In our ever-earnest quest for health (and perhaps to be part of the hip diet-following crowd), certain phrases make their way into our gastronomic vernacular. At times, admittedly, they stick in our craw:
Paleo. Whole 30. Cleanse.
Then there’s this one, alluring in its innocence, tantalizing in its seeming simplicity: clean eating.
It sounds, on the surface at least, to be a breath of fresh air — inhaled and exhaled, slowly and yoga-esque, through the nose. What, after all, what could be more basic than clean eating?
Lots, apparently. The headline on a Good Housekeeping column called it “Total BS.” Huffington Post UK wrote about “How Clean Eating Became a Dirty Word.” For every website or trainer or dietitian touting it, there’s another rolling their eyes or giving it a thumbs down.
It’s confusing, they say. It implies if you’re not eating clean, you’re an overweight sloth whose food is unclean. It can cause anxiety in a world that already has plenty enough worries — particularly of the dietary variety.
“I tend not to use the phrase often,” says Sara Asberry, registered dietitian at the University of Texas at Dallas, “because I feel it has a lot of mixed messages. It inadvertently is implying that all other foods are dirty.”
Julie Kuehn, registered dietitian and personal trainer at Life Time in Allen, Texas, loves it.
“When I hear ‘clean eating,’ I think, “Oh, yeah!’ ” says Kuehn. “I feel like, honestly, as a dietitian practicing for 23 years, I think we’ve finally stumbled upon the catchphrase that gets it.”
One problem, though, seems to be coming up with a mutually agreed-upon understanding of the two words. What exactly does it mean?
“There are a lot of definitions, and that’s part of why it can be so confusing,” Asberry says.
Kuehn defines the concept basically as “minimally processed foods. If it came from the ground,” she says, “it looks pretty much like it did when it was growing. A potato chip looks nothing like a potato.”
But, she acknowledges, people do get a little carried away: “Should we get all organic? All local meats? There’s not a clean-eating council to define it.”
In the past, Kuehn says, so-called “diets” revolved around eliminating something — for instance, carbohydrates or fat. “Everybody’s always trying to eliminate a food group, then another group of scientists comes out and says ‘No, eat this.’ It’s leaving consumers confused and baffled.”
But, says Asberry, many people are just as baffled with clean eating.
“If they come to me wanting to eat more fruits and vegetables and whole grains and lean protein, I can support them,” she says. “But if they come to me wanting to eat all organic and omit foods from their diet — ‘I hear dairy is bad for me’ or ‘I hear grains are processed foods so I don’t want to consume them’ — they’re eliminating really nutritious foods. A lot of times, if you’re eating too much of one thing, you’re not eating enough of another.”
As a dietitian on a college campus, working with clients who have eating disorders, she’s especially sensitive to how people view what they put into their mouths.
“We find the term ‘clean eating’ can be very triggering for people who already obsess about food,” she says. “I tend not to use the phrase because I feel it has a lot of mixed messages. It’s definitely pretty weak, and inadvertently is implying that all other foods are dirty.”