Is ‘clean eating’ a beneficial health trend or a dangerous fad?

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published January 4, 2021

Key Takeaways

Clean eating is typically defined as consuming foods that are natural and wholesome, while avoiding processed foods. However, the internet is rife with misinformation that is presented under the banner of “clean eating.” Often, this information is not evidence-based and can be misleading, inaccurate, or even dangerous.

“Authors of clean eating sites are often featured as health-related ‘experts’ or ‘wellness gurus’ in popular media outlets (eg, television, Facebook, and internet articles). Some promote diet and lifestyle advice that claim[s] to change a person’s life or cure certain illnesses and diseases,” wrote the authors of an article published in Nutrients. “Many do so without qualifications.”

Of special concern is how harmful dietary advice may affect vulnerable users, particularly those who have an eating disorder or are at risk of developing one, the authors wrote.

In an attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff, here is a closer look at clean eating, based on reputable sources. These sites tend to characterize clean eating as a healthy approach to life, and not a dangerous diet fad.

Misrepresentations of clean eating

Much ambiguity surrounds the term “clean eating.” Although some experts promote a healthy take on this term, some bad actors use "clean eating” to tout restrictive dieting practices that include total avoidance of gluten, grains, or dairy—diets that may not be appropriate for all individuals.

Research has shown that following overly restrictive diets can lead to negative health consequences, including eating disorders. Ultrarestrictive diets framed as clean eating can also lead to bone fractures, osteoporosis, amenorrhea, reproductive issues, arrhythmias, difficulties concentrating, and depression in adherents. Moreover, overly restrictive views of clean eating may appeal to those predisposed to psychological difficulties, thus making for an unhealthy combination.

Limited research on the topic suggested that in light of clean eating being presented inconsistently, views on the strategy are mixed. According to the authors of an article published in the BMC, “The limited empirical literature on ‘clean eating’ suggests that although this cultural phenomenon may be stigmatized in some capacity, it also likely signifies morality and status and is importantly linked with health-related attitudes and behaviors.”

So, what exactly is clean eating? 

Make every bite count

Just last week, the USDA and Health and Human Services released the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. The updated guidelines are based on the latest scientific evidence about healthy diets and eating patterns for people in the US population—including healthy individuals, and those either living with or at risk for diet-related diseases. More information on the guidelines will be coming out in the weeks and months ahead. Meanwhile, here are the four overarching guidelines presented in the new edition:

  • Follow a healthy dietary pattern at every life stage.  

  • Food and beverage choices should be nutrient-dense, and customized to reflect personal preferences, budget, and cultural traditions.  

  • Place emphasis on meeting food group needs with nutrient-rich foods and beverages, while staying within calorie limits.

  • Limit foods and beverages higher in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and limit alcoholic beverages.

Clean eating as a lifestyle

The Mayo Clinic stresses that cutting all processed foods out of your diet is likely untenable. When consuming comfort foods, make sure that there are as few artificial ingredients—chemicals, preservatives, additives, and refined products—as possible.

Fortunately, eating clean is now easier than ever, with the consumer trend driving manufacturers to remove or replace ingredients and additives from processed foods. 

Here are guidelines for maintaining a lifestyle focused on clean eating:

  • Eat regular, balanced meals and healthy, nourishing snacks.

  • Slow down while eating.

  • Eat foods prepared at home instead of at a restaurant or take-out establishment.

  • When traveling, pack meals instead of purchasing restaurant or convenience store foods.

  • While eating out, look for the most nutritious options.

  • Eat plant-based foods and proteins, including legumes, such as beans, peas, and lentils, and high-protein whole grains, such as quinoa, buckwheat, and barley.

  • Regularly engage in exercise and physical activity, get enough sleep, and spend time with people you enjoy.

The American Heart Association (AHA) also promotes the practice of clean eating and suggests consumption of lowfat and nonfat dairy foods, fish, skinless proteins, legumes, nontropical vegetable oils, and nuts/seeds. With clean eating, limit the intake of salty foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, fatty/processed meats, and sweets.

The AHA offers these recommendations for clean eating:

  • Flavor foods with herbs, spices, black pepper, and citrus juices instead of salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats.

  • Bring out the natural flavor foods by grilling, braising, roasting, sauteing, or searing.

  • Monitor calorie intake, portion size, and calories consumed.

  • Always check food labeling for sodium content.

  • Certain processed foods are healthy, including baby carrots, whole-grain bread, chopped nuts, and yogurt.

  • Choose canned fruits and vegetables without salty sauces or sugary syrup.

  • Strain and rinse canned foods to get rid of excess sugar and salt.

Bottom line

The best way to view clean eating is not in terms of ascetic restriction and denial but as a pattern of living that embraces healthier food alternatives, in addition to exercise and socialization, as promoted by the USDA, the Mayo Clinic, and the American Heart Association. 

So read up and get familiar with healthy eating patterns. Now there’s a solid New Year’s resolution. 

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