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Though “clean eating” sounds kind of self-explanatory, the actual meaning of the phrase has become somewhat lost as posts of avocado toast and paleo pancakes and someone doing squats in the gym all fall under #eatclean on Insta. Most guides trace the term back to a handful of food bloggers, who used it as shorthand for a new eating and lifestyle philosophy: choosing fruits and vegetables and whole food over processed foods, placing an emphasis on plant-based proteins, preaching the somewhat vague goal of achieving “wellness” as the bullseye and eschewing fad diets.

Many clean eating converts were especially drawn to this last idea, that instead of a restrictive diet like say keto, you were instead changing your habits and perspective on food and how you eat on a daily basis. Overall, the philosophy sounds like a good thing, if not somewhat of an unremarkable revelation. We’ve always known that fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good for you. So why has “clean eating” come under fire recently?

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The Evolution of Clean Eating

There’s actually no set definition for “clean eating,” which means that there’s a wide spectrum of what counts as a “clean diet.” In some cases, the original idea of cutting out processed foods has been taken to the extreme, with some people avoiding entire categories of stuff like gluten and dairy, even if they don’t have allergies to either one of those things.

“The word ‘process’ can be very misleading to many people,” says registered and licensed dietician Rahaf Al Bochi, who’s also a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and owner of Olive Tree Nutrition. “Because there are some foods that are minimally processed or there are foods that are ultra-processed or very processed. So we need to kind of differentiate between them.”

Technically, the term “processed” includes just about anything that wasn’t simply plucked from the ground and sent to the store. Al Bochi noted that this includes products that are actually really nutritious, like oats (which have to be milled) and various canned foods. Drawing a firm line against all processed foods means that you miss out on certain fuel that your body may need.  

The way that people think about “clean eating” also matters. Critics point out that the opposite of a clean diet implies a “dirty” one, for example, which causes feelings of guilt or anxiety and leads to a negative relationship with food. In extreme cases, some argue that this mindset can contribute to orthorexia nervosa, the term for a disorder (categorized as either an eating or anxiety disorder, depending on who you ask) that stems from a consuming obsession with “healthy” foods.

Getting Back to Its Original Meaning

The original philosophy of eating whole foods and avoiding ultra-processed ones is pretty uncontroversial. There’s a lot of research (including one recently released study) that supports cutting back on stuff like chips, candy, and anything with a lot of added salt, sugar, or preservatives

ICYMIWhat Are Processed Foods?There’s also a sizeable amount of research illustrating the benefits of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. According to Al Bochi, “We know fruits, veggies, and whole grains have a ton of health benefits and they reduce the risk for chronic diseases.” In fact, the U.S. dietary guidelines recommend eating more of these foods when possible, and they’re also “in line with eating patterns such as the Mediterranean or DASH eating pattern,” says Al Bochi.

So how can you translate the best parts of “clean eating” into your routine?

At the grocery store, load up on whole foods, but don’t discount the middle aisles entirely. In fact, Al Bochi says that one of the biggest myths about shopping is that you should avoid the center. In reality, the middle aisles are chock-full of good sources for nutrients, with options like dried beans, rice, nuts, and seeds.

Though we all know that packaged cookies, candy bars, and artificially-flavored snacks fall into the ultra-processed foods category, some other products can make it harder for you to figure out if they’re ultra-processed or not. In recent years, companies have also adopted “healthy” and “clean eating” signs into their marketing strategies. But just because a product claims to be “clean” (think granola bars and energy bars) doesn’t really mean anything specific—just like other popular marketing terms like “natural.”

Generally, your safest bet is to check the nutrition label for sodium, sugar, and trans fats. At the end of the day, a good application of “clean eating” is… kind of boring. These are the rules your parents have probably told you since you were 6-years-old. Eat your fruits and vegetables. Pick whole grains over processed ones. And don’t beat yourself up for having a store-bought cookie or vending machine snack every once in a while.

“We need to keep in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all perfect eating pattern,” said Al Bochi. “The eating pattern that’s perfect, that works, is the one that works for you specifically.”

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