Should You Try Following the ‘Clean Eating’ Trend?

If the moniker ‘Generation Z’ still reminds you of a postmodernist satirical novel and ‘Instagram’ brings to mind a set of digital scales, then you may not yet be familiar with the ‘clean eating’ trend which has been storming the Western world over the last couple of years. Promoted by shiny-haired, rippling bodied fitness models through blogs, social media and, in the case of the truly successful, dietary cookbooks, clean eating promises to improve your health, looks and wellbeing in one fell swoop. But does it have a darker side?

What is Clean Eating?

It may sound like a euphemism for a punishing regime of food-sanitising, but the premise of clean eating is relatively simple. It’s a concept rather than a specific diet, meaning it has no official definition – but, in essence, it means eating ‘real’ foods – i.e., foods that are as natural, unadulterated and unprocessed as possible [1]. This means avoiding preservatives, additives, refined foods and even certain forms of cooking – at its most extreme, clean eating involves an entirely raw and natural diet. This means eating a largely plant-based diet, the benefits of which are well documented [2]. Plant-based regimes have been linked to a lower risk of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease – so is it time to cleanse your cupboard?

The Problem with Clean Eating

The most commonly discussed issue with clean eating is that it’s elitist. To follow the diet correctly, meals need to be cooked from scratch, which is overly restrictive and unrealistic for most people. There’s also the time-cost of analysing labels for forbidden ingredients like salt and sugar to consider. Another common bug-bear is the implications of superiority which are indicated in the trend’s very name. After all, if you’re not ‘clean eating’, you must be ‘dirty eating’, and who wants to do that? Following such a strict dietary regime may place limitations on socialising, as well: alcohol is off limits, and most restaurants do, at the very least, cook their food.

However, these are far from the most concerning issues raised by the clean eating trend. At the heart of this fad is nutritional advice which is promoted, for the most part, by food bloggers with no formal nutritional or scientific training. Take Deliciously Ella, one of clean eating’s most prominent proponents, who claims that her switch to clean eating cured her chronic fatigue, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Postural Tachycardia Syndrome. This is where clean eating starts to turn murky – because many of its most famous proponents make similar, scientifically unsubstantiated health claims of this kind.

The ‘Gluten-Free’ trend arose from clean eating and is now predicted to be a $7.59 billion industry by 2020 – despite the fact that Coeliac Disease (a digestive disease which is caused by an adverse reaction to gluten) affects just 1% of the population [3]. In fact, medical research shows that avoiding gluten may actually have an adverse effect on the health of non-coeliac sufferers, with studies showing the dietary exclusion may increase your risk of heart disease, not lessen it [4].

Does Clean Eating Have a Rotten Soul?

So does this mean that clean eating is innately bad? No. The problem is that clean eating tends to target and be propagated by young, scientifically naive individuals, who take its most basic principles to an extreme. Clearly, avoiding packaged foods, reducing salt and sugar and trying to eat a more plant-based diet has its roots in sound dietary advice – it’s when it’s taken from a guideline to a way of life that it becomes problematic. No doctor worth their salt (or lack thereof) will recommend a diet which involves dismissing so many perfectly adequate food groups – or encourage you to feel shameful about eating the odd piece of junk or processed food. A balanced diet involves moderation, not extremes – and what’s the point of prolonging your healthy years if you can’t enjoy the odd beer and burger combo, anyway?

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