There’s been an enormous amount of hype surrounding the term “clean eating” these days. Amazingly, I’ve watched so many unsuspecting consumers get sucked into the trend with very little effort on the part of its promoters. With wild health and weight loss claims being made by so-called nutrition experts, chefs, and celebrities, it’s easy to see how people get drawn in. In my opinion, however, the craze itself is nothing shy of a cult with millions of die-hard supporters eagerly seeking to either lose weight and get fit or just make money. Widespread popularity aside, the term clean eating is not new. The phenomenon itself is reminiscent of the bell-bottoms craze, where if one waits long enough, what’s old becomes new again within a matter of years. The concept actually dates back to the natural food movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s—a movement that essentially commercialized and profitized the health food store and organic food retail markets. I first heard the term “clean” associated with the word “eating” well over a decade and a half ago when I was a newly converted vegan. During that time, seasoned vegans were always stressing the importance of “clean eating” for good health, often also referring to plant-based foods as “clean foods.” Despite living as a faithful vegan back then, I never truly accepted this notion. To me the idea of clean eating was itself blatantly pompous, judgmental and self-righteous. In my mind, suggesting that we as vegans were eating clean inherently implied that all non-vegans were in essence eating “dirty.” Nevertheless, I remained a vegan for nearly three years, albeit cringing at the mere uttering of the words clean eating. Although I’m no longer a vegan, my past adoption of this lifestyle has truly changed my general dietary approach for the better. For me, plant-based eating is essentially a way of life, as I can effortlessly consume in excess of 15 to 20 servings of fresh veggies, fruits, and legumes on any given day. The only difference now is that I regularly incorporate seafood, poultry, and occasional red meat into my diet as well. Unfortunately, from a vegan perspective, I’ve converted back and am now living the life of a “dirty” eater… Go figure. But, interestingly enough, with the evolution of my personal diet, I’ve also noticed a total transformation in the concept of eating clean, where such animal-based foods are now generally accepted. In this day and age, clean eating seems to have a new set of rules that far exceed those of plant-based eating in the past. Oddly, there seems to be no real consensus on what exactly those rules are, as all clean eaters have set their own unique standards when it comes to which foods are “good” or “bad” and, therefore, which foods should be accepted versus rejected. On the one hand, animal-based foods undoubtedly remain “dirty” among vegan circles, but on the other hand newer breeds of clean eaters (Paleolithic and low-carb dieters) remarkably take on the dietary habits of carnivores. These new breed philosophies, however, are a little less credible, as they’re largely based on unsubstantiated facts and blanket statements about generally healthy foods like grains, dairy foods, and even seemingly harmless foods like carrots and fruit. Still, most proponents and promoters can’t even define or explain what it actually means to “eat clean” and why exactly it needs to be done, yet so many wholeheartedly swear by the practice and advise others to do the same. Seriously, with foods like grains, carrots and fruit being dismissed and put on the “dirty” list, there’s almost nothing left to eat! Might as well enjoy your pizza and French fries if it’s all bad, right? Now, I will say that some consensus does lie in the acceptance of healthy foods that are composed of minimal “real” ingredients and the general shunning of processed foods. But the latter brings about another gray area, as all processed foods aren’t necessarily bad for your health. In truth, there’s a multitude of minimally processed foods that are packed full of valuable nutrients. Ironically though, some of these foods exist in the diets of many so-called clean eaters—including pre-bagged and pre-cut vegetables and fruits, pre-packaged soy foods and yogurts, frozen or canned foods, nuts and nut butters, and, of course, those delicious protein powders and green superfood mixes. Unbeknownst to them, any product that has been altered from its natural state is indeed processed. In other words, if the foods on one’s plate didn’t come straight from the ground, they’ve been processed. Clean eating isn’t real. It’s all personal interpretation, personal preference, and general feasibility. Ask 500 people what it means to eat clean and you’ll likely get 500 different answers. A woman living in a rural area food desert once asked me if it were possible for her to “eat clean” with canned goods like vegetables, fruits, beans, tuna and sardines. I quickly answered: “Heck yeah! Just be sure to choose varieties with no added sugar or sodium and try to incorporate frozen foods whenever possible.” Understanding that she just wanted to eat healthier but had been sold on a trend she knew absolutely nothing about, I gave this woman an answer that was simple, honest and straightforward in a non-judgmental way. Having been raised in a food desert myself, I didn’t want to crush her spirit, especially given the fact that she was making an honest effort to eat better in spite of limited access to affordable, fresh foods. You see, depending on your socioeconomic status, resource availability, health and fitness goals, general lifestyle, and even your race or ethnicity, clean eating can be whatever you want it to be. The primary downside of the clean eating trend is the prescriptive yet conflicting nature of the rules and recommendations, as most are solely based on generic guidelines, personal experiences, and individual preferences. When it comes to enhancing your overall health and fitness, there’s no “one size fits all” approach. It’s all about incorporating a sensible diet based on sound nutrition. Such a diet is one that’s equally balanced in minimally processed carbohydrates (vegetables and fruits, grains and legumes), healthy fats (olive oil, nuts and seeds), and high-quality protein sources (whether animal-based or not). Don’t be so quick to jump on the clean eating bandwagon, as it’s not at all a magic bullet. In reality, the notion of eating clean is just another resurfacing of the same ol’ heresy, repackaged over the years and repeatedly shoved down the throats of unsuspecting consumers for sheer profit.
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