The dirt on clean eating
We see the term 'clean eating' everywhere – in celebrity interviews, Instagrammed breakfasts, podcasts and diet books – but what does it mean, and is it healthy?
Whether it’s sugar-free, organic, paleo or raw, every day we’re bombarded with advice on how to eat ‘clean’ and be healthy. The messages are often confusing, not to mention conflicting.
“There is general societal confusion around health, and if you take on board every bit of health literature out there, ultimately there’s nothing left to eat,” Sarah McMahon, Psychologist at BodyMatters Australasia said during a Radio National interview.
“There are a lot of diets and theories around food – raw movement, veganism, clean and pure eating – where there isn’t a great deal of research,” McMahon warns.
In today’s media environment just about anyone with an audience – from a chef or model to a blogger or TV personality – can offer advice on nutrition, despite being unqualified. This can lead to people making uninformed and unsafe decisions about their diet, and creates a culture where disordered or abnormal eating is largely normalised.
What is clean eating?
There’s no scientific definition of ‘clean eating’, but it seems to be based on healthy choices – eat plenty of wholegrains, fruits and vegetables; reduce salt, sugar and alcohol; and eliminate processed foods. The crux of clean eating is to consume food the way nature delivered it, or as close to this as possible.
Dietician Susie Burrell says, “Generally, the clean eating recommendations are a harmless, if not beneficial, dietary choice. It’s when people take it too far – cutting out all carbohydrates, sugar, dairy, grains or legumes for example – that clean eating can result in a number of dietary deficiencies.”
Health experts are so worried about the rise of obsessive eating that in 1997 they coined the term ‘orthorexia’, which means “fixation on righteous eating”. The main difference between orthorexia and anorexia is the fixation on perceived health, rather than weight loss, however weight loss often follows. People with orthorexia are obsessed with eating only foods they judge to be healthy; but the irony is that their health can actually end up suffering.
“This is one of the paradoxical elements of orthorexia, that someone is in the pursuit of health but the illness itself makes them unhealthy,” McMahon said.
The risks of clean eating
In the mind
Let’s start with the name. By defining some foods as ‘clean’, it implies that other foods are somehow ‘dirty’ or ‘bad’, and this isn’t a good mindset when it comes to healthy eating.
“Nutrition is complex; it’s not as simple as sorting foods in categories of good and bad and eliminating those seen to be ‘dirty’ or ‘impure’. Healthy eating is about a balanced approach to food and not demonising any particular food group,” Burrell reminds us.
While attempting to improve your diet is generally a good thing, if obsessive food behaviour starts to occupy too much of your time, or causes you stress, it may be masking other issues and you should seek professional advice.
“When diet and exercise habits start to negatively impact other areas of life, whether it be relationships, mood or anxiety over eating out, this is when we start to get concerned,” says Burrell.
Disordered eating conditions, such as orthorexia, can lead to a clinical eating disorder so if you think your attitude towards food has become unhealthy or obsessive, seek out help. Even if your GP isn’t a specialist in eating disorders, they can be a good first stop. Your GP can provide a referral to a dietician with specialised knowledge in health, nutrition and eating disorders. The Butterfly Foundation of Eating Disorders can help if you’re worried about your child or a loved one.
In the body
Generally, any diet that recommends cutting out entire food groups should be carefully examined – unless you have a medical reason to do so (e.g. lactose intolerance or coeliac disease). By excluding sugars, carbohydrates, dairy, or anything else, you run the risk of depriving yourself of important nutrients and upsetting the way your body functions.
In the case of sugar, most people can benefit from reducing their intake of processed sugars but “it’s when this obsession turns to all sugars, including starchy vegetables and fruits, as well as the majority of carbohydrate-rich foods like rice, bread, cereal, pasta, legumes and grains, that our nutrition starts to be negatively impacted,” says Burrell.
Avoiding fruits and vegetables is also a concern as this can cause your fibre intake to drop dramatically, particularly the types of fibre required to keep your bowels working well.
“When intake of fibre reduces initially, you’re unlikely to notice any significant change. But over time it’s common to see changes to bowel habits, reduced energy and feelings of fatigue,” says Burrell.
Avoiding carbohydrates can rapidly deplete fat stores, resulting in fast weight loss. While this initial effect may seem encouraging, it’s unhealthy. Your body may not be technically ‘starving’, but abnormally low levels of carbohydrate affect metabolism, appetite and cognitive functioning. When you begin eating normally again, you can experience rapid weight gain as your body clings to the extra calories.
“For some, this can lead to years of unhealthy dieting and a bad relationship with food,” warns Burrell.
Dairy is important for getting enough calcium and reducing your risk of weakened bones (osteopenia) and osteoporosis. If you can’t tolerate dairy and have been medically recommended to avoid it, seek advice from your dietitian on how to keep your calcium levels safe.
“For months you won’t notice any change, but as your body starts to realise it isn’t getting enough calcium, it’ll start to slow down some other functions, such as regulating muscle and heart functioning and nerve transmission,” says Burrell.
The bottom line
We live in a culture where diet messages are everywhere and anyone can spruik nutrition advice. It’s important to recognise that while well intentioned, being ‘too good’ can actually become a bad thing for your health and wellbeing.
“When things seem too good to be true, they usually are. Most extreme dietary changes, especially if they involve cutting out food groups, will have consequences. A balanced diet is still the way to go,” says Burrell.
McMahon agrees: “One of the main things we can come back to is the idea of moderation and balance.”
For more information and tips on a healthy diet according to the recommended guidelines, visit the Eat for Health website.
For information or support about eating disorders, contact the Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorder’s National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (Mon – Fri, 8am – 9pm AEST).