A co-worker approached me last week to share that she had lost 10 pounds recently after she started to “eat clean”. I smiled the way I usually do when I really want to be happy for someone because they are happy….. yet my insides start churning because I absolutely hate the diet industry. I have learned that it does not help to freak out on anybody who is on a diet. It does not help to tell them that over 50 decades of research prove that diets don’t work in the long term and they often lead to food obsession and binge eating. People don’t want to hear that. They tune me out. So I just smile, but then usually ask what it is they are doing (if it is something scary I WILL share my opinion). It struck me that I honestly was not sure exactly what “clean eating” was. When I hear the word “clean”, I don’t think of food. I think of Lestoil. Or Comet cleanser, Windex, Pledge. Maybe Mr. Clean. You know, soap kind of things.
Anyway, when I asked this sweet person what it was exactly, she said it was about eating more whole foods instead of processed foods. Now that sounded pretty harmless. Still, I thought I should check it out a bit.
As it turns out, “clean eating” can mean a lot of different things to different people. The diet industry and diet world is pretty confusing (I think because they must have to change it up a bit, to keep making money off of promising something our culture values more than anything else: weight loss). Anyway, some clean eaters might fast intermittently, while others might eliminate many foods, considering some foods to be “bad” while others are “good”. But the basic premise of “eating clean” is to focus on whole foods verses processed foods. Hmmmm. Sounds like eating healthy, which can’t be bad. Or can it?
If we have the means to buy fresh foods, such as good meats, fresh fruits and vegetables, real cheese verses processed, good yogurt and bread made from real ingredients, then of course we should do that as much as we can. The problem lies in the extremes people go to eliminate foods, the guilt they feel when they break down and eat something processed, and the ultimate goal of eating this way (to lose weight). The thinking is at risk of morphing into the typical “diet mentality” or black and white thinking when it comes to foods and eating that lead to trouble. When this happens, then it becomes just another “diet” that will likely end in just another failure. Not good for our bodies or our self esteem (in other words, our physical and mental health).
If you are curious about this fad you need to be smart about it (sorry, I have to call it a fad because of it’s focus on weight loss). There is also sometimes a focus on unscientific claims about promoting fat-burning, and a yucky feeling of superiority I have sensed (if I don’t want to eat clean, does that mean I am eating dirty? I don’t get it). If you start believing you are totally going to eliminate any food from your diet (such as your favorite cookie, or favorite fast food burger) then you are setting yourself up, just like any other dieter. If, on the other hand, you truly are working on eating healthier, then trying to do more cooking, buying more whole foods instead of processed foods and being more moderate in your intake of those “fun foods” that don’t contribute much to your nutrition might be ok. Denying yourself totally of foods you really enjoy will only make you obsess about them more, and could likely lead to binge eating the very foods you have decided you shouldn’t eat.
So, as usual, my advice is to continue to care about your health and work on learning how to cook healthy but yummy foods. Work on getting more in tune with your body, your hunger and fullness, and getting rid of impossible food restrictions that do nothing to promote your health while draining your spirit and enjoyment of life. Eating should not be a moral issue and we should not be judged by what we do or don’t eat. In reality, it is quite simple, just like it always has been. I just wish we could return to the good old-fashioned lingo of “healthy” verses “clean”. To me, clean will still always refer to Lestoil.
For a great article on the topic, by another dietitian, see Clean Eating from Good Housekeeping Magazine.
PS If you are not eating any healthy foods like fruits and vegetables, meats and grains, and you drink lots of soda instead of water, and then suddenly stop drinking that soda and start eating more healthy foods, you may indeed lose weight. It has nothing to do with eating “clean” and more to do with making some healthy choices.