Portrait of Amelia Freer holding kale

Why Clean Eating Needs a Side Order of Common Sense

This article was written in 2016 following the media backlash around clean eating. Although the situation is rather a lot calmer now, many of my thoughts on this topic still stand.

Portrait of Amelia Freer holding kale

Why Clean Eating Needs a Side Order of Common Sense

Just like fashion, trends in dieting come and go. I’ve been an interested observer of these for well over a decade now, watching each new idea peak in popularity before fading away in readiness for the Next Big Thing. So the enormous rise and subsequent criticism against clean eating comes as no surprise to me.

However, despite the fact I’ve not specifically promoted the clean eating trend, as a fully-qualified nutritional therapist and author in the public eye, I find myself increasingly included in the opinion pieces surrounding its backlash. While this is an inevitable (albeit unwelcome) part of my job, I feel the storm around the topic of clean eating is becoming increasingly unhelpful for both sides of the argument.

This is especially true as we gear up for celebrations and events such as Christmas – what with all the indulgent foods and drinks that go with it, it’s tempting to pour scorn on clean eating and write it off as joyless. However, neither extreme – the indulgences of December nor the January detox – is good for us. So I feel compelled to respond, not to state whether clean eating is right or wrong, but rather to pour a healthy dose of common sense and calm onto the stormy waters.

The clean eating trend was originally born out of a desire to reduce the amount of junk or processed foods we consume, and increase our intake of unprocessed, whole foods. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about that – indeed, it’s the same advice given to us by public health bodies.

However, this simple message has subsequently turned out to be both its blessing and its curse. Rather than being able to reject clean eating as a fad and carry on, nutritional professionals, like myself, have found that this one has rather muddied the waters. Because what may have started out as sensible, healthy advice, also has the potential to morph into a far less beneficial, sometimes even dangerous, message.

If we take clean eating back to basics, strip away the marketing hype, remove the shame-inducing labels and ignore its unrealistically glamorous portrayal, we’re fundamentally left with a diet that matches almost exactly what I’ve been encouraging my clients to follow for years: fresh fruit and vegetables, quality protein, healthy fats, plus some complex and unrefined carbohydrates. These ingredients need not be expensive. Nor difficult to find and cook. And they are a big step up, health-wise, from the refined, high-sugar and high-salt foods we have come to consume in abundance.

Perhaps amongst the hype, however, we’ve forgotten that the clean eating ‘trend’ is nothing new. It’s simply the way our grandparents ate. So to my mind, it shouldn’t be about limiting important food groups, nor about a strict adherence to a set of rules and letting nothing else pass your lips. Instead, it should be about flexibility, moderation and enjoyment – with space for an occasional treat when you fancy it.

For those who embrace clean eating in such a balanced way, the results can be transformational after years of perhaps being stuck in a dietary rut, and such achievements shouldn’t be belittled or judged.

The rise of in popularity of clean eating has also resulted in more readily available healthy ingredients, inspirational cooking resources and wonderful grass-roots movements encouraging young people into the kitchen. In restaurants, cafes, supermarkets and even fast food chains, the choice of healthy options is now better than ever.

This simply wasn’t the case when I started out in practice. And having spent the past fifteen years trying to encourage people to eat more healthily, these changes have helped enormously. And frankly, I have to applaud a movement that’s elevated kale (traditionally a cattle feed) to almost cult-like status. Making everyday vegetables sexy is the holy grail of nutritional practice and clean eating has managed it in bucket loads.


Salmon Soba Noodle Salad by Amelia Freer

However, the clean eating trend is not without its problems. But I wonder whether these problems lie more in the delivery of the message, rather than in the actual message itself?

Successful trends attract businesses, and people, ready to jump onto a commercial bandwagon with little regard for the core values of the trend. However much marketing dust is sprinkled on it, a cake labeled ‘clean’ is still a cake. The same goes for expensive green juices, and all-singing-all-dancing superfood powders. They may be nice (and I do enjoy them myself occasionally), but they’re not necessary for good health, despite what the marketers tell you.

Most worrying of all though, is the rise of disordered eating as a result of this trend. Warped clean eating messages promoting strict food rules or shame-inducing body images are on the rise, and are now able to reach us 24/7 through social media and the internet.

Although the development of disordered eating is multi-factorial, I never underestimate the power of such messages. The pressure to be ‘picture perfect’ at all times was something I’m grateful I didn’t experience growing up, but I can see how vulnerable this could make anyone feel. And such feelings are certainly not confined only to adolescents.

And of course, many people giving advice on clean eating aren’t necessarily qualified to do so. I’ve read a lot in the press about the lack of regulation in nutrition which is a problem that needs addressing and is certainly adding fuel to the fire. Practicing nutrition absolutely requires appropriate, validated training, so I’m very much in favour of regulation. However, we must also be conscious that many of the articles slamming clean eating aren’t written by nutrition professionals either.

It’s important to remember that no food trend should justify eliminating vital nutrition from our diets. Nor should it become the catalyst to ignore the physical cues to eat. We must eat well to survive and prevent disease. Food, after all, cannot be ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’. It is just food. And good food is not only important for physical health, but also for our emotional and social health too.

So why not start afresh and take clean eating back to being healthy eating again? Remove the restrictive rules, the excessive promises, the inflated prices, the hidden sugars…and even the name. For many, the term ‘clean’ has come to imply a moral high ground or value judgment that is, at best, simplistic, and at worst, manipulative.

Because what started out as a positive move towards a whole-foods based diet now feels like it’s slipping dangerously close to a divisive, commercially-driven fad, encouraging the most vulnerable to feel dangerously inadequate.

One final thought. Even once we’ve brought a little common sense to the clean eating debate, it might be helpful to zoom out to the even bigger picture. In these troubled times we find the world in, I try to remind myself how incredibly lucky I am to be living in a democracy where most people have a choice about what to eat and how to live their lives. There are many millions who do not have this privilege. So although it’s easy to get caught up in the detail, let’s try to stay grateful for simply having food on our table.

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