As an American, you would think I would be used to marketers creating new buzz phrases for things that either already exist or are confusing so they can make a buck. Or millions.
But apparently not, because I hate the term “clean eating.” It bugs me so much that on principal, I refuse to repost or try any recipe on Pinterest that is advertised as “clean eating.” Or Paleo, but that is another issue. This tirade is about the meaningless term “clean eating.”
First, I should explain that I’m a purist. Ever since I’ve been responsible for feeding myself, I have rarely bought processed foods. I cook and bake pretty much everything from scratch. My kids used to complain, “Why can’t we buy cake mixes like everyone else?”
I even made my own sourdough starter from soaking wild yeast off organic California grapes, and I make my own maple syrup every March by tapping a tree in my backyard. I belong to a CSA, and most of the vegetables I eat year-round are grown in my town. In Maine, no less! I love fresh, healthy foods.
So is there a difference between that and clean eating? What the heck does “clean eating” mean anyway? Not much, from what I can tell. The FDA isn’t defining the term, so it’s left to the world of advertising.
Does it mean that all food that isn’t “clean eating” is somehow dirty eating? If I bake and eat a cookie that I made with white sugar, is my cookie dirty? But wait. Some companies consider white sugar clean because it’s in their products, so maybe my cookie is clean, too!
I think the phrase was coined by Alejandro Junger to sell his books. And boy did that work! But what the heck is he calling clean? Those prepackaged shake mixes he sells on his website that are heavily processed and whose labels read like chemistry sets?
Someone who sells diet shakes and bars for a company called Arbonne can call herself a “clean eating coach,” yet some of those products contain white sugar. The first ingredient in their chocolate "essentials nutrition" bars is brown rice syrup, which, sorry to tell you, is just another kind of sugar. I mean, was I wrong in thinking that anything with refined sugar or simply a lot of some kind of sugar wouldn’t meet the definition of “clean eating?”
It seems odd to me that heavily processed foods containing things like pea protein isolate, dehydrated powdered vegetables, an assortment of fortifications and stuff like silica*, that are made who knows where, shipped all over the world, and eaten months or years after they’re created can be called “clean.” Maybe they're healthy according to some people's definitions, but they're not my idea of "clean."
Food author Michael Pollan advises choosing real food over edible food-like substances. Yet the king of “clean eating,” Dr. Junger, makes a living selling food-like substances and calling it “CLEAN” in all caps.
So we have yet another term to classify what we eat, but everyone gets to make up their own definition. This makes life even more confusing for consumers who are already really confused about what they should eat to be healthy.
I do not believe in putting any food off limits. In my mind, there are no forbidden foods. I believe that people should listen to their bodies and eat what their body wants. That’s how naturally thin (in contrast to diet-thin) people eat. That’s an important aspect of my approach to losing weight and keeping it off.
So while I encourage my coaching clients (and my adult children!) to choose healthy foods most of the time because they make us feel good and help us stay healthy, I don’t want them to be constantly judging whether what they eat is clean or not. It’s food. It’s either fresh or not fresh. Processed or not processed. For some people, "clean” apparently can mean processed.
Since “clean eating” has no meaning, let’s dump the term. Let’s just choose to eat mostly those foods which we believe are healthy, knowing that our neighbors, who may have different beliefs, might think those foods are poison.
I personally subscribe to Pollan’s approach: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.
I also believe that if we do that, we don’t need to “cleanse” our bodies periodically of toxins by purchasing and consuming more expensive food-like substances.
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*Silica is a mineral found in many places, including in sand and in those little packages that pop up everywhere and say "DO NOT EAT," where they're used as a drying agent. Silica gel is generally non-toxic, although occupational exposure to crystalline silica is toxic and can lead to silicosis, bronchitis, lung cancer, kidney disease and systemic autoimmune diseases.