On the surface, the phrase “clean eating” evokes our thoughts and feelings about healthy dietary options that are unprocessed and highly beneficial to our overall well-being. An interest in clean eating is in many ways a positive shift in terms of our attitudes toward holistic nutritional health. In fact, recent statistics indicate a gradual movement toward healthier eating choices across the United States.
While eating a so-called clean diet can have many beneficial effects on our health, there is the potential for an interest in healthy eating to become an obsession. In particular, while today’s social media climate has the power to inspire us with imagery, recipes, and how-to’s, it can also showcase a carefully curated world of endless green smoothies, raw food diets, and toned bodies that may fuel obsessive behavior and result in unintended damage.
What is clean eating?
The term “clean eating” has become ubiquitous among health and fitness communities, and the specifics of its definition tend to be dependent on the context in which it’s used. Fundamentally, clean eating is about the inclusion of whole, unprocessed foods in your diet and the exclusion of over-processed, unhealthy foods. For some people, clean eating may simply mean that they attempt to eat whole foods whenever possible. For others, this could mean a paleo-inspired or vegan diet. Some people also opt to remove GMO foods from their diets completely.
In theory, following a clean eating–inspired diet is beneficial for your health, helps you maintain a healthy weight, and can sustain your energy needs—whatever they might be. Problems can arise, however, when clean eating ceases to be about health and begins to be about identifying different types of food as either “good” or “bad,” “pure” or “impure.” Dairy and gluten are two good examples of ingredients that are now on the outs for many people who follow clean eating plans, even if these individuals have no medical condition or ethical perspective that necessitates avoiding them. In these cases, clean eating can become potentially dangerous as it moves away from a healthy eating plan and into the territory of a newly emerging eating disorder called orthorexia.
Orthorexia Nervosa: What You Need to Know
Orthorexia nervosa is a term that was coined by Steven Bratman, MD, in 1996 to describe the health-obsessed behavior, or “fixation on righteous eating,” that he was noticing in some of his patients. Orthorexia nervosa manifests as a need for dietary control and a desire to only consume foods considered pure or good, unlike anorexia, which involves “an intense fear of gaining weight or becoming fat” and intentional restriction of caloric intake despite being underweight.
Because of the relatively new understanding of orthorexia nervosa, it isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition—the current go-to for psychiatric diagnoses in the U.S.—despite having a profound effect on those who suffer from it. The damaging effects of orthorexia arise when the pool of acceptable food choices becomes smaller and smaller, to the point where a sufferer may only find themselves able to eat one or two foods. Other symptoms of orthorexia nervosa include intense feelings of guilt if the sufferer doesn’t adhere to a clean-eating diet, isolating themselves from group meals and situations in which food has been prepared by others, depression, anxiety, and obsessive behavior.
Ali Eberhardt, a registered dietitian with a strong focus on eating disorders such as orthorexia, believes that while clean eating doesn’t always lead to orthorexia, it can often signal the beginnings of obsessive behavior. She says, “There are people who are able to eat clean without developing obsessive ideas about food. However, the more rules, rigidity about food in a person’s diet, or if there is any predisposition to develop disordered eating, the more potential for this diet to be a catalyst.”
Although orthorexia often begins with an interest in clean eating, clean eating in and of itself doesn’t indicate that someone will eventually struggle with orthorexia. Clean eating often begins with the elimination of processed foods from your diet, which makes it important to understand just what it is that makes a food processed (hint: it probably isn’t what you think!).
What does the term “processed” mean when referring to food?
The term “processed” brings to mind frozen TV dinners, sugary cereals, and mystery lunch meats—all foods without very much nutritional value that include a surplus of salt, fat, and sugar. In reality, processed foods are any foods that have been changed in some way during preparation. Although this definition absolutely includes the aforementioned unhealthy processed foods, it also includes store-bought and homemade methods of preparing food including canning, freezing, baking, and dehydrating. It isn’t the actual act of processing that diminishes a food’s nutritional benefits but the excess salt, fat, and sugar that are so often added to improve flavor in commercially prepared foods. In fact, there are certain foods that require processing to be edible at all.
Which processed foods fit into a healthy eating plan?
Unless you have unlimited time and financial resources, it is difficult to eat only homemade foods. Luckily, there are still minimally processed foods that have an important place in the average American diet. For example, frozen fruits and vegetables are actually preferable to fresh in many circumstances due to nutrient retention and convenience. Canned tomatoes are another example of a processed food that is preferable to fresh in many cases due to the short growing season many Americans experience in the northern hemisphere (when purchasing canned tomatoes, just be sure to check sodium levels). Canned fish, especially sardines and salmon, makes heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids easily accessible, especially compared to the time it would take to prepare fish from scratch.
Generally speaking, processed foods make the leap from healthy to unhealthy when they are ultraprocessed.
What makes a food ultraprocessed?
With few exceptions, frozen meals such as lasagna, pizza, waffles, chicken wings and nuggets, breakfast pastries, and TV dinners are jam-packed with all three processed-food offenders: salt, sugar, and fat. Deli meat, hot dogs, and pepperoni sticks commonly involve the use of sodium nitrite, which has been linked to health problems such as migraine headaches and digestive issues, as a preservative. Soda, juices, iced teas, energy drinks, and protein shakes can all be guilty of packing massive amounts of sugar into fairly small servings.
Everyone knows that candy and chips aren’t ideal foods to be snacking on every day, which is why marketers will describe chips as “whole grain” or candy as “organic” or “without added sugar.” The reality? These products are typically still unhealthy choices that aren’t fit for everyday consumption.
Do certain processed foods have benefits?
There are certain foods that are processed in a way that can actually boost their nutritional value. For example, in the U.S., milk and non-dairy milk products are often fortified with vitamin D during the processing stage, which is highly beneficial to people living in cooler climates with less daylight. Eggs, juice, margarine, milk, and yogurt are often fortified with omega-3 fatty acids, a nutrient that our bodies are unable to create themselves but are necessary for heart and brain health. Fiber is added to many breakfast cereals, crackers, and health shakes to improve digestive health and help prevent certain types of cancer. Regular canned salmon contains small fish bones that become softened and edible during the canning process, resulting in a much higher calcium content than regular salmon.
Of course, while each of these foods is nutritionally superior because of processing, it’s still important to read the labels and make sure they haven’t had an excess of salt, sugar, or fat added to make them tastier.
A Note About GMO Foods
GMO stands for genetically modified organisms, and when it comes to food, it indicates that an ingredient has been genetically modified. Although the term GMO is painted in a negative light by some authorities in the clean eating community, the truth is that there are very few studies on the long-term effects of genetically modified foods. Penn State University hosts a GMO literacy project that aims to shed light on some of the misconceptions surrounding the safety of genetically modified foods. The resource gives the question “Are GMOs safe to eat?” the following answer:
There is no solid answer to this question because no irrefutable evidence has been presented that proves GM food crops are any less safe to consume than non-GM foods. The fact is that GM crops have not been in commercial production for an extensive period of time, therefore the health benefits/risks have not been researched to a point where a conclusive decision on their safety can be determined.
It’s also a fair observation that the people most consumed with worry about the danger of GMO foods are financially privileged and living in wealthy, first world countries when, in fact, GMO foods may very well be the solution to feeding a growing worldwide population.
How to Eat Clean Without Exhausting Yourself
Clean eating doesn’t have to be a stressful endeavor full of deprivation and unhealthy cravings. In fact, clean eating can be a joyful way to nourish your body. Problems arise when the goal is perfection in terms of food, but it can be a rewarding experience to treat your body with kindness and respect by eating foods that are nutritionally robust. Focus on whole foods that you enjoy eating such as fresh produce, grains, legumes, nutritionally dense canned and frozen convenience items, lean dairy, and locally sourced meat and fish.
Also, make room in your diet for the occasional treat. Studies show that people who allow themselves the occasional less-than-healthy option are able to stick to their diets with greater ease than those who don’t.
Make it a habit to double recipes so that you have leftovers for lunch and dinner throughout the week. Grain and legume-based salads will keep in the fridge for several days and can be paired with simple proteins such as meat, fish, and tofu to create satisfying meals.
Shopping for Meat While Eating Clean
When sourcing ethical meat, it’s important to adopt the attitude that smaller amounts of high quality meat are much better than large amounts of low quality meat. Since ethically sourced meat is generally more expensive than supermarket meat, this is an especially important point to make note of. Whenever possible, buy your meat from a trusted butcher who won’t shy away from answering any questions you might have about where the meat comes from and how the animals are slaughtered.
Learning to Trust Your Body
Developing a healthy relationship with food is an important step when trying to eat in a way that is nourishing for your body and your mind. Eberhardt offers the following advice for individuals who may be questioning their relationship with clean eating:
I think if someone is wanting to eat well, the focus should be on eating a balanced diet and incorporating whole foods from a variety of sources without labeling it as good or bad. When we attach a label to food, whether it’s healthy or unhealthy, good or bad, we also attach emotion. If I eat ‘good’ I feel proud, like I have strong willpower, and am disciplined. But if I eat ‘bad’ I can feel shame, guilt, and a need to compensate. Learning to trust our bodies is a key element to developing a healthy relationship with food.
If for any reason you feel like you might be veering into obsessive behavior with food, make an appointment with a registered dietitian, family doctor, or mental health professional to talk about your feelings and concerns when it comes to your current diet.
If you’re looking to eat clean on the go, try the following recipe.
Curried Quinoa Pilaf Salad
This curried quinoa pilaf is simple to make and will leave you with leftovers for workday lunches and easy late-night dinners. Experiment by adding other vegetables and fruits you enjoy. Serve this salad warm or at room temperature with a side of chicken, fish, or tofu.
- 1 ½ cups of quinoa, uncooked
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 2 shallots, diced
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 1 cup of orange juice
- 2 cups of vegetable stock
- 1 tsp. curry powder
- ¼ tsp. dried turmeric
- 1 large sweet red pepper, finely diced
- 1 small zucchini, finely diced
- 2 oz fresh goat cheese or feta cheese, crumbled
- Zest of one orange
- 1 cup of finely minced flat-leaf parsley
- ½ cup of pomegranate seeds
- Salt and freshly cracked pepper
- Fine-mesh sieve
- Medium-sized, lidded saucepan
- Large salad bowl
- Rinse the uncooked quinoa in a fine-mesh sieve under cold water for two minutes. This will help remove the thin layer of saponin coating the quinoa that can cause it to have a bitter or soapy taste.
- Heat the olive oil over medium-low heat in the saucepan, adding the diced shallots and finely minced cloves of garlic once the oil’s hot. Stir until the shallots begin to soften and become translucent.
- Add the rinsed quinoa and stir until coated with the olive oil, shallots, and garlic. Stir in the curry powder and dried turmeric. Cook the pilaf for two minutes, stirring frequently.
- Pour in the orange juice and vegetable stock and increase heat to medium-high. Once the liquid begins to boil, turn the heat down as low as possible, cover with a lid, and allow to steam for 15 minutes.
- Remove the quinoa from the heat and let sit for another fifteen minutes before removing the lid and fluffing up with a fork. Set aside for an hour to let cool.
- In a large salad bowl, combine the sweet red pepper, zucchini, crumbled goat cheese or feta, orange zest, flat-leaf parsley, and pomegranate seeds. Fold the cooled quinoa into the mix and stir gently until combined. Sample and add salt and freshly cracked pepper to taste.
- Serve the salad warm or at room temperature as a leftover with fish, chicken, or baked tofu slices.