What is clean eating? We see beautifully plated pictures of colorful foods with hashtags that read #eatclean or #cleanfood. These images, like the one above, feature healthy-looking foods and promote a certain visual as the best and healthiest diet or lifestyle. In truth, clean eating can mean a variety of things depending on who is delivering the message. For example, clean eating can mean organic, unprocessed, local, or something else.
Plant-based eating is frequently labeled as a strategy for clean eating as well. But what does it mean to “eat clean” on a plant-based diet? And is eating this way necessary for good health? This article will share a common definition of clean eating, plus strategies to approach plant-based eating in a realistic way.
What Is Clean Eating?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, clean eating is defined as “the practice of eating only foods that are regarded as healthy, especially fresh food that has not been processed (given any industrial or chemical treatment)”. Yet, this definition is too broad. How do you define which foods are healthy? How do you take into account individual needs and health status? To help clear up this confusion, here are the 3 things you should know about clean eating.
What are “Clean Foods”?
Generally, the clean eating trend includes foods that are considered whole, unprocessed, or minimally processed. Many plant-based foods are often whole and unprocessed, so they are considered “clean foods.” For example, fresh vegetables, fruit, and legumes are all “clean foods.”
There are many clean eating followers that define clean eating as more than just whole and unprocessed foods, and add requirements like organic, non-GMO, locally grown and more. The more conscious a person becomes of their clean eating choices and environmental impact, the more specific and limiting their definition of plant-based clean eating becomes.
What Message Does it Send?
As Dietitians, we are always supportive of positive lifestyle change, especially diet changes that can lead to better health. However, environmental factors like our work culture, internet influencers, and more can significantly impact the choices we make and how we feel about ourselves, sometimes to our own detriment. The term “clean” eating is trendy and popular, but it also sends a silent message that foods not matching the clean criteria would then be considered…dirty?
Delicious foods like birthday cake, french fries, and pizza would be off the “clean list” but they sure all have their place in a healthy plant-based diet. Those following the clean eating trend would inadvertently label these foods as dirty or bad. The consequence when you eat them? Guilt. And we know that guilt has no place in a healthy diet.
As promoters of healthy eating and lifestyles, dietitians know that eating is about more than just the food we put in our bodies. We all have varying degrees of emotional attachment to food. We eat when we’re sad or stressed, and we also eat when we’re happy or celebrating. Most of the foods with which we have built associations over time would be considered bad or dirty in the context of clean eating. As an example, here are three words that you can automatically connect to food:
Cake, chocolate, and popcorn right? There is absolutely nothing wrong with including these foods in your diet. However, the key is to moderate your consumption and balance it out with foods that offer more nutrition.
Should I “Eat Clean”?
The negative feelings and guilt associated with “clean foods” don’t add up to a healthy lifestyle. Instead, try to approach plant-based eating with a more positive message, one that is inclusive and approachable. Incorporating more whole and minimally processed foods- without worrying about “cleanliness”- has numerous health benefits including lower cholesterol and improved gut health. These positive qualities make plant-based eating attractive, but it can take time to find the right balance in our everyday lives.
An “all-or-nothing” approach can be detrimental to our health. For example, the “all-in” approach means we try to eat “clean” 100% of the time and if we “slip up” it feels like failure. The “nothing” approach means not trying at all which can deprive us of the benefits of a plant-based lifestyle. Try your best to moderate your food choices the way that feels best for YOU. If that means including cake, chocolate, or popcorn when the mood strikes, the choice is yours. Include whole food, plant-based eating in your life to whichever degree you desire. Ultimately, the goal is to achieve good health and our diet is just one factor in that puzzle!
Have you ever tried clean eating? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
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