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Ask Reece

posted on Thursday, March 7th, 2019

Hi Reece,

When I hear the phrase “clean eating”, it sets my teeth on edge. I eat mostly organic, and mostly wholesome foods, but can’t stand it when people around me talk about clean eating, assuming I am “one of them”. I have tried to explain the objection I have to this phrase but to no avail. Ideas?

Unable to Neatly Contain Laughably Euphemistic Eating Nonsense

Reece,

What is the evidence that clean living/eating provides significant health benefits, over (for a purely hypothetical example 🙂 ) a diet with lots of veggies, fruits, and beans, etc. but with some candy bars and cakes thrown in? NOT “health” cakes of apple sauce, sprouted rice flour, and children’s tears, but honest-to-goodness sugar, all-purpose flour, and loads of buttery icing. Inquiring minds want to know.

Cakes Are Non-negotiable DelicacY

Dear UNCLEEN and CANDY,

The components of a clean diet could be broken down, and likely each could be proven to provide some benefits, but the “clean” label is nebulous, and has more to do with ideology and purity than health. A quick Google search of clean eating comes up with a variety of definitions, many of them including non-nutritional components such as mindfulness and environmental awareness when selecting foods. Very few academic journal articles that I could find mention clean eating, and the one that did define it said, vaguely, “an approach to eating which promotes the exclusion of processed foods” (Allen 2018). Without a solid definition of the diet, providing information on benefits or drawbacks to that way of eating is difficult.

Note that in an earlier column I touched on the challenges in proving that organic food provides health benefits — not a straightforward task. Nutrition studies in humans are notoriously complex and information on nutrition is frequently inconclusive or contradictory (Whoriskey 2015).

So, UNCLEEN I would like to clarify what bothers you; is it the assumption that you align yourself with a group ideology — something that necessitates insiders, outsiders, policing, and other lovely accoutrement, possibly including a holier-than-thou attitude? If this sounds about right, I would suggest being direct about your thoughts around the phrase and also inviting friendly discussion, if you feel equipped to do so. I think most people who use it aren’t thinking about the class, and often size and other insider/outsider implications associated with that diet. An example script could be: “Joe, when you described our meal as ‘clean’, I felt uncomfortable. It seemed to imply that certain foods are forbidden or bad, and I don’t believe that, even though I generally eat whole foods. What do you think?” I would love to hear how it goes, so please write back.

CANDY, I fully support your uncompromising dedication to desserts, and would argue that there is substantial information about the health and social risks of restrictive diets and orthorexia (an obsession with avoiding foods the orthorexic considers unhealthy) (e.g., Hunter, 2018; Nevin, 2017). I could find no reputable information linking moderate consumption of desserts to health risks.

I hope this helps!

Reece

Ask Reece is the Chronicle’s advice column by Karma working member Reece Steinberg, a health sciences librarian and food enthusiast. Reece provides advice with input from a variety of sources including anything from traditional etiquette columns to peer-reviewed scientific articles. He answers Karma member questions about dietary lifestyles, food science and fermentation, eating etiquette, and anything else food-related. Please email your questions to askreece@karmacoop.org.