Decoding Popular Diets: Clean Eating

With clean eating magazines, restaurants, and blogs along with countless clean eating devotees, the buzz around the popular program is likely here to stay.  And for good reason.  It's less of a fad diet than it is a simplified approach to healthy eating.  Choose whole foods, skip most processed foods, and quickly evaluate labeled foods with a short set of rules.  But can eating healthy really be that easy?  Time to evaluate!         

The premise: A lifestyle approach encouraging whole foods and recognizable ingredients over processed options.  What's included: Fresh produce, fish, meat, poultry, eggs, dairy, nuts, and seeds.  Packaged foods with few ingredients and/or ingredients you recognize are usually ok too.  Opt for organic when possible.  What's avoided: Highly processed and refined foods and foods with a long list of ingredients or ingredients you don't recognize.  Skip out on foods with preservatives, stabilizers, and color additives (these are likely the ingredients that don't look so familiar!).     

The analysis:  Clean eating is a lifestyle approach, so I'll analyze it as such.  The evaluation will consider potential health benefits, necessity of eating "clean" to reap those benefits, and the sustainability and ease associated with clean eating.  

The changes:  With clean eating, you're more likely to stick to the perimeter of the grocery store as the program encourages a reduction and/or an elimination of processed and packaged foods along with an increase in whole foods.  Additionally, label reading (primarily the ingredient list) is more common on a clean eating plan as is increased food preparation and home cooking.  

The good:  Clean eating encourages a variety of whole foods from both plant and animal sources, meaning a variety of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) without a long list of forbidden foods.  

It also encourages meal planning and home cooking, both of which can be effective in promoting health.  Engaging in meal planning allows you to make choices for what "future you" will eat, which usually leads to healthier choices than when making impromptu decisions on an empty stomach (hello drive-thru fries + a shake!).  Cooking at home versus dining out provides you with complete control over the ingredients, cooking method, and serving size and often leads to fewer calories and reduced sodium in the meal.  With increasing restaurant transparency (think prominent nutrition facts + ingredient lists and sourcing information) along with the millennial push towards healthier eating, it's becoming easier to eat clean (and to eat healthy in general!) while dining out (so clean eating + an active social calendar isn't out of the question).  

Another perk of clean eating? Since you're skipping out on lots of packaged foods, you may end up limiting calorie-dense foods lacking nutritional value.  For the packaged foods that you do purchase, the ingredient list is required reading (prior to purchase, obviously!).  Following the "ingredient list guidelines" for clean eating (limit to around 5-6 ingredients, avoid certain additives) serves as a decent starting point for evaluating the nutritional value of the food (emphasis on "starting point").      

The questionable: Clean eating presents a nutritious world that is slightly oversimplified.  Foods with 6+ ingredients aren't inherently bad and neither are all processed or packaged foods.  While it is true that more processing often leads to greater nutrient removal, many nutrient-packed foods require some level of processing.  Additionally, foods with 6 or fewer ingredients are not guaranteed healthy choices.  For example, butter falls into the approved list of clean eats, but that doesn't mean you should start eating butter by the stick (remember, butter is high in saturated fat, a type of fat that raises cholesterol).  Clean eating also discounts the benefits of additives, which can be used for food safety and to maintain nutrient stores.  Finally, I'd caution against the "I can't pronounce it, so it's bad" approach as this would leave many of us removing quinoa from our diets (at least before it became a more widely recognized superfood)!   

The recommendations:  Overall, I support much of the philosophy behind clean eating.  I'm always trying to incorporate more whole foods into my diet, including veggies, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, and seafood.  But, I'm also ok with bending the clean eating "rules" to accommodate foods that I still believe are healthy even if they are processed or include a larger number of ingredients.  How do I decide what makes the cut?  Check out the tips below (hint: it's all about the science!).  

  1. Schedule a visit with a Registered Dietitian or do a little research on your own to learn how to read and interpret the ingredient list and Nutrition Facts label.  The FDA provides an informative and easy-to-read outline that takes less than 15 minutes to thoroughly review.  Using food labels empowers you to make more informed decisions.  You can focus on nutrients you might want to increase (fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron) or on nutrients you'd like to decrease (saturated fat, trans fat, sodium) as well as ingredients you want to include, limit, or exclude.  
  2. If you're concerned about a specific ingredient, refer to scientific evidence related to that ingredient (as opposed to personal stories or intuition).  If you don't have access to research or you aren't confident in interpreting it, ask a professional.  If you choose to evaluate the research on your own, a few questions you may ask include:
    1.  Was the study performed in humans or animals?
    2.  Was the study observational or experimental?
    3.  What was the sample size in the study?
    4.  What amount of the ingredient was consumed during the study (and how does this compare to the amount an average human might consume)? 

Have you tried clean eating?  What was the biggest challenge you encountered?  Did you notice any health improvements?  Let me know in the comments below!