I know there are numerous articles in existence dispelling the myths of clean eating; however, I also know that a great deal of the people promoting clean eating are foodies and fitness professionals. As a fitness professional, I feel it's my job to put my voice out there so that way the public can understand that fitness professionals are more educated than the myths some peddle.
Recently I read an article on VICE titled "The Unhealthy Truth Behind 'Wellness' and 'Clean Eating'" by Ruby Tandoh that argues against the term "clean eating" since it separates foods into the dichotomy of good/bad. Tandoh criticizes many diet fads, like a 'gluten-free' diet for people who don't have celiac disease, and emphasizes eating a variety of foods and enjoying those foods that we consume.
I remember that after recovering from my eating disorder, I almost enmeshed myself within the concept of "clean eating" since a few favorite bloggers of mine promoted it. I learned that clean eating simply meant eating as many whole foods as you could while minimizing highly processed foods. Despite this definition sounding reasonable, this isn't what clean eating is for many people. In fact, clean eating for many means buying into every healthy seeming fad diet, snubbing processed foods entirely, subscribing to certain food myths, like gluten is bad for you, no matter what; absorbing false science, like honey as a sweetner is somehow better than pure sugar; and harboring absolute distrust for legitimate scientific research that dispels many of their beliefs.
First, I want to dispel the myths of some of these food fads that float among the clean eating community as diets, lifestyles, and hashtags. I'll admit to finding the #cleaneating tag appealing for its popularity and ease of being noticed by tagging your stuff with it, but it is not a concept I believe in.
Let's take a look at the gluten-free craze that you see so often in grocery stores now. In fact, it's becoming increasingly difficult to buy products that aren't gluten-free. While many of the products I buy are, I don't buy them due to their lack of gluten. I buy them because they taste good--although cookies without gluten are what the Phantom Zone is to Clark Kent: tasteless and chalky and filled with emptiness.
Gluten, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, is "a general name for the proteins found in wheat...rye, barley, and triticale." So that's all gluten is. Gluten intolerance occurs because the body's immune system views gluten as a foreign invader and thus treats it as such, inevitably damaging the small intestines. This damage to the small intestines makes it much more difficult to absorb nutrients; thus, this is why people with celiac need to avoid gluten. People who are otherwise healthy don't.
The existence of gluten itself is not a cause for concern, either. All sorts of food intolerances exist, including--according to John Berardi and Ryan Andrews--fruits and vegetables! Yet, you will never see health foodists demonize fruits and vegetables because they are "pure" and "natural," whereas even whole-grain bread must be processed in order for bread to be made.
People with celiac clearly have to avoid gluten. Even people with basic wheat sensitivities might have to avoid gluten. But for the great majority of us, the gluten-free fad is not about catering to those who otherwise wouldn't be able to eat a box of Cheerios, but it's another fad to label something as healthy, charge more, and make money off the unfounded fears of gluten among the general population.
Another fad, and one I've talked about before, is the juicing fad, meant to rid the body of impurities and toxins. Now I myself love a good bottle of cold-pressed juice, but not because I'm on some juicing regimen. Juices by themselves are simply an enjoyable treat that should not be used to replace a serving of fruits or vegetables simply due to the general lack of fiber.
In any case, the juicing craze is downright irritating. You have companies shilling expensive juice cleanses that claim to "detox" the body, even though most of these cleanses never state what these toxins are and why we need to get rid of them manually. Just look up juice cleanses in Google to see my point about pricey cleansing systems.
Your kidneys, liver, and lymphatic system already do this detox work for you. According to Berardi and Andrews, your liver, for example, gets rid of excess amino acids by "converting them into glucose derivatives and free nitrogen for excretion." A healthy liver also naturally filters "toxins and drugs newly introduced into the body before blood is returned to the rest of the body."
You don't need expensive cleanses to aid in what your body does naturally. If you had to manually detox yourself, you'd be dead. Or this would mean that your liver, kidneys, and lymphatic system aren't working as they should. You would then need to see a doctor, not rely on an uneducated blogger's juice cleansing recommendations. Do we need foods to help them function properly? Of course we do! But when you do juicing because you think you're detoxing yourself, you're buying into false pseudoscience and wasting money when you can spend that money on a hearty helping of groceries more filling than juices.
Now let's discuss the "clean eating" term itself.
It's a vague term that has nothing to do with eating whole, nutritious foods and everything to do with fear-mongering and haling certain foods as superior over others. I am absolutely not suggesting it's okay to eat cake all day every day. What I'm suggesting is that such dessert foods should not be vilified because of their sugar or their fat content. Processed cookies filled with gluten are okay to eat if you have no issues tolerating such foods.
What clean eating ultimately does is it attempts to make you feel guilty for eating "unclean" foods. For a little bit after my eating disorder, I bought into the notion of empty calories. However, for someone recovering from an eating disorder, there is no such thing as empty calories. For impoverished areas with little access to food, there is no such thing as empty calories. For the family who can't afford all of these fancy foods these "clean eating" foodists peddle, there is no such thing as empty calories. Calories are calories, and we need them for our various bodily processes and functions. Whether you get those calories from a piece of cake or an apple, your body puts those calories to use. Of course, you don't want to replace apples with cake, and you do want to eat as many nutrient-dense foods as you can. What you want to avoid is labeling foods as good or bad. Sweets weren't invented to nourish your body. Sweets were invented as a means of enjoyment. So enjoy that piece of cake!
I am not trying to excuse poor eating habits, but what is laughable is that even when clean eating proponents post recipes of desserts, they're adamant about not including cane sugar due to its "empty calories." In fact, they're adamant about trying to make those desserts as healthy as possible in general. Instead, it's maple syrup or honey, simply because they have a few nutrients cane sugar doesn't have. The body, however, doesn't differ between the sugars of cane sugar and the sugars of maple syrup. They both digest roughly the same and will enter your bloodstream at roughly the same rate. The only difference is that maple syrup is ungodly expensive while cane sugar is affordable. Thus, the clean eating movement isolates low-income families, of which there are plenty of.
For my own diet, I do eat lots of fruits, nuts, veggies, and whole-grains, but I also indulge in a bowl of ice cream every day, topped with whip cream and whatever else I want on it--if ice cream is available, of course. I also indulge in granola bars and fig bars if they're available. And let's not forget the pancakes and maple syrup! I exercise daily as well and try to get in plenty of purposeful movement. Sure, when I cleaned my diet up to incorporate more whole foods I lost my desire to eat the many processed foods I used to; yet, I'm not going to demonize a chocolate chip cookie for being processed and try to shill some alternative to it.
Let's be honest here. Mashed bananas or whatever that recipe is could never replace a good bowl of ice cream. I'm certain it probably tastes good, but if you want ice cream, eat ice cream! Alternatives are not the same.
It's fine if you want to eat alternatives, especially if you have a food intolerance. But it's ridiculous to find a pricey alternative to many desserts on the market when eating a piece of cheesecake is not going to suddenly make the average person fat, sickly, or unhealthy.
Food should be about nourishment, but it should also be about enjoyment. We have the abundance, the choices, and the ability to enjoy food. Eat well, but it's okay to indulge in a bowl of ice cream without fervently seeking an alternative to it because you feel you need to eat healthy 24/7 lest something cataclysmic happen to you.
We ultimately need to be able to eat without guilt.
Berardi, John, and Andrews, Ryan (2016). The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition. Precision Nutrition.
ACE Certified Personal Trainer, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, nutrition coach, young adult author, moody ballerina.
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The views expressed on this blog are entirely my own. Any advice I offer is not to be taken as medical advice. If you think you have contraindications to exercise, please see your physician before implementing any sample workout plans I present on this blog.
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