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Why is Clean Eating Unhealthy?

Updated: Jun 23, 2020

What is Clean Eating?

In recent times there has been a stream of diets that focus on clean eating. What is clean eating and why has it become so popular as a righteous way of eating? On Instagram itself there over 47 million posts tagged #cleaneating and while it’s not specifically defined, clean eating focuses on eating whole foods such as fruits and vegetables in their most natural state, and avoids processed and refined foods.

In reality this sounds super healthy but upon closer look clean eating revolves around restrictive eating patterns and excludes many foods that are deemed as unhealthy, dirty, and impure such as sugar, dairy, or foods that contain gluten. Once again clean eating characterises foods into two specific categories- good and bad, placing morality on food. This is turn reinforces the idea that food is something to feeling guilty about it.

The concept of clean eating also causes moral superiority to those who practice this diet, and potentially shame those who do eat gluten, sugar, or dairy. It may create the mindset “I’m better than you,” “I have more willpower” or “I’m on a more virtuous path” by being able to eat clean.

The Dangers of Clean Eating

Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits is not a bad thing but clean eating has turned into a perceived lifestyle. Clean eating has become a privilege of consuming nicely packaged foods with influencer-approved ingredients (many of which do not reap the claimed benefits!) Clean eating is targeted towards those who have access and can afford to shop at upscale grocery stores or fresh farmers markets. “A big problem with eating clean is that it implies a lifestyle-that clean eaters care more about their health and are proactively trying to improve their well-being. It implies that those who don’t care to eat clean are unhealthy or lazy- they are eating dirty” (Pike, 2018).

“Taken to the extreme, adherence to clean diets can result in an obsessional devotion to a clean, pure, and healthy diet, which has been termed as orthorexia nervosa” (Dunn & Bratman, 2015). In these cases the individual spends hours meal planning and researching “clean” foods, which can impair their ability to take part in social activities which can lead to an increase of pressure and loss of social relationships. Clean eating contradicts many national guidelines for what consists of a healthy diet, and the restriction of foods groups such of carbohydrates and proteins can have adverse medical health consequences such as iron deficiencies (Nevin & Vartanian, 2017).

Clean eating focuses on restriction and rules all in name of diet culture- to achieve a smaller body. It makes us think we can’t trust our bodies in terms of our hunger, fullness, satisfaction, pleasure and reinforces the idea we need rules to control our eating habits, and without a plan/diet our eating habits would be out of control.

Moving Forward

If you’re looking to improve your relationship with food try looking at mindful and intuitive eating both of which focus on adding all foods to your diet and paying attention to your interoceptive awareness which is helpful and sustainable in the long run.


With so much conflicting advice across mainstream media it's hard to navigate and find supporting neutral information. Remember to stay active, eat a balance and varied diet which include all food groups. Keep in mind there is no good or bad food as diets repeatedly tell us, and instead of clean eating lets focus on all styles of eating which include proteins, fruits, whole grains, unsaturated fats, and vegetables.

References

  1. Dunn, T. M., & Bratman, S. (2015, December 18). On orthorexia nervosa: A review of the literature and proposed diagnostic criteria. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1471015315300362?via=ihub

  2. Pike, A. (2018, October 10). The Dirt on the #CleanEating Movement. Retrieved from https://foodinsight.org/the-dirt-on-the-cleaneating-movement/#:~:text=Eating clean can cause more harm than good.&text=Plus, the pressure to eat,socially or at a restaurant.

  3. The truth about "clean eating". (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.eufic.org/en/healthy-living/article/the-truth-about-clean-eating

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