Eating clean

At work, one of the first questions I ask my patients is “what goals have you set and changes have you made?” since their initial session. An increasingly frequent response is some variation of “clean eating”.  My follow up to this statement is always “alright, and what does ‘clean’ eating mean to you?”. This is where the truth comes out: one person’s definition of a “clean” diet seemingly has nothing to do with another person’s version. So what the heck is a “clean” diet anyway?

Much like the emperor’s new clothes, many want to be part of the herd and claim adherence to a “clean” diet while deep inside they have no idea what they’re doing. It’s not their fault for feeling this way for two big reasons:

  1. Labeling a diet clean implies good, while everything else is bad or inadequate. Applying value judgements to people’s basic living choices, particularly to choices that affect a person’s family, is  fantastic way to drive down a person’s self-efficacy and self-esteem, and get them to buy into what you’re selling. You wouldn’t want to serve your precious children or respected elders DIRTY food, would you???
  2. There is no definition of a “clean” diet or lifestyle. It could mean all organic, or sugar-free, or chemical-free (not possible, by the way), or whatever else someone decided “clean” should mean. Remember, it is a term to get us to buy into something. Governmental health organizations, national nutrition professional organizations, and the like have no definition for a “clean” diet because it is not a useful term in any health context. It doesn’t say anything about what is or isn’t in the diet, it certainly cannot be used to claim it makes us “clean” on the inside (not even sure what that means, I mean, do you know how much bacteria is in your gut right now? SO MUCH), and it mainly serves to make us feel bad about our choices or life circumstances.

So what is a “clean” diet? Nothing, it’s truly not a thing. Can we all please agree to stop using this term, or only use it with scare quotes as I’ve done here? If you want some useful diet education and advice, go visit your friendly neighbourhood dietitian.

Actually, I would like to amend my previous statement. Did your food fall on the floor? No? great, then you’re eating clean.


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