Jessica Alba does it. Miranda Kerr does it. Gwyneth Paltrow wrote a cookbook about it. “Clean eating” has picked up steam in the past few years as the healthy eating plan du jour. But just like any health trend, its meteoric rise has been countered by naysayers, who say it is unsustainable at best and dangerous at worse. In fact, the British Dietetic Association identified “clean eating” as its number one “worst celebrity diet[s] to avoid.” Whoa. But what’s so bad about incorporating more salads and veggies into your diet? It seems harmless…right?
Well, first, let’s define—or attempt to define—clean eating. At its simplest, clean eating is about consuming nothing but “whole” or “unprocessed” foods. Keri Glassman, a registered dietitian nutritionist and the founder of Nutritious Life, describes it like this: “[Eating] whole, real, unprocessed foods as often as possible. In other words, naturally nutrient-dense foods. It is mostly plant-based by default.” But that’s a pretty broad answer, no? The problem with clean eating, it seems, lies in its ambiguity. Sure, lots of people have a healthy version of eating clean, but because there’s no set definition, it’s easy for some dieters to take it too far (just like another food trend that’s become popular recently, intermittent fasting).
So what does it look like when clean eating goes wrong? On a basic level, thinking of food as the enemy takes the joy out of an activity that should be pleasurable. It can also, more seriously, lead to disordered eating behaviors. Even diets that are marketed as healthy or wellness-focused could cause a fairly new type of eating disorder, orthorexia.
Wait, what’s orthorexia? According to the National Eating Disorder Association, “The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1998 and means an obsession with proper or ‘healthful’ eating. Although being aware of and concerned with the nutritional quality of the food you eat isn’t a problem in and of itself, people with orthorexia become so fixated on so-called ‘healthy eating’ that they actually damage their own well-being.” When clean eating turns into a preoccupation, that’s when things can get dangerous.
Demonizing certain foods as “dirty” can also lead to overeating. If you’ve ever been on a diet, you know it’s not a super pleasant experience. You’re depriving yourself of calories and the food you actually want to eat. Stressing about your diet doesn’t feel good and it goes against your progress. Studies—like this one from the journal Appetite—have found increases in the stress hormone cortisol are linked to overeating. Additionally, increased cortisol levels can cause your insulin levels to rise and blood sugar to drop, making you crave sugary, fatty foods. And if you’re constantly obsessing over every bite you eat, it’s pretty safe to say you’re going to be stressed.
Because of its choose-your-own-adventure vibe, clean eating diets haven’t been studied, meaning there’s no scientific evidence to back them up. Of course, we know that eating lots of plants and limiting processed foods does a body good, but the likelihood of taking clean eating too far might negate those benefits.
A plan that’s been studied more is intuitive eating. In a nutshell, intuitive eating is the idea that you should eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Sound simple? It is. Instead of relying on complicated calorie counting or labeling entire food groups as off-limits, intuitive eating is about paying close attention to how your body feels and how it works in relation to what you’re putting into it. The goal, instead of weight loss, is to stop thinking about food in negative, restrictive terms. One study at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, found that “intuitive eating is negatively associated with BMI, positively associated with various psychological health indicators, and possibly positively associated with improved dietary intake and/or eating behaviors.”
Glassman agrees that what’s healthy for one person’s body isn’t necessary healthy for everyone. Her take? “I, of course, recommend a diet high in whole, real, unprocessed foods (that are organic as often as possible). For me, that’s eating clean. You can also incorporate animal products like grass-fed beef, organic chicken and organic dairy if that’s right for your body.” But that doesn’t mean there should be no wiggle room for the occasional slice of pizza or scoop of ice cream.