A closer look at ‘clean eating’

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In recent years, the “clean eating” dietary trend has swept the nation. Hip cafés, grocery stores, and restaurants are now advertising “clean” labels, promises and menus. Yet despite its widespread attraction, there is no standard definition of what “clean eating” is.

As a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist (RDN), I often have people tell me that they “eat clean” or “want to follow a clean diet.” My response is always the same. “What does ‘clean eating’ mean to you?” Not surprisingly, I’ve never gotten the same answer twice. The idea of “clean eating” is open to interpretation.

The “clean eating” craze can attribute much of its popularity to social media hash tagging and food photos, but not to reliable scientific evidence. “Clean eating” is a mixed bag of fact and fiction. Many of the food phobias, polarized guidelines, and elaborate health claims associated with “clean eating” are unfounded in scientific research.

Additionally, since the public understanding of “clean eating” is so variable and dynamic, well-intentioned attempts to “eat clean” impose a long list of ever-changing and frequently unsustainable food rules. Such patterns are of significant concern to nutrition experts, as very restrictive dietary approaches tend to be unrealistic and exceptionally difficult to follow long-term.

“Clean eating” also does not ensure a balanced diet. In fact, the more constrained a person’s dietary choices, the greater the likelihood of incurring nutrient deficiencies.

The Myths of “Clean Eating”

A closer look at some of the black-and-white rules of “clean eating” exposes significant flaws in its reasoning. Consider the “clean eating” statements below, all of which can be false and misleading.

MYTH:

“Don’t eat anything your great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize as food.”

“We need to start eating like our ancestors used to.”

FACT:

It is undeniable that food manufacturers today produce and sell more convenience foods, pre-packaged items, and shelf-stable food products than any other time in history. However, foods that have withstood the test of time are not inherently healthy, and novel food choices are not necessarily unhealthy.

Historical data proves that humans have consumed high-calorie foods such as chocolate and sweet pastries for hundreds of years. Additionally, someone who lived 100 to150 years ago would easily recognize potato chips, which were invented in 1865.

Yet that same person would not recognize kiwi fruit, which was first brought to the United States in 1962. Other foods renowned for their nutrient density, such as quinoa, turmeric, and sushi, have only been introduced to the United States in the past 45 years. Therefore, application of this “clean eating” rule limits access to highly nutritious foods that have only become available through advancements in food trading, crop growing practices, and commercial food availability.

See more "clean eating" myths and facts on our blog at UPMCPinnacle.com/HealthierYou.