Clean Eating: A Dietitian’s Conundrum

Although there is no “legal” definition for clean eating, most people believe it means lots of fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean grass-fed meat (or unprocessed protein sources for vegans) and avoiding ALL processed and fast food.

But here’s the thing. Eating “clean” implies that when you fall off the wagon (and most people do), that you are not clean (gasp!) and for many people, that leads to lots of negative self-talk. And who needs that? It’s a slippery slope from clean eating to what we dietitians call “disordered eating” where people obsess over every single bite and every single ingredient.

I see it all the time. People dividing foods into “good and bad” categories and that almost always equates to a “good or bad self” depending on what they ate that day. And if they ate “bad” foods, then they feel badly about themselves and they give up trying to eat healthy altogether. What I often hear is this “I was doing fine on Monday – eating lots of clean foods – then I had those potato chips and it went downhill from there”. This is what we call the “what the hell effect”, i.e., I ate a candy bar (or other non-clean food) so what the hell, I might as well just pig out the rest of the day.

The reality is, you can get all the nutrients you need without “eating clean”. You aren’t going to die if you eat potato chips and you aren’t going to give your kids cancer with an occasional frozen pizza.

The key is to be flexible and keep the big picture in mind. Yes, it’s good to include fresh fruits and veggies in your daily diet and to limit the amount of processed food and yes, it’s good to be aware of where your food comes from. But like any other diet, being too strict and rigid is a set-up for failure and in my experience working with chronic dieters, often leads to binge eating and body hatred.

Here’s an example of keeping the big picture in mind. I took my daughter to Inta-Juice last Saturday between softball games at a weekend tournament. We didn’t have much time but instead of doing what we usually do – go to Subway where we can get a reasonably healthy meal – I let her choose where we went. She chose Inta-Juice because she wanted a smoothie and a muffin. So off we went.

The smoothies we got were fine but the chocolate chip muffin was nowhere near what I would recommend for a healthy snack. It’s processed with lots of preservatives and it’s high in sugar and fat – the exact opposite of clean eating.  But she wanted it and we typically eat a fairly healthy diet so why not, this will show her how to be flexible in her eating, not rigid and controlling, which is what I see in people following strict diets.

We sat down with our highly-processed, high fat/high sugar, low nutrient-dense, “unclean” muffins and we enjoyed every bite!  In fact, we had a great time together and made a pinky-promise to have lunch out together again.  Later on, she commented on how she missed not having any fruits or veggies at lunch and that tells me we are on the right track nutritionally.  But more importantly, we had a great time together and because we eat a fairly healthy diet most of the time, I didn’t worry about it at all.

I hope my kids learn the importance of good nutrition and how it helps their bodies to grow and thrive. But I also hope they keep the big picture in mind when it comes to eating and that balance is the goal, not perfection.