Browse the #cleaneating posts on Instagram – nearly 45 million of them, as of this writing – and you’ll see some gorgeous, healthy-looking food: piles of colorful vegetables and whole grains, artfully arranged into salads and smoothie bowls. You’ll also see some gorgeous, healthy-looking people – selfies from self-appointed health and fitness gurus and social media influencers.
“Clean eating” is a phrase you’ll hear constantly these days in social circles where people care about health and fitness – at CrossFit gyms and yoga studios, farmers markets and health food stores, and among anyone trying to lose weight and get in shape. But its meaning isn’t always clear. The phrase is often used by people following a variety of more specific diet plans – keto, paleo, vegan, raw, etc.
So what is “clean eating” all about? And can this approach to dieting help you as you work toward your own health and fitness goals? Let’s take a closer look.
What’s considered a Clean Eating diet?
“Eating clean is about consuming food in its most natural, unprocessed state,” explains Clean Eating Magazine. What does this mean in practice? The magazine devotes lots of articles to this subject, but some of the guiding principles are:
- Choose organic whenever possible.
- Avoid processed and refined foods. The magazine specifically calls out white flour, sugar, bread and pasta as items to avoid, recommending whole-grain alternatives.
- Avoid preservatives, additives, trans fats, sugar, and fried foods.
- Moderate portions by eating mindfully, regardless of your specific diet.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Include healthier fats in your diet, such as olive oil, coconut oil, and butter from grass-fed cows. Avoid oils usually made from GMO ingredients and highly refined, like canola and soybean.
- Exercise your conscience when shopping – buy local and seasonal to reduce your carbon footprint, and meats from livestock raised in more humane conditions than conventional factory farms. Choose more sustainable seafood options.
- Prepare your own food as often as possible, as a way to help you stick to a “clean” diet, and to care for loved ones you share meals with.
The magazine also offers guidelines based on different food categories:
- Dairy should be full-fat, organic, and, if possible, grass-fed.
- Whole grains are “clean” grains. Grain products should contain no additives or preservatives.
- Meats should be organic and lean, and free of hormones and antibiotics, plus grass-fed “if your budget allows.” Plant-based proteins like tofu and tempeh are approved also, if they’re organic.
- Fruits and veggies should be organic whenever possible, but especially if they’re on the “Dirty Dozen” list – an annual list of produce items that tested highest for pesticide concentrations, released by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
- Nuts and seeds should be raw and unsalted; nut and seed butters should be organic and unsalted.
- Sugar intake should be limited, but the magazine offers some preferred sweeteners for making special treats: date sugar, raw honey, maple syrup and stevia, among other options.
- Canned items should come in containers without BPA in the lining. Frozen produce is acceptable if it contains no additives.
- Condiments should ideally be homemade, but some can be bought in the store provided they contain “no added sugars, additives or preservatives.”
The virtues of the Clean Eating approach
Phew – that’s a lot of guidelines. Clean Eating Magazine is of course only one source of guidance here. People often mean slightly different things when they post their lunch or their spandex-clad bodies on Instagram under the #cleaneating hashtag. However, the guidelines above are a good summation of what many people are referring to when they mention “clean” eating.
There is much to applaud here: a focus on learning more about ingredients and food sources, and the impact of food choices on our bodies and the planet. Being an informed consumer is always a good thing. Focusing on food close to its natural state can also be a positive diet adjustment for many people, if it means replacing highly processed foods with loads of sugar and calories (for example, packaged baked goods) with more whole grains and veggie meals. Many of those Instagram photos of “clean” meals tend to be pretty smart choices.
But there is more going on with the “clean eating” concept than meets the eye on Instagram, and it isn’t explained clearly in all the guides on a magazine’s website. That’s why it’s important to read between the lines and consider what goes unsaid when people talk about eating “clean.”
What Clean Eating advocates don’t tell you
Let’s back all the way up here and think about vocabulary for a moment. What does the word “clean” mean exactly, when applied to food? Everyone wants food that is sanitary and hygienic, but clearly there’s more going on here when someone tags their lunch “clean” and shares it with a million social media followers.
The old saying “Cleanliness is next to godliness” offers some clues. In our culture, “clean” often indicates spiritual purity. Calling some foods “clean” implies others are “dirty.” Choosing what to eat in this context becomes loaded with all kinds of judgments, internal and external, and implications about a person’s moral strength and character. The “clean eating” hashtag can point you to many genuinely inspiring personal stories of weight loss and fitness, but it also carries an implication of filth, moral weakness, even sin, for those who fall short of living up to a set of rules and the exacting discipline of a certain lifestyle. It is an ungenerous – and we believe, unrealistic and unhelpful – perspective for most people seeking better long-term health.
It’s also important to keep in mind that “clean eating” refers to a broad perspective on food, focused on more natural ingredients, home food preparation, and some ethical considerations, like the environment and animal welfare. While there are certainly some positive elements for those seeking weight loss and better health, “clean eating” on its own doesn’t offer a program tailored for achieving these goals and can muddy the waters for people seeking lasting change.
Here’s one example of confusing guidance. Clean Eating Magazine says, “Clean foods contain just one or two ingredients. Any product with a long ingredient list is human-made and not considered part of a clean diet.” The truth is, there are lots of convenience foods these days made with healthy ingredients! And knowing how to read labels and having a few go-to packaged items can make a huge difference in helping someone stick to healthier eating habits when they are short on time for cooking. But a trendy take that sees all packaged food as suspect is unlikely to accommodate this kind of nuance.
The verdict on Clean Eating diet plans
At Noom, we’ve identified one ingredient that doesn’t belong in any recipe or diet plan: shame. Because the talk around “clean eating” nearly always carries judgmental baggage, we think framing food choices this way can actually get in the way of achieving long-term, positive change in eating habits.
What’s important isn’t what’s trendy, or what diet has been declared next to godliness by millions of social media users. What’s important is what works. That’s why we’ve developed our program with experts in psychology and nutrition and harnessed the power of technology to educate and support you as you work to achieve long-term behavior change and maintain weight loss permanently.
Let’s take a second look at the scenario mentioned above – a person in a moment of hunger on a busy day. Someone trying to “eat clean” by avoiding packaged food at all costs may starve if there are no obviously “clean” options available at a nearby convenience store. Then, when working late, they might binge on true junk food, leading to feelings of failure and guilt. This negative, impractical approach can lead to giving up entirely on creating a healthier routine.
In contrast, someone who learns to understand food labels, and knows that no food is “clean” or “dirty” (unless it’s been dropped on the sidewalk) might reach for a healthier packaged snack during a hectic, hungry moment. That choice can mean the difference in creating sustainable habits that fit into a person’s real everyday life, supporting long-term results.
This is what Noom is all about: real, sustainable solutions to help people lose weight for good. Learn more now!