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5 Things to Know About 'Clean Eating'

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Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD - Blogs
By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RDRegistered dietitianFebruary 20, 2020

Ten years ago, “clean eating” simply meant observing the five-second rule. Now the term refers to one of the biggest trends in food and nutrition.

I like the general sentiment behind it: seeking fresh, healthy foods and paying attention the ingredients. But I think the term also has some serious flaws--not to mention a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings surrounding it.

So here are a few things to know about clean eating:

  • “Clean eating” doesn’t have one definition. Unlike “organic” or “low-fat”, the term “clean” doesn’t have an official definition from the FDA or other group. It’s a vague umbrella term that seems to mean something different depending who you’re asking. For one person, it might mean vegan. For another, it’s reserved for products with few ingredients. Someone else might think only gluten- and dairy-free recipes are truly “clean”.
  • “Clean eating” doesn’t equal “healthy”. I see the term used interchangeably with healthy and nutritious, but that’s not necessarily the case. Is a “clean” batch of brownies containing a half-cup of maple syrup in them healthy? Are “clean” potato chips, locally made with coconut oil and sea salt, a good-for-you snack? “Clean” is an easy way for marketers (and online recipe developers) to prop up their food as nutritious. That can cause people to spend more money than they need to--or be tricked into thinking something is more nutritionally virtuous than it really is.
  • Everything is a chemical. Sometimes I see “clean” food explained as being “free of chemicals”. But everything is a chemical, including water. If what you’re really wanting to avoid is synthetic pesticides or herbicides, choose certified organic foods (just remember that organic farming uses pesticides and herbicides as well).
  • Not all hard-to-pronounce ingredients are bad for you. While it’s always reassuring to see simple, familiar ingredients on a label, keep in mind that some pantry basics have intimidating-sounding names, too – like sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) and acetic acid (vinegar).
  • Clean eating isn’t morally superior. One of the biggest issues I have with the clean eating movement is the implication that eating in a certain way (often strictly defined and difficult or expensive to manage) makes YOU cleaner, better, and more pure--and that those who don’t have the means or don’t want to eat that way are somehow less than. Food should never be equated with morality. You’re not good or bad depending on what you ate, and no food is good or bad either.

So next time you see a product or recipe labeled “clean”, take a moment to figure out why they’re making that claim and whether the difference is really meaningful before spending your time and money on it.

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About the Author
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio. An award-winning reporter and writer, Sally has been published in magazines such as Health, Family Circle, and Eating Well and is a Contributing Editor to Parents magazine. She is the author of the book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a "no-judgments" zone all about feeding families.

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