Depending who you ask, you will receive a different definition of clean eating, which is why understanding this concept may be difficult. You’ve got your bodybuilder definition, your paleo definition, your vegan definition, your celebrity definition and so on. In addition to that, these definitions can vary wildly from individual to individual.

Although no clinical definition exists, clean eating is a deceptively simple concept. Rather than revolving around the idea of ingesting more or less of specific things (e.g. fewer calories or more protein), the concept of eating clean is more about how a food is produced, and being mindful of the food’s pathway between its origin and your plate. To put it simply, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real” foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and manufactured, making them as close to their natural form as possible. Therefore, it’s not considered a diet but a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation. However, modern food production has become so advanced that simply eating whole foods may prove to be challenging.

Some basic guidelines for eating clean are as follows:

  • Eat mostly plants and plant-based foods – buy organic where possible
  • Eat animals and animal products that eat mostly plants
  • Cook your own food – that way you know what is going into your meals
  • Read nutrition labels and ingredients list – avoid additives, preservatives, colourings, refined sugars
  • Eat whole foods
  • Be a mindful eater
  • Avoid processed and packaged foods
  • Avoid most refined foods
  • Limit added fat, salt and sugar
  • Don’t drink your calories – water should be your drink of choice

Is clean eating beneficial?

Yes, because you are eliminating processed foods and other ingredients, which may have an adverse effect on our health when consumed long-term. However, for some, this way of eating may not be sustainable.

On the other side of this clean eating idea, is there such thing as ‘dirty eating’?

Where there is a yin there’s always a yang. Therefore, if one is to explore the concept of clean eating, it’s pretty safe to assume these people are avoiding so-called “dirty” foods. No, this has nothing to do with the food being unsanitary. Instead, it is a term to designate particular foods as being universally “unhealthy”. Again, this definition may be very ambiguous and differ depending who you ask. Therefore, the concept or definition of “dirty eating” should resonate with the individual avoiding these foods. For example, one may consider a ‘dirty’ food as coming from a factory, not a farm or a food product that has more than five ingredients as part of the nutritional information, or have ingredients with numbers attached to it (additives and preservatives).

For the majority of individuals, this category of dirty foods is generally reserved for foods that are processed, high in fat (particularly saturated and trans fats) and/or sugar, and lacking micronutrient content. In simpler terms, what people consider to be “junk food” or “empty calorie” foods.

If I, as a Dietitian were to define it, I would think of it more as any food that does more harm to your body/health, than good.

Do you think there is a risk of labelling food as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ or ‘good’ and ‘bad’? What are these potential risks?

Using moral language in reference to food isn’t a new phenomenon: nearly every religion has certain food prohibitions. For example, pork is forbidden in Judaism and Islam and Catholicism bans meat on certain days. Also, the Bible cautions humanity against gluttony. However, if we start attaching moralising labels to our food such as “good” and “bad” and to ourselves as eaters, this will create troubling binary categories and have negative impact on our psychology and relationship with food.

I understand how the motivation to label foods as good or bad is sensible in theory, in that by giving a particular food a label, it creates clearer guidelines that you can use to determine whether or not to eat that food. As a result, this could lead to a healthier diet.

However, the effect of labelling foods in this way is far more complex, both on a personal level and as a society. It’s important to understand that everyone has different nutritional needs and desires, and a label of good or bad simply cannot capture the complexity of our relationship with food.

Have you ever felt guilty or judged yourself after eating a certain food? Have you ever told yourself that you have “earned” a food you wouldn’t normally consume?If so, I hate to tell you but you are labelling foods, and it is likely having negative effects on you.

The psychology behind this is once you have labelled a food as “bad”, you begin to fear it. It takes up large amount of your consciousness as you spend more and more time thinking about this banned food. As a result, this can cause a serious craving for it. Usually, this mental conflict is “resolved” by eating the craved food.

In comes the viscous cycle. At this point you will feel guilty for eating a “bad” food, and transfer the judgment of the food to yourself. Now, you label yourself as a “bad” person for eating that food, and you punish yourself with guilt.

Let’s move away from labelling foods as “good” or “bad” and strive towards greater education around how certain foods can help fuel and nourish our bodies and that it’s ok if you consume certain foods that may not necessarily improve our health, every now and then. It should be about balance.

What are your top five tips for healthy eating?

  1. Stay well hydrated through the day– Nobody drinks enough water these days. Water should be your choice of fluid, in which you can add certain fruits and herbs for additional flavour, antioxidants and health benefits.
  2. Eat to 80% full at main meals – Our portion sizes seem to be on the increase. By eating to 80% full, it gives your body time to digest food appropriately and help control your portion sizes and not overeat. This in turn will help to maintain a healthy weight.
  3. Eat wholefoods as much as possible – Your diet should consist predominantly of wholefoods and limit processed and refined foods.
  4. Listen to your body – If you are hungry, have a snack. If you are thirsty, drink some water. If you are tired, go to bed. We are so busy these days and we don’t listen to the cues our body are hinting to us.
  5. It’s all about balance – Remember, there are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods, only good or bad diets. Don’t feel guilty about the foods you love, rather eat them in moderation and choose other foods to provide the balance and variety that are vital to good health.