Why I Don't Use the Word "Clean" to Describe a Diet

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Please don’t go back through all of my blog posts to see how often I used the words “eating clean” or “clean diet.” I tried not to use those phrases, but they may have slipped in now and then.

Not any more, though. I’m done with them.

Why? Shouldn’t you want to be “eating clean” in 2019? Aren’t “clean diets” how all of those super fit women get energetic and glow-y? Isn’t it an admirable New Year’s resolution?

I don’t believe so.

What people mean by “eating clean”

People call some foods “clean,” implying that they easily glide through your body, purifying your toxic load, streaming nutrients in their wake, and setting all of your energy-makers to whirring. They’re so nutritionally good for you you’ll practically radiate with health when you eat them.

While other foods may not be referred to as “dirty,” that’s the implication. They’re the ones that gunk up the whole process, contribute to disease, and make your skin all wrinkly.

Yes, I exaggerated for effect…but only a bit.

There’s more than a whiff of morality involved with these designations. If “clean” foods are superior, then eating them makes you so, too. Aren’t the chia-smoothie sippers healthier, prettier, and more successful than the sad masses with their bagels and Frappucinos?

I’m a health coach. I should answer yes. But…I can’t.

This I know: Your food choices have a huge impact on your health. In turn, your health has a huge impact on how your skin and body look and how much energy you have to take on your passion projects. I won’t deny that for a second. Yet eating a certain way doesn’t make you superior. Your diet is not a moral issue.

The truth is we are omnivores. While you may choose to not eat a certain group of foods for ethical or religious reasons, that doesn’t mean that your chosen diet is superior or more “clean” than the diets of those who don’t eat as you do. Same goes if you avoid certain foods because they don’t support your health, such as in the case of food allergies or sensitivities. You’re not banishing those foods because they’re “dirty” or morally inferior. They just don’t work for you.

Unfortunately, you can go even further down this flawed path and end up doing a lot of damage to your health and well-being.

Orthorexia is (unfortunately) real

“Coined by Colorado physician Steven Bratman, M.D., in 1997, orthorexia (Greek for “correct appetite”) nervosa (Latin for “nervous”) is an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating. Unlike most other eating disorders, it focuses on the quality of food rather than the quantity. Often it starts innocently with the desire to eat ‘clean,’ a ubiquitous term to describe the act of mindfully ingesting only whole foods in their most natural state. But it progressively hardens into a rigid eating style that can crowd out other activities and relationships.” Jancee Dunn, Vogue magazine, January 2019

Orthorexia isn’t an official diagnosis (yet). Whether or not it ever becomes one, I believe our current culture is setting us up to think along these lines. Just as with the underlying assumption that being thin = healthy and being fat = unhealthy, we’re being fed “facts” that aren’t true and are also very unhelpful.

 
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Ask yourself these two questions…

Does the way I eat actually support my health?

There isn’t anything necessarily wrong or unhealthy with not eating certain foods, cutting back on carbohydrates, or practicing intermittent fasting. What is a problem is when you’re not getting the nutrients you need to fuel your body and your life. Make an honest assessment of how you’re feeling. Are you sleeping well? Do you have consistent energy? Can you go several hours between meals without feeling weak or “hangry?” Does your skin look fine (because stress and nutrient-deficiencies will show up there fairly quickly)? Do you feel neutral-to-positive about your food choices (in other words, you don’t obsess about it or feel judgmental about certain foods)?

If you answered no to any of the above, look at your diet. It may be too rigid to meet your nutritional needs.

Why do I eat the way I do?

Really, what is the reasoning behind your diet? Have you had a health scare recently, either personally or with someone you’re close to? Do you feel like food is one thing you can control in your life? Does eating the way you do make you feel like you’re “being good?” Do certain foods cause you anxiety, like you’ll lose control around them?

These can all be factors in developing a problem with your diet. If you suspect this is true for you, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help to your doctor (particularly a good functional medicine doctor), therapist, or health coach. Even talking this out with supportive friends can be a good way to explore your feelings and get feedback.

Instead of trying to eat “clean,” eat a wide variety of real food

It seems to be human nature to go all one way or the other. Our diets are no exception. I see this with people who decide they’re not going to be a part of this whole healthy-food paradigm. Kudos to those who refuse to equate food with moral superiority. But turning instead to the standard American diet of pasta, pizza, sodas, and other “convenience” food isn’t the answer. It may not lead to an eating disorder, but it will lead to other health problems—and it’s not good for your brain, either.

You don’t need to be extreme about this. In fact, please don’t. Focus on eating a wide variety of real food. If you’re unsure what that is, think of things that come from nature and that your grandmother (or great grandmother depending on age) would recognize as food. Enjoy the occasional indulgence, even if it’s some sugar-y, overprocessed concoction. When you’re regularly eating in a way that supports your whole body and all of its needs, a little bit of junk isn’t something to worry about.

And remember, eating real food doesn’t make you morally superior—but it can help you feel better than ever.

Wishing you wonderfulness!