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Why I will never tell you to "eat clean"
A handful of years ago, the term (and hashtag) “clean eating” was all the rage in the food and nutrition world. Since it has no formal definition, what it meant was subjective to the user of the phrase but usually somewhere along the lines of “minimally processed”, “whole foods” or sometimes even “low carb”, “grain free”, “dairy free”, etc., etc., etc. Even though there are still some influencers examining ingredients of various foods and deeming the labels “clean” (NO. for so many reasons), I thought we were past using “clean eating” as a term to describe how one eats. Maybe that’s because I try not to follow those types of accounts on social media and stopped watching the Today Show years ago.
The term is alive and well
I was recently asked to give a talk to women living with breast cancer, in which I would also help design a lunch menu. Obviously, both of these things excited me greatly - up until recently I had worked clinically with breast cancer patients as my full time job and have such a special place in my heart for them. And designing a lunch? How fun.
During a call about the menu, the first thing I was told is that in the past, the menu was designed specifically to be “very clean” for the guests/cancer patients. I will repeat again here that this term has no real meaning, but here it clearly meant no “bad foods” like bread, sweets or cheese. I think my blood pressure immediately jumped, because the last thing women living with breast cancer need is to be told misguided nutrition advice that makes them fear certain foods or follow an unnecessarily restrictive diet. I’ve seen it too many times to count. I strongly encouraged the menu include both vegetables and cookies, to name a few, and will probably address why in my talk (as I always did with my patients).
We have to stop the black and white thinking and labels around food. In this case, if your food isn’t “clean,” then it’s… dirty? Or “bad?” And you’re “bad” when you eat certain foods (NO!)? Add cancer to the mix and eating becomes even more stressful. This all goes back to diet culture, of course, because various diets, misinformation on the internet or social media almost always label certain foods as “bad” and it easily spirals out of control. The thing is, there is no one food that is “bad” for your health in its entirety, unless you’re allergic or have a chronic condition that needs nutritional tweaks (e.g., if you have end stage renal disease and are hyperkalemic, please don’t eat potatoes and wash them down with some OJ.) Further and arguably most importantly, there is zero scientific research on “eating clean” and cancer, chronic disease or general health.
We have to look at the big picture
Just like there is no one food or ingredient that is going to be your health-related downfall (with exceptions above), there is no one food that is going to prevent all chronic disease make you live to be 100. Not kale, french fries, blueberries, pizza, cauliflower or cake. Dietary patterns as a whole over time do matter, as does the stress you have around food and eating. If you’re following what you deem to be a “clean” diet, and all you can think about is food 24/7, feel extreme guilt and shame if you eat something that isn’t “clean”, say no to social activities to avoid eating certain foods or stick to your “clean” ones, that’s not healthy nor health-promoting. Following a plant-forward diet that includes vegetables, burgers, quinoa, cookies, fruits, fish, chocolate, etc. without much stress is health-promoting, because that’s what should happen in real life (and there is science behind it!). This is a huge struggle for many women, and a big reason why a lot of clients come to me for guidance.
To recap, I do not like the term “clean eating”
BS, as part of the title of this newsletter, is quite honestly the best way to describe the term “clean eating”. Other ways could be elitist (why are “clean” foods often super expensive?), a gateway to disordered eating or the cause of extreme guilt and shame around food. There are much better ways to support your health, nourish and fuel your body, and I hope I’m doing a decent job of explaining what those are in my posts here.