The Dangers of Clean Eating

Paige Geis Bradshaw

If you spend any time browsing Instagram, reading magazine headlines in the grocery checkout line, or watching health documentaries on Netflix, you may have heard about the latest clean eating craze.

While it may sound like a healthy alternative to fad diets, clean eating isn’t the magic solution to weight loss and balanced nutrition we’ve all been looking for.

Is the name “clean eating” a misnomer? What is clean eating, anyway? Keep reading to learn more about this up-and-coming diet trend—and whether or not it’s safe.

What Is Clean Eating?

The most widely accepted guidelines for clean eating include consuming whole foods, organic foods, unrefined grain products, and foods with little to no preservatives or additives.

But the trouble with clean eating is that it’s not quite clear. Depending on who you ask, it can take on a different meaning. Without a clear standard, clean eating can become just as restrictive or extreme as any other fad diet.

So, what is clean eating really? For some, it can simply mean making a conscious effort to eat more whole, unprocessed foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. For others, however, clean eating can mean eliminating anything from specific ingredients to entire food groups.

Why Clean Eating Can Be Dangerous

The dangers of clean eating can be both physical and mental.

Physically, clean eating can result in an unbalanced diet, malnourishment, and other health problems. How? Too much of any food can cause negative side effects.

Greens are great for you, but too much spinach can lead to kidney stones. Tomatoes are a nutritious addition to salads and Italian dishes, but because they’re acidic, too many can cause acid reflux and heartburn. Nuts and avocados are healthy fats, but they’re also high in calories.

There is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.”

Mentally, clean eating may alter your relationship with food. Aside from potentially facing judgment from friends and family for your dietary choices or avoiding public places where food is served, clean eating can contribute to obsessive thoughts about the foods you eat—and may lead to self-hatred and self-punishment.

In an attempt to consume only the cleanest and healthiest foods you can find, you may develop a fixation on “righteous” eating. This is also known as “fixation orthorexia nervosa” by medical experts. While this condition is temporary and can be treated through therapy, avoiding it altogether is ideal.

Clean Eating vs. Healthy Eating

When choosing foods to add to your diet, it’s crucial to recognize that there are no “dirty” or “bad” foods. Even foods with sugar, preservatives, and additives aren’t necessarily unhealthy.

According to the Harvard School of Public Health, a healthy and well-rounded diet includes the following foods:

  • A colorful selection of fruits and vegetables.
  • Healthy oils, like olive and sunflower oil, for salads, sides, and cooking.
  • Whole grains like whole wheat pasta, bread, and rice.
  • Lean meat and protein sources like fish, poultry, beans, and nuts.
  • Water, tea, and coffee with little sugar, plus limited servings of milk and juice.

Clean eating and healthy eating are not interchangeable terms. A healthy and sustainable diet—like the one outlined above—includes foods that offer ample nutritional value without being “clean.” Clean eating, on the other hand, often disqualifies perfectly healthy foods if they don’t meet the diet’s arbitrary standards.

What Does Clean Eating Look Like?

If you’re looking to change your diet or switch up your eating habits for the sake of your health, that’s something worth celebrating! There shouldn’t be any shame surrounding that decision if you’re the one making it.

As you put together your plan, be wary of any diet that suggests you eliminate healthy foods, avoid complete food groups, or restrict your intake of certain healthy foods.

Here are a handful of today’s popular diets to approach with caution:

  • The Anti-Inflammatory Diet
  • The Keto Diet
  • The Low-FODMAP Diet
  • The Mediterranean Diet
  • The MIND Diet
  • The Paleo Diet
  • The Vegan Diet
  • The Whole30 Diet

Each of these diets offers a bite of wisdom worth incorporating into your daily meals; but sticking to only one can cause your health more harm than good.

(For example: I don’t stick to one diet’s guidelines. Instead, you’ll find anti-inflammatory, Mediterranean, and vegan cookbooks on my kitchen countertop!)

And finally, consider looping in your physician or dietitian when making significant changes to your lifestyle. They may have some helpful hints to share!

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