Clean Eating: What does that really mean?

Posted on 13-04-2018 , by: Nancy Clark , in , , , 0 Comments

This post is by guest blogger Anabelle Harari, nutrition student at Tufts University and aspiring dietitian.

Clean Eating: A Food Fad Fueled by Fear

When I searched the term for “clean eating” 720 million search results popped up in Google, including an entire publication dedicated to Clean Eating – Clean Eating Magazine. It’s no wonder – clean eating has become a common term thrown around by media, food industry, celebrities and health “gurus.” But what does the term actually mean?

For some, clean eating is defined by eating foods that are whole and unprocessed- fruits, vegetables, legumes, and eggs. For others, the term is a more general idea of eating healthy food – yet again, a term that is highly subjective depending on the audience.

To get a better understanding of clean eating, we surveyed graduate students at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition – surely, if anyone would know what clean eating meant, it would be the students of the only nutrition school in the country. The results? A mixed bag.

Some students defined clean eating as avoiding packaged foods with unrecognizable ingredients, others defined it as eating whole, or eating a plant-based diet with no refined carbohydrates. The avoidance of additives, pesticides and GMOs was also noted, and a diet rich in whole foods and low in processed or junk foods. Still, some students said that clean eating was a meaningless term and a media-contrived concept.

When asked how they would define healthy eating, students responded with: “eating mindfully and without restriction;” “eating in a way that promotes personal health;” or “eating in a way that is best for your body based on your biological makeup, lifestyle, and mental/emotional health.” Others had a more strict definition: “plant-based diet with no refined carbohydrates” or “eating based on the Friedman Dean’s guidelines of the Harvard Public Health Nutrition guidelines.”

So what exactly is the difference between clean eating and general healthy eating? The verdict seems to be that clean eating is more of a trend or fad that is perpetuated by the media. Clean eating is about eating unprocessed foods, and casts shame upon “un-clean” foods. While for some this may be a helpful concept of eating, for others it can induce fear, shame and trigger un-healthy eating habits such as food restrictions.

As one student noted: “If you want to be healthy your diet is a tool that can help you with that, if you want to be clean go take a shower.”

By placing judgment on which foods are clean and which are “dirty” we are inherently end up judging and shaming people who make food choices that don’t fit into the box of clean eating. This can be especially detrimental to young women who face societal pressures for looking a certain way.

Clean eating is often associated with orthorexia, a condition where there is an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy.

According to the National Eating Disorders website, orthorexia is not a clinically recognized diagnosis, but was a term coined in 1998 to describe an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy foods[1]. People with orthorexia restrict their diet to foods that are pure or clean and often include cleanses to purify themselves. These restrictive eating patterns can result in malnutrition and weight loss.

In a recent study in the Journal of Eating Disorders, researchers found that there is potential negative social consequences of clean dieting and orthorexia nervosa, and point to perceptions of control and blame as potential mechanisms underlying the stigma of these conditions.[2]

In conclusion, while clean eating may have started out as a well-intentioned term to help individuals choose whole foods, it has since morphed into a concept that is overly restrictive, and borderline dangerous.


[2] Nevin, S. M., & Vartanian, L. R. (2017). The stigma of clean dieting and orthorexia nervosa. Journal of Eating Disorders5, 37.

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