What is “Clean Eating”? Navigating a Controversial Nutrition Trend

What is “Clean Eating”? Navigating a Controversial Nutrition Trend

Our 2017 Food and Health Survey revealed a disconcerting finding: Most consumers—nearly eight in 10 or 78%—say they encounter a lot of conflicting information about what to eat or avoid; more than half of those (56%) say the conflicting information makes them doubt the food choices they make. Initially, this statement may seem par for the course in the information age, yet we can’t ignore it. How can we make informed decisions about food if we cannot sift fact from fiction, or if we have not agreed upon what is true? These are important questions that both nutrition communicators and everyday consumers need to consider.

One of the more controversial topics in nutrition is the concept of “clean eating.” What is it? Where did it begin? And if we aren’t eating clean…. are we eating dirty?

What is Clean Eating?

We are a little over a decade into the era of clean eating, which was first introduced in 2007 by a Canadian fitness coach who stressed the importance of avoiding processed foods. Then in 2009, a former cardiologist promoted “natural detoxification” of the body through a vigorous elimination diet and lots of liquids.

Currently, there is still no clear or regulated definition of clean eating. IFIC attempted to better understand what consumers mean when it comes to “clean” through the June 2021 Survey: From “Chemical-sounding” to “Clean”: Consumer Perspectives on Food Ingredients. In the survey, we found that nearly half of consumers consider themselves to be “clean” eaters. When asked what that meant, one in five – 21%, ranked “eating foods that aren’t highly processed” as their top definition of the term; nearly half – 49%, rank this in their top three. Another 14% of self-described clean eaters defined it as eating foods found in the fresh produce section; 13% as eating organic foods, 11% as eating foods with simple ingredients lists and 9% defined it as eating foods with ingredients they just consider to be “clean.”

Additionally, that survey found that nearly two-thirds – 63% of adults responded that the ingredients in a food or beverage have at least a moderate influence on what they buy. More specifically, Americans prefer to choose clean sounding ingredients and avoid chemical sounding ingredients. Yet more than four in ten – 42% agreed that adding preservatives to foods is a way to help reduce food waste; 21% disagreed and 39% agree that adding an ingredient to a food would be positive if it extended shelf life, however 23% disagreed.

The Risk of a Movement Entangled with Confusion

Whatever you choose to label it – eating less processed foods, avoiding ingredients you can’t understand on a label, preferring a diet of only whole foods, the 2017 statistic can’t be ignored; there remains an abundance of conflicting information about nutrition trends like clean eating on the internet and it is not without consequence.

The lack of clarity around clean eating coupled with this movement’s tendency to label certain foods or ingredients as “good” and others as “bad” puts its adherers at unique risk for an unhealthy obsession with what to eat.

We’ve talked about how the pressure to eat a certain way can cause anxiety or excessive preoccupation around eating, as do most restrictive eating plans. Even with the best of intentions, “eating clean” can be muddled down into who can consume the purest list of ingredients; and in pursuing perfection, we forget that most food has been processed in some way. What we eat needs to be understood and decided upon in the context of our total diet, not in isolation.

Out of this fascination with eating healthy there has emerged a new type of disorder — orthorexia. While orthorexia has not yet been officially classified as an eating disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), it is a serious condition that according to the National Eating Disorders Association, causes a fixation on proper or healthful eating. Individuals struggling with orthorexia may experience a fixation on “pure” eating so strong that it harms their physical and psychological status. Alarmingly, one study found that nearly half of Registered Dietitians – the experts of nutrition science and education, are at risk for orthorexia.

Take What’s Useful, Leave What Isn’t

So where does this leave us? In the era of clean eating, how do we balance wanting to eat healthfully without crossing the line into obsession?

We can start by being clear about what we mean when we use certain phrases. Instead of saying “I want to eat clean”, say, “I want to eat more fruits and vegetables” or “I want to learn more about why ingredients I don’t understand are in my food.” These honest appraisals can help us figure out what we’re really confused about or looking for in the foods we eat.

We can also remember that food is only one piece of our health; an important one, but still just one. If you think of health as one large pie, consider that focusing too heavily on one slice will crowd out the ability to healthfully recognize the value of the other slices like emotional, spiritual, mental or social health.

Balancing healthy eating also means learning to check our sources. If you encounter some information about a food or ingredient that confuses you, you do not have to accept it as fact; you can and should talk with a registered dietitian or other credentialed nutrition professional. Lastly, keep in mind this one tip; take what is useful, leave what isn’t.