By Caroline Young Bearden, MS, RD, LD
Search the hashtag “cleaneating” on Instagram and you will find images of super-lean women taking mirror selfies at the gym. There are also photos of low-calorie, “ice-cream” and “milkshakes,” plates of only vegetables, and a bunch of guys’ washboard abs. All of these photos are sending the same message: Eat clean, and you’ll be a much more attractive person with a better life than the one you already have – the one you have while you’re eating … dirty.
At its core, the concept of clean eating is not a harmful one. Making an effort and paying attention to eating more nutrient-dense foods, like veggies and whole grains, is a positive way to take care of our bodies. Indeed, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a varied diet of fruits, veggies, grains, dairy, and fats and protein sources. They also recommend caps on saturated fats, sodium and added sugars. However, you don’t need to look much further than social media platforms like Instagram or maybe people in your own life, to see that clean eating can be taken to the extreme, which is when things become murky.
Here are three reasons why clean eating can be unhealthy:
1. Clean eating could lead to nutrient and energy deficiencies.
Often, clean eating includes cutting out whole food groups, such as dairy or grains – two food groups that include foods full of essential nutrients our bodies and minds need to thrive, and to prevent disease. For example, a clean eating plan on a popular media site does not include any grains or dairy sources. Dairy products are a source of calcium and vitamin D that we need for healthy bones and teeth. And grains include fiber – important for digestion and weight management, carbohydrates – the body’s preferred energy source, folic acid -- especially important for pregnant women as it can prevent birth defects, and other essential B vitamins --important for optimal energy and overall health.[i] [ii]
Plus, clean eating plans often do not provide enough calories, and/or it is often coupled with undereating and over exercising, which can put the body into negative energy (or calorie) balance and create physiological stress. In women, this type of stress can lead to functional hypothalamic amenorrhea (FHA), a condition where women lose their periods. If FHA persists long enough, serious consequences, like infertility and osteoporosis, can occur.[iii] [iv]
2. Justifications for eliminating certain ingredients or nutrients are often not realistic or backed by science.
Clean eating guidelines say to avoid processed foods, refined grains, preservatives and foods with ingredients difficult to pronounce. However, the definition of processed foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), is any food “that has been subject to processing, such as canning, cooking, freezing, dehydration or milling.” And It is not necessary to eliminate all refined grains, like white bread and pasta. In fact, the Dietary Guidelines recommend getting at least half our grains from whole grain sources, which leaves room for refined grains in our diets.[v]
Moreover, it is not scientifically sound to recommend exclusion of foods with “science-y” - sounding ingredients like sodium erythorbate (a preservative), alpha tocopherols (a nutrient), or mono- and diglycerides (an emulsifier found in peanut butter) because they are not harmful to human health, and serve specific purposes, such as preventing rancidity and even foodborne illnesses.[vi]
Additionally, clean eating plans often recommend avoiding foods with other specific nutrients, such as omega-6 fatty acids and lectins (a naturally occurring protein), both of which are found in peanuts. However, neither omega-6 fatty acids or lectins have been scientifically proven as harmful to human health.
Since peanuts are higher in omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids, it has been falsely believed that peanuts can cause harm and issues like inflammation, which leads to disease. In fact, the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend replacement of saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats, including omega-6 fatty acids, which is supported by research showing the replacement reduces the risk of heart disease.[vii] Both omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are “good” unsaturated fats, and are both necessary for optimal human health.[viii]
And while consuming foods that contain lectins in their raw state can cause digestive distress, properly cooking and preparing these foods significantly reduces lectins, making them safe to eat and easier to digest. In fact, research shows that roasting peanuts reduces lectins by more than 98 percent.[ix]
3. Clean eating can easily morph into disordered eating, which can cause serious (and sometimes life-threatening) physical, emotional and mental problems.
Clean eating is a concept that supposedly enhances health but can actually do the opposite when becomes an obsession. Clean eating guidelines also include cooking your own foods, and usually include lists of “good” and “bad” foods. When taken to an extreme, trying to stick to guidelines like these (and ones mentioned above) can create added stress, instead of providing healthful benefits. And unfortunately, focusing too much on eating healthfully can backfire and lead to disordered eating behaviors, and cause nutrition and life imbalance. Severe food restriction (often seen in clean eating) can actually lead to overeating out of deprivation, as well as social isolation. It can also lead to full-blown eating disorders like orthorexia, which is defined as a “fixation on righteous eating,” or an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating.[x] [xi]
Unfortunately, there are many online, un-credentialed bloggers who support clean eating that are suffering from their own eating disorder or disordered eating behavior. However, not all clean eating supporters necessarily fall into this category. If you enjoy following healthy lifestyle bloggers, notice if they tend to exclude whole food groups from their recommendations, suggestions or recipes without a medical diagnosis such as Celiac disease (in which gluten must be avoided), or if they tend to promote the idea of severe restriction and the good-food, bad-food mentality. If so, keep in mind that this is not a balanced approach to nutrition or a healthy lifestyle.
To read more about what makes a diet truly “balanced,” click here.
- Dairy: Nutrient and Health Benefits. MyPlate.gov. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/dairy-nutrients-health. Updated Jun 25, 2016.
- Grains: Nutrient and Health Benefits. MyPlate.gov. https://www.choosemyplate.gov/grains-nutrients-health. Jun 12, 2015.
[iii] Endocrine Society experts issue Clinical Practice Guideline on hypothalamic amenorrhea. Endocrine Society website. https://www.endocrine.org/news-room/current-press-releases/endocrine-society-experts-issue-clinical-practice-guideline-on-hypothalamic-amenorrhea. Published March 22, 2017.
- Get the Facts: Sodium’s Role in Processed Food. cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/salt/pdfs/sodium_role_processed.pdf. Published April 2016.
- Overview of Food Ingredients, Additives and Colors. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/FoodAdditivesIngredients/ucm094211.htm#why. Updated April 2010.
[vii] Part D. Chapter 6: Cross-Cutting Topics of Public Health Importance. Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Committee. https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015-scientific-report/11-chapter-6/d6-2.asp.
[viii] Omega-3 Fatty Acids. National Institutes of Health. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Omega3FattyAcids-HealthProfessional/. Updated November 2, 2016.
[ix] El-Sayed H. Effect of Heat Treatments on Certain Antinutrients and in vitro Protein Digestibility of Peanut and Sesame Seeds. Food Sci. Technol. Res.. 2011;17(1):31 – 38. 2011. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/fstr/17/1/17_1_31/_pdf
[xi] Karin, Katrina. Orthorexia Nervosa. National Eating Disorders.org. https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/orthorexia-nervosa. Accessed July 18, 2017.