Clean Eating – What is behind the nutrition trend, where are the points of criticism and is the trend still up-to-date?
The term “clean eating” was shaped in 2006 by Tosca Reno. While this form of nutrition was launched back then as a diet, it has made its big comeback as a lifestyle trend in recent years. Thanks to social media, influencers and bloggers, “clean eating” is gaining a reach like never before. This is shown by 48.5 million Instagram posts with the hashtag #cleaneating. But what does “clean eating” actually mean and is this trend actually contemporary?
Although I had a rough idea of “clean eating”, I never knew exactly what principles build this concept and where this trend was actually coming from. I also asked myself whether this trend is still up to date and what would be critics about it. If you are also interested in this topic, this article will hopefully help you to get more insights about it.
Clean eating describes a natural form of nutrition. The focus is on pure, fresh and unprocessed foods, in best case homemade. Conversely, its no (heavily) processed foods, ready-to-eat meals or food that contains artificial preservatives, sweeteners, colors and flavorings.
The principle of “clean eating” was revolutionized by the Canadian fitness model Tosca Reno in 2006 with the book “The Eat-Clean Diet”. In the USA, “clean eating” is now one of the most popular diets among consumers. (Wendy Bazilian, 2019). The nutrition trend has also established itself in Germany (Christin Ilgner, 2018).
If the diet is strictly laid out, the consumption of alcohol, sugar and animal products is prohibited (Julia Wild, 2015). But there are also less strict forms that see “clean eating” as a holistic approach to focus on fresh and less processed foods of high quality. It’s not about “all or nothing” – clean eating is understood as a navigation for the selection of wholesome and healthy foods. (Wendy Bazilian, 2019)
The goals of clean eating can be very different. The clean eating trend started by Tosca Reno sees clean eating primarily as a diet and promises weight loss and weight control. Nowadays, clean eating is also understood as a general lifestyle trend that promises better skin, more energy and general wellbeing, among other things.
2. Classic basic rules for clean eating
The Clean eating principle is based on a few rules:
- No processed foods: Processed foods often contain artificial ingredients and / or added sugar, fats, or salt. At the same time, they hardly contain any nutritional values. According to the clean eating principle, foods with added synthetic chemicals, pesticides (herbicides, fungicides, insecticides) and preservatives as well as artificial sweeteners, flavors and colors should be avoided. Instead, you should eat whole, fresh and no or only minimally processed foods.
- No sugar and chemical sweeteners: Sugar is highly processed and linked to several health problems. That is why sugar and chemical sweeteners are prohibited in Clean Eating. There are natural alternatives to sugar, such as date paste or date syrup, maple syrup, agave syrup, but you have to keep in mind that no sugar alternative is harmless. It is best to consume foods in their natural, unsweetened state and to re-appreciate the natural sweetness and flavors of foods.
- Avoidance of vegetable oils and margarine: Vegetable oils and margarine are produced by chemical extraction, which means that they are highly processed and therefore do not comply with the principle of clean eating. For a healthy diet, healthy fats such as nuts, avocado and coconut oil are recommended instead. If you cannot / do not want to do without vegetable oils completely, you should use olive oil.
- Healthy breakfast: Breakfast counts as the most important meal of the day following the Clean Eating framework. A full breakfast stimulates the metabolism and provides the body with enough energy for the day. This also prevents hunger attacks.
- Drinks: You should drink at least 2 liters of water a day. Sweetened drinks are a no go. In the stricter form, coffee and alcohol are also prohibited.
- More herbs and spices, less salt: Since salt puts strain on the kidneys and can lead to water retention in the body, meals should be prepared with fresh herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger, cumin or chilli.
- Whole grain instead of wheat: Since the shell of the whole grain is removed with wheat flour and important nutrients are lost, whole grain products should always be used.
- Eat many small meals a day: In order to keep the blood sugar level constant and to avoid cravings, it is recommenced to eat up to 6 small meals per day.
- Lots of fruit and vegetables: Fruit and vegetables optimally supply the body with vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and fiber. Therefore, fruits and vegetables should be a main part of the nutrition plan. Clean eating also means acting in the interests of the environment. Therefore, food with long transport routes should be avoided. Seasonal and regional fruit and vegetables in organic quality are recommended here.
3. Criticism of the “clean eating” trend
With the renewed popularity of clean eating in recent years, this trend is increasingly criticized and questioned. I researched and summarized a few points of criticism that are relevant to me:
- Term leads to incorrect implication: The term “clean eating” denotes “clean eating”. The expression implies that food that does not fall under the definition of clean eating is, as it were, dirty and bad. However, this meaning is wrong. Lightly processed food can also be healthy. I mean, pasta are also theoretically easily processed and are not unhealthy foods per se, right? This mis-implication is critical because it categorizes and rates foods. It is precisely this type of evaluation that carries the risk of making people feel bad and lazy if they do not live up to this idealization. And this insecure attitude towards food is certainly not healthy and can also lead to food shaming. (Jaclyn London, 2020)
- Elitist trend: In addition, the food trend is criticized for not paying enough attention to the necessary access to fresh, healthy food. Because not everyone has the money, the time or the opportunity to buy fresh, nutritious food every day and to prepare it themselves. (Jaclyn London, 2020). Accordingly, “clean eating” is often seen as an elitist trend for the western world.
- Lack of scientific basis: The clean eating method is also criticized for its lack of scientific evidence. For example, there are no studies to show that breakfast is actually good for health. Other dubious statements as such are also criticized. Coconut oil is classified as a clean food and is also used for many “clean eating” recipes. However, the American Heart Association warns that consuming coconut oil can lead to higher LDL cholesterol (Bee Wilson, 2017). “Clean foods” should be considered relatively and should be used (in some cases at least) only in moderation.
- Lost in regionality: Although the original idea of clean eating refers to fresh, seasonal and regional products and takes environmental considerations into account, superfoods and exotic, clean foods such as chia seeds, avocado and coconut oil are increasingly being integrated in the course of the renewed trend. But many of these products are imported from distant countries, leaving a large carbon footprint and other dramatic effects. So no trace of sustainability. This point should also be questioned critically. Fancy superfoods should be replaced by regional alternatives.
- Commercial Industry: “Clean Eating” was mainly picked up by bloggers and influencers and has developed into a multi-million dollar industry. The market is particularly dominated by young, pretty women who promise to improve the health of their readers with their cookbooks and blogs promoting their recipes and their food philosophy. Among them, however, there are also questionable statements such as in the cookbook “Ready Steady Glow” by Madeleine Shaw. Here she describes that generally beige-colored foods such as pasta, bread, and pizza should be avoided because they are full of chemicals, preservatives and genetically modified wheat. Statements like this are criticized by nutritionists, especially since they are not true. (Bee Wilson, 2017). Because bread, for example, even if it was made with wheat flour, is generally not unhealthy.
4. My conclusion
I personally love healthy, fresh and unprocessed food and that’s why I like this original basic idea of clean eating. For a healthy diet, fruit and vegetables are definitely my focus, and cooking and baking in my own kitchen is also important to me. Because I like to know what I’ve got on my plate. However, I think it’s perfectly fine to buy lightly processed foods such as pasta, vegan cheese, puff pastry, bread, etc. and that’s perfectly fine with me. It is important to me to eat a variety of ingredients with lots of plant-based foods and whole grains. However, I am against strict dietary regulations, because there should always be room for flexibility, exception and adaptation. I also have ready-made pizza and chocolate once in a while and I definitely don’t (wanna) feel bad about it. Even if things like frozen pizza and chocolate may not be great for the nutritional balance, it is good for my well-being, and with that, it’s perfectly fine for me.
What became particularly clear to me while writing the article is that you shouldn’t be blinded by social media. Too often I get tempted to buy trendy superfoods that I can definitely replace with regional alternatives. Or I feel guilty because I didn’t have the time or inclination to prepare a super duper healthy dish while my Instagram feed is bursting with colorful healthy salad bowls. It is important to bear in mind the basic idea behind clean eating: healthy eating that focuses on fresh, wholesome and nutritious foods. But the most important things to me is to enjoy food and to fuel and nourish you body with it.
5. My personal tips for a clean eating lifestyle in a healthy way
Nevertheless, I have a few little tips that can help you to integrate “clean eating” more into your everyday life:
- Take your time grocery shopping: It helped me a lot personally to plan more time for grocery shopping. So you can deal more with the products and their ingredients. For me, it also includes a weekly visit to the farmers’ market. Fresh and seasonal products from the region are simply the best! The weekly shopping tour has become a true highlight for me. It makes me just so happy to fill my kitchen with fresh and delicious ingredients. Make grocery shopping a positive experience. Maybe connect it with a little stop in your favorite cafe?
- Healthy snacks: Far too often we use chips, chocolates, and other unhealthy snacks when we are hungry or we get tempted during a lazy evening on the couch. Fruit, vegetables, and nuts are really the better alternative (which I often forget too!). Sometimes, however, pure fruit and nuts are a little too boring for me, then I make it a little more exciting. For example, I love apple slices with peanut butter, banana with almond butter, bliss balls, or healthy muffins with apple and carrot. Combined correctly, healthy snacks can be so delicious! Perhaps this tip will also help you to integrate more fruits, vegetables, and nuts as snacks in your everyday life?
- Plan meals in advance: It helps a lot to plan my meals, including snacks, in advance. Because you often eat unhealthy things when you are hungry, have no idea what to cook, or if you don’t have healthy and tasty snacks at home. If you plan your meals in advance for the coming week, for example, and shop accordingly, it helps a lot to stay consistent with your nutrition plan. I also find it very helpful to always have snacks ready. For example, I like to bake healthy muffins or prepare energy balls for the coming days to have something sweet but healthy when I feel like it.
6. Clean Eating Recipes
- Wendy Bazilian, 06.06.2019: A dietitian’s guide to ‘clean eating’: what it is and how to do it right (abgerufen am 28.09.2021), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/jun/06/clean-eating-guide-dietician-what-is-it-how-to
- Christin Ilgner, 27.12.2018: Clean Eating ist hip – aber auch gesund? (abgerufen am 28.09.2021), https://eatsmarter.de/ernaehrung/news/trend-clean-eating
- Julia Wild, 15.01.2015: Was ist Clean Eating? (abgerufen am 28.09.2021), https://www.gesund.at/ernaehrung/clean-eating-schnell-erklaert/
- Kathrin Burger, 20.07.2018: Gesunde Vollwertkost oder Weg in die Essstörung? (abgerufen am 28.09.2021), https://www.spektrum.de/news/superfood-und-clean-eating-sind-wissenschaftlich-nicht-ganz-belegt/1571760
- Bee Wilson, 11.08.2017: Why we fell for clean eating (abgerufen am 28.09.2021), https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/aug/11/why-we-fell-for-clean-eating
- Jaclyn London (MS, RD, CDN), 08.01.2020: Why “Clean Eating” Is Total B.S., According to a Nutritionist (abgerufen am 28.09.2021), https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/a37595/what-is-clean-eating/