“Clean” Eating

A lot of you are probably familiar with the term “Clean Eating”. It’s thrown around all the time in many different contexts related to nutrition, weight loss, and fitness. While at first glance it appears to be a harmless way of describing healthy eating, I’m going to tell you why I, along with many actual nutrition professionals, don’t like the term very much.

First of all, simply by the name, clean eating implies that there are foods that are clean and those that aren’t. Aside from dropping an apple in the dirt, I don’t think that it is appropriate to call some foods clean and others, well, not clean. After all, how do you define a “clean” food? Are clean foods only fruits and vegetables? Whole grain products? What about whole wheat? Eggs are a healthy food, but they have saturated fat in them, so are they clean or unclean?

It becomes very easy to see that this whole idea of clean eating doesn’t really make much sense. Sometimes clean eating is defined as eating only foods that have undergone zero processing, but you have to understand that virtually everything you eat undergoes processing. The only way to be sure that what you just ate was free of processing is if you planted the seed yourself, and watched it grow in the back yard without the use of chemicals/pesticides, and you  picked it off the plant and put it on the kitchen counter.

Many times clean eating is used as a strategy to achieve weight loss. Well, okay. But when fat loss/weight loss stalls or stops, what do you do? Eat cleaner foods??  Instead of clean eating, I think that it’s better to focus on eating nutrient dense foods. That’s because there is actually a way to know if a food is nutrient dense; it’s measurable. Nutrient density is simply the ratio of nutrients provided by a food compared to its total calories. A can of coke, for example, has virtually zero nutrient density. It’s a whole lot of calories providing little or no nutrients. A cup of beans, though, is few calories providing a heck of a lot of nutrients.

When we start centering our diet around nutrient dense foods, we’re giving the body the pieces and parts it needs to run at optimal levels. If we had stuck with the clean eating approach, we would likely be missing out on key nutrients. For example, maybe you like Cheerios for breakfast. A clean eater would scoff at the idea of eating Cheerios because after all, they come in a box, and you can’t pull Cheerios out of the ground. But the clean eater doesn’t realize that cheerios contain many nutrients like B Vitamins, Iron, and Folate.

To reiterate, It’s time to stop thinking of foods as good and bad. Food is food. Yes some provide more nutritional value and should be the basis of our everyday diet. But the body doesn’t care whether the B Vitamin you ate came from the box of Honey Bunches of Oats or steel cut oatmeal, because in the end we get the same molecule.

Food is Food.