One of the most popular fad diets in recent years has been what many people refer to as “clean eating.” You may have heard this buzzword or known friends who claim to only eat clean. But what exactly is clean eating? Does it really provide health benefits or is it just another fad? Does it have a downside?
The idea behind clean eating is to avoid processed and refined foods and foods with artificial ingredients, like artificial sweeteners and preservatives, by only eating whole, natural foods. But just as there are different levels of vegetarianism, one person who follows a clean diet may have different ideas of what that entails than another. For example, some people who follow a clean diet won’t eat anything that comes in a box or can, while others may only eat organic foods and be very restrictive with what they will eat.
While there are health benefits to eating a mostly clean diet full of whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, nuts, and whole grains, like any fad diet, there are drawbacks too. Most of the problems have to do with the unhealthy mindset that so-called clean eating can create rather than the idea of eating healthy, whole foods.
Clean eating isn’t the only path to health.
There are lots of articles, books, magazines, and websites dedicated to clean eating. They all claim that following a clean diet will offer many health benefits, including weight loss, more energy, clear skin, and less risk of developing diseases like cancer or type 2 diabetes.
None of these health claims are substantiated though. According to an article in the British Medical Journal, many of these supposed health benefits to clean eating are a “loose interpretation of facts.” While a clean diet can definitely help you feel better, so can many other ways of less restrictive eating.
Clean eating isn’t always healthy.
While clean eating can offer health benefits because a person is making healthy choices and choosing mostly whole foods without preservatives, added sugars, or other additives, there is also a darker side to this type of diet. A constant focus on clean vs. dirty foods may cause some people to become overly obsessed with what they eat or won’t eat that they develop a disordered eating pattern, which can significantly affect their mental health.
For example, some people become so obsessed with eating only the cleanest foods to the point that they mentally or physically punish themselves if they eat something that they don’t consider “clean.” Or they feel enormous guilt if they eat something “dirty,” and it affects their mood for the entire day.
Good additives vs. bad additives.
Not all foods that contain additives are unhealthy. Some foods, such as milk, orange juice, or other products that are enriched with additives like Vitamin D can be beneficial for your health. There is a high prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency among young adults and elderly people in the U.S., and it is difficult to get the appropriate amount of Vitamin D from whole foods alone.
On the other hand, additives such as tans fats that are added to many processed foods to preserve their shelf life can increase cholesterol levels and have long-term effects on heart health. Reading food labels on packaged foods is always a good idea to know what is or isn’t in a packaged food.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be restrictive.
A clean diet doesn’t necessarily equal a healthy diet. Most recommendations for a healthy diet do not limit foods that are packaged or prepared. The problem lies in the mindset many people develop with trying to maintain what they think is a clean diet and becoming food-obsessed to the point it causes disordered eating. People following a clean diet aren’t necessarily doing something that is bad for their health, but rather it is their attitudes about food that can be affected and can develop into an unhealthy pattern.
A healthy diet doesn’t have to be as restrictive as many of the fad diets that claim to be clean. A healthy diet should contain the following, according to Harvard University:
- A variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Healthy oils such as olive oil or sunflower oil, but no trans fats like saturated fat and hydrogenated oils.
- Whole grains such a whole wheat bread, pasta, and brown rice, but no refined grains such as white bread or rice.
- Lean protein such as poultry, fish, nuts, and beans, but no highly processed meats such as bacon and sausage.
- Lots of water! Tea or coffee with no sugar added is also OK in moderation, but no soft drinks or energy drinks, and limiting milk or juice servings.
- No fried foods.
- Limited alcohol consumption.