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HEALTH | Body Positivity: The Dirty Reality of “Clean Eating”

(Image courtesy of the blog, He and She Eat Clean)
(Image courtesy of the blog, He and She Eat Clean)

One of the hottest yet harmful new diet trends to come out recently is the concept of “clean eating.”

We hear the word “clean” connected to food on a daily basis in conversations, diet plans, magazines, newspaper articles, etc. Countless health blogs and websites are dedicated to the idea of obtaining the cleanest possible diet such as:

Clean eating does not have a specific definition, but this diet generally avoids processed foods, gluten, sugars, added fats, and animal products such as dairy, eggs and meat. Clean eating is now considered a weight loss strategy, diet, and lifestyle choice. While it is neither productive nor polite to criticize people’s eating habits, it is still important to know the possible consequences and problematic effects clean eating can create in order for one to effectively decide how to best feed themselves.

The term “clean” in relation to eating is problematic for a variety of reasons. It implies that food can be divided into either good or bad categories, “clean” or “dirty.” In Clean Eating Magazine, a leading publication in the health food industry, the diet’s description is punctuated with problematic word choice. Sugars, saturated fats, or fried foods are described as “the enemy” while the ‘necessity’ of burning calories is brought up within the first paragraph. Tying one’s food choices with their virtue (or lack thereof) creates an unhealthy comparison and pressures people towards disordered eating.

Not to mention class privilege also comes into play with the idea of clean eating. Expense, location, and demographics are all large factors when it comes to dietary health. Many people do not have the time, nor the financial resources, to eat an all-organic plant-based diet especially considering the limited and expensive access to fresh produce in most areas.

While it is important to eat a healthy and balanced diet that includes proteins, fats, carbohydrates, fruits and veggies, it is also important to treat yourself with food that, although has no nutritional value, the very act of eating it would still give you pleasure and satisfaction.

Shaming yourself for making food choices based on your cravings and bodily needs not only diminishes your enjoyment of eating but also associates food with guilt — two things that should never be related. Consequently, restricting yourself from such “dirty” ingredients is considered a symptom of a possible eating disorder and can damage one’s mental state, resulting in the development of depression or anxiety.

Take me for example.

As someone who one once strived to eat the cleanest possible diet by excluding sugar, gluten, animal products, fats, and carbohydrates, I can safely say that I was in no way shape or form cleaner, better, or healthier. In fact I was quite the opposite.

Due to this food fanaticism, I was constantly avoiding fun social situations such as birthday parties that would require me to break my “rules.” I felt terrible anxiety and guilt when I slipped up and ate something that I had determined un-nutritious, such as tortilla chips or chocolate, which further fueled my struggle with anorexia. At the expense of my own well-being, my quest to eat clean denied me of the pleasures in life, such as family and friend relationships, as well as the pleasure of eating delicious food.

A healthy diet is different for everyone. But for me, health means eating balanced, not clean. Vegetables, fruit, grains, plant and animal proteins make up a large part of my diet, but if I were to ever crave something less nutritious like a cheeseburger, or large slice of chocolate cake, I want to be able to eat it without feeling guilty. Since I don’t always have time or money to buy organic, unprocessed foods, my choices shouldn’t be up for debate when I need to eat — even with myself.

While the clean eating community likely considers my diet dirty and wrong, I feel mentally and physically good about myself and have no health problems as a result of eating dirty.

Read Kendall Anderson’s earlier blog post: HEALTH | Body Positivity: The Impacts of Fat Shaming.

Anderson is the founder and co-leader of Mills Body Positivity Group and a regular contributor for The Campanil‘s health blog section. Check out the Body Positivity Facebook group: