. You often see clean eating to this degree in someone who shuns gluten, GMOs, dairy or soy foods.
A heathier approach would be a commitment to “limiting GMOs as much as is reasonable possible (despite the fact that the science is just not there yet to prove unequivocally that GMOs are dangerous),” or choosing to eat mostly organic choices, while still eating out at a restaurant or at someone’s home who can’t necessarily accommodate your needs perfectly. It’s about not letting your diet interfere with living life.** Navigating clean eating sensibly**
There’s no doubt that some individuals are more susceptible to excessive health messaging and rigorous food rules. It’s also really hard to avoid the impact of this over-zealous clean eating movement – be it gluten free, soy free, sugar free, or committing to a pristine diet of healthy foods only. If you ask notable nutrition experts like Marion Nestle, Dr. David Katz, Michael Pollan, and Dr. David Kessler, they seem to agree that we should be eating from a broad list of healthy foods, while enjoying occasional treats, so we don’t feel deprived. They don’t recommend the kind of zealous commitment (like Food Babe) that can lead to an eating disorder “in the name of health.”
So choose to eat clean within reason and avoid unreasonable diet goals. It’s the concept of moderation at its best!
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”