The problem with ‘clean eating’.

I’m finding I cringe a lot these days. Maybe it’s because I spend far too much time on social media and there are was 15,593,514 photos hashtagged with clean eating. You see, I put the term clean eating in the same cringe-worthy basket of wankery as superfoods, paleo brownies and fitspo. There is so much wrong with those terms, and if I were a MKR judge I wouldn’t be scoring them a ten out of ten.

But tell me, what does ‘clean eating’ mean?

I put this to twitter a while back. Food Elitism. Eating food in its rawest form. Something that comes from an animal, plant or sea and not man made were some of the responses I received. I also had ‘rinsing my dessert’ and ‘the two second rule’ from those that are eye rolling with me.

After a consult with google, for I doubt peer-reviewed journals have published articles on the term, I’ve come up with a few definitions.

“Clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real” foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible”Fitness Magazine

“The soul of clean eating is consuming food in its most natural state, or as close to it as possible. It is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation, leading to an improved life – one meal at a time.”Clean Eating Mag

 Although, this one had 13 rules with it. And within some of those rules were more rules.

The Author of The Complete Idiot’s guide to eating clean said there are seven core principles that are said to be based on nutrition science. Clean Eating being a “sound approach to eating and living well that maximizes your energy and optimizes your health, making it more than just a diet.”

There is a mention of clean sugars, and clean foods naturally low in fat, sugar and salt. And that we are lacking protein. FYI – most Australians are actually eating more than enough protein.

 Lastly, there was eat whole foods, let the ingredients guide you and do it yourself. Now I love this one. Going back to that whole paddock to plate thing – I’m sending a virtual high five!

At its core, there is nothing wrong with ‘clean eating’.

By no means is choosing a diet high in fruit and vegetables, and low in processed foods bad for you. Heck, you’ll be hard pressed to find a nutrition professional around that will contest such an idea.

But the problems.

Yes, problems. Plural.

Clean doesn’t mean clean.

So hypothetically (or in real life,  you lucky thing) you pop down to your vegie patch and pick some tomatoes, dig some potatoes and harvest some beautifully, okay let’s be honest, two-pronged carrots. They are covered in dirt, maybe have a snail or two stuck to them. You give them a good shake & wash them under water. The dirt is removed, and they come clean. Right?

Well, in this case, no. Goodness, anyone with access to Instagram likely has access to the beautiful, washed and packaged food in our supermarkets and grocers. So unwashed, dirty foods are not an issue here. 

It’s the fact that these foods are said to be superior to other, less nutritious foods. 

But, there are no good and bad foods.

There is no moral ground when it comes to food.

Bad, Naughty, cheat. 

Labelling foods like that puts unnecessary negative connotations on them. Eating birthday cake is not bad for you. You are not a bad person for sending a muesli bar in your child’s lunch box occasionally, or having an up & go you for breakfast because you slept through your alarm.

Issues with food and health come back to what and how much you are eating.

In theory, any food can make you gain weight if you eat it in excess regularly.

On the other hand, eating some foods that are less nutritious than others won’t give you a nutrient deficiency either.

And well, strict and rigid eating patterns can be detrimental on your health as well. Not just physically, but socially, mentally & emotionally. (You can read more here.)

 Healthy eating should be all about balance and moderation.

Yes, I’ve said it before. And until we all calm down, use our common sense & be realistic, I will continue to keep saying it.

B a l a n c e 

M o d e r a t i o n

Okay, Next problem..

Cheat days.

Oh man. Did I miss the memo? When did cheating become okay? Cheating on a test, on a partner – these are not acceptable things. Ever. So, why should we be ‘cheating’ on our diet? Why should we spend so much time preparing, storing, eating (and telling everyone about our preparing, storing and eating) of pure, clean foods, but then spend an entire day going to town on the foods the complete opposite to what we have prepared, stored, eaten and talked about for the past six days of the week. (Sorry, long sentence.)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but Instagram photos of cheat days seem to feature really large portions of heavily processed foods. Likely a result of restriction. Something that replicates a binge eating episode even. Now, how is that healthy?

It’s not.

Besides, I don’t want to even imagine how your body will feel the next day when you need to get back to clean eating & training. Bloating, wind, constipation, lethargy. That doesn’t sound fun. 

And lastly, eating is not a competition

It’s not about eating healthier than your best friend, your arch nemesis, your colleagues, whoever. It’s not about having the most ‘superfood’ packed fridge, diet and instagram account. There is no one size fits all approach to nutrition. It is about what works for you. Singular.

Besides, why does it matter what you’re eating in comparison to others?

In the grand scheme of life, does it really matter if someone high fives you for not eating a fun sized Kit Kat?

If someone looks down on you for eating said fun sized Kit Kat, is that really a big deal?

So you ate a Kit Kat because on the odd occasion you felt like it (and you enjoyed it too). 

You didn’t leave your child in a car on a hot day. You didn’t kill you mother. You didn’t cheat on your boyfriend.

You ate a bloody fun sized Kit Kat.


So, how about ditching the all or nothing concept?

How about ditching the labels?

How about let’s just eat everything in moderation?

A healthy eating pattern should be flexible, enjoyable and satisfying.

It should be packed full of fresh, whole food paddock-to-plate goodness, enjoyed with an occasional fun sized Kit Kat. Or scoop of Messina. Whatever takes your taste buds fancy.

Emma xo


8 thoughts on “The problem with ‘clean eating’.

  1. Hey there. While I also agree people who classify themselves “clean eaters” are hypocritical when they binge on processed health foods like protein bars and ice cream etc… I do think the movement has given rise to more people eating real, wholesome food. I reckon the “problems” with clean eating that you summarised, really aren’t as bad as the positive effects of eating wholefoods. Plus, I feel your ending on your take on healthy eating basically sums up what “clean eating” is. I think it’s fantastic that eating healthy is now cool and I think that as lame as the title is, it’s a move in a positive direction. Great article, just thought I’d offer my opinion!

    1. Hi Meg,
      Thank you so much for your comment. I agree, healthy eating has become cool & it makes my heart sing that people are going back to real food.
      Yes my ending is basically summing it up, without the label. My concern (and intention of the article) is to highlight the issue with labeling foods as clean and putting negative connotations on foods. If you would like further reading – my article ‘part-paleo – why must we label the way we eat’ will help explain this further. Link is on my media page.
      Thank you again for your comment lovely x

  2. Yes!!! I love this post – so true! When did eating healthily become a competition/and a ‘punishable’ behaviour? Social Media plays the biggest role in all of this! You could be be feeling fab about yourself until a few scrolls through instagram. Great read 🙂

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