Could Eating Clean Help You?

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Clean eating. It conjures up images of green smoothies and organic kale salads, of health food stores and farmer’s markets. It sounds so fresh, so pure, and oh, so appealing. I mean, who wouldn’t want to “eat clean?”

But, “clean eating” is a loaded phrase. And aspiring to be a “clean eater,” has the potential to cause a lot of harm.

Let me explain.

How the Clean Eating Movement Began

Clean eating started as a lifestyle movement somewhere around 2010, and it didn’t take long for this phrase to become part of the popular health and wellness world’s vernacular as a way to describe healthful eating.

At the start, it was really intended to mean eating mostly whole foods –foods that are as close to their natural form as possible. Things like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and unprocessed proteins. And by all accounts, the clean eating movement initially embodied much of what we refer to here at Green Mountain as health supportive eating.

What the Clean Eating Movement Has Become

However, since its inception, the clean eating trend has continued to evolve. Over time, it has morphed into what appears to be an acceptable form of disordered eating.

As the years have passed, the rules of clean eating, or at least the interpretation of the basic principles, have become more stringent. Now it’s not just whole foods, it’s only organic, non-GMO, preservative-free, pasture-raised, free-range, cage-free, whole foods. It’s gluten-free, dairy-free, soy-free. It’s raw and it’s vegan. It’s avoiding anything with ingredients on the label that you can’t pronounce. Or maybe, it’s avoiding anything with a label at all.

Frankly, what it really is, is overwhelming.

Now, I am all about freedom of choice when it comes to eating. And, I am not at all against making the choice to eat organic, non-GMO, preservative-free, pasture-raised, free-range, cage-free, whole foods.

Likewise, I recognize there are some perfectly legitimate reasons for eliminating some types of foods from our diets (for example, gluten if we have celiac disease or dairy if we are lactose intolerant, etc.). Often those are decisions that are personal, they may be values-based or health-based in nature, and every single person has the right to decide what types of foods are right for their bodies.

And importantly, what’s right for one body does not mean it’s right for all bodies.


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What’s Wrong with Clean Eating?

Here are what I see as the biggest problems.

1. The clean eating movement establishes a very strict and specific set of rules about what foods are acceptable.

Choosing foods in the name of “clean eating” provides people with anything but freedom of choice. And, if you aren’t eating these foods, it implies your food choices are not acceptable.

But, even if it were the ideal way to eat, for many reasons – affordability, accessibility, time and ability to prepare – “eating clean” is not a possible reality for so many people.

Does that mean that they can’t have a healthful diet? Does that mean that all of their food choices are unacceptable? Does that mean they are destined for a life of diet-induced illness? Of course not, but for those who believe this is how they should eat and aren’t able to, that’s how they are made to feel.

What’s more is that, when this all begins to feel like too much, it may actually cause us to do exactly what we are trying to avoid through “clean eating.”

As a participant recently shared with me, “eventually the list of ‘bad’ foods became so long, and I became so overwhelmed with the process of trying to figure out what I could eat, I just gave up all together and ended up eating [fill in the blank with your most forbidden food].”

No matter what your forbidden food is, no matter what it is made of, I don’t believe there is any reason why you can’t choose to have it. Ideally, your food decisions are always your choice. Moreover, pleasure is an important part of eating. It’s an important part of life. The problem is, in these scenarios, it’s usually not pleasurable, either.

When making food decisions becomes so hard, so complicated, when we feel like nothing we choose is ever going to be good enough, we are likely to find ourselves swinging toward the opposite extreme and making food choices that are anything but “clean.” Not necessarily because it’s what we really want, but because we feel so overwhelmed by it all. It’s that all-or-nothing mentality.

2. Clean eating assigns foods a moralistic value and affects our internalized perceptions of self-worth.

This goes hand-in-hand with the first point and is, by far, what I see as being the biggest problem with the movement.

Clean eating is perceived as being pure, virtuous, worthy, and morally-superior. As such, when we eat clean we feel pure, virtuous, worthy, and morally-superior.

The problem is, when we eat foods that don’t fit within the scope of clean eating, foods that are therefore dirty, impure, and immoral, we feel dirty, impure, and immoral. We feel guilty and shameful. We internalize those feelings and may even begin to see ourselves and determine our self-worth based on our food choices.

In other words, clean eating is simply a trendy way of promoting all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking about food. To categorize foods as good or bad. To make us feel bad about ourselves when we can’t adhere to its impossible standards and develop a tormented and obsessive relationship with food.

3. Some might even go as far to say that it’s disordered eating masquerading as a healthy lifestyle.

Over time, this can take a significant toll on one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

For those who do strictly adhere to the rules of clean eating, it may be the gateway to severe disordered eating behavior now commonly known as orthorexia.

Simply put, orthorexia is an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy. Eating behaviors become extremely rigid and restrictive. The more I read, the more blurred the lines between orthorexia and clean eating become.

Ironically, the restrictive nature of this approach to eating can lead to severe nutrient deficiencies, which ultimately contribute to a whole host of health complications.

And, for those who can’t strictly adhere to the rules of clean eating, binge eating may be the result. That experience might look something like this:

  • Restrictive “clean eating” fuels feelings of overwhelm and deprivation
  • Feelings build and build
  •  Eventually “give up” or “give in” and overeat non-clean foods
  •  Overcome with feelings of guilt, defeat, and shame
  • Vow to be a better clean eater
  • And the cycle repeats over and over and over…
  • In either case, the consequences of pursuing “clean eating” in the name of health can be the development of eating behaviors that do not ultimately support health.

A Truly Health-Supportive Alternative to Clean Eating

At Green Mountain at Fox Run, our take on “healthy eating” is a little bit different. And, after 44 years of helping women totally transform their relationship with food, I’d say we’re onto something.

Part one: Healthy eating is pleasurable.

This is a key ingredient in building a health supportive eating plan and the one that is all too often overlooked or forgotten but is made a priority at Green Mountain at Fox Run.

Why is pleasure so important? Because when we enjoy what we are eating we are apt to continue doing it. It makes it sustainable.

And, important to note, pleasure is about more than just taste. Sure, enjoying the flavor of the food is important. Enjoying how it engages all of our other senses is important, too. But pleasure is also about enjoying the way the food makes our bodies feel.

Pleasurable eating is about savoring the eating experience as we eat and walking away from the eating experience feeling better than we did when we sat down.

Part two: Healthy eating provides adequate fuel and sufficient nutrients.

This is what we expect healthy eating to consist of. It provides our bodies with all of the energy, fats, carbohydrates, fiber, proteins, vitamins, minerals, and fluid that they need to thrive.

We meet these needs by eating a variety of different foods. The wider the selection of food we can access the easier it becomes to meet these needs. Whereas, rigid “clean eating” rules can make it very difficult.

Part three: Healthy eating is flexible.

It’s being able to adapt to the situation. It’s recognizing that not every meal can be perfect and that’s okay. It’s asking, “what is the best decision I can make for my body in this moment?” and knowing that might mean choosing to eat a meal you wouldn’t ordinarily select because your body needs fuel and nourishment and it’s your only option.

So, if you are looking for a simple and truly sustainable approach to healthy eating, the clean eating movement probably isn’t going to deliver, but the Green Mountain way will.

If you want to…

  • Transform your relationship with food, freeing yourself from rigid diet rules and the often-ensuing guilt and shame.
  • Learn how to truly nourish your body in a way that tastes and feels good.
  • Trust yourself to be your own authority on what, when, and how much to eat.

…then we want to help. A life free of food and weight worries is possible, and Green Mountain at Fox Run can help you find it.  


2 responses to “Could Eating Clean Help You?”

  1. Tobie Smith says:

    I am interested in learning more about eating healthy.

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About the Author

Dana Notte, MS, RD, CD

Dana has dedicated her career to helping individuals establish a balanced and healthy relationship with food. She has extensive training and experience in coaching for behavior change, mindful eating, and motivational interviewing. Dana has spent years leading group-based behavior change classes, developing and leading interactive workshops for worksite wellness programs, and providing nutrition counseling to individuals struggling with eating, weight, and chronic health conditions. Her practice style is client-centered, compassionate and empowering, with the goal of helping individuals develop the confidence to achieve their health and wellness goals. Dana is the Nutrition Lead at Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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