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Does eating “clean” really lead to better health?

Does eating “clean” really lead to better health?

When it comes to nutrition advice, there is a lot of misinformation out there coming from people who are not qualified health professionals (and even from some who are). New trends and health-related buzzwords spread quickly thanks to social media, yet a lot of these health trends are often not evidence-based. One very popular diet trend now is “clean eating”. What exactly is clean eating? It is a very vague term that means different things to different people with varying levels of extreme. In general, clean eating includes not eating processed foods and getting foods from a local source, additionally all foods must be organic and any produce must be fresh and raw. While this may sound like a great way of eating, it may not be as healthy as it seems.

Cutting out all processed foods can mean cutting out important whole grains, such as oats, rice, and the products that are made from these and other grains. Whole grains are a great source of carbohydrates, which is the body’s preferred source of fuel, as well as fiber and those special B-vitamins. It’s great to be able to get organically farmed foods from a local source like the Chattanooga Market for example, but this may not always be possible due to season, availability, and cost. Incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables, which provide important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber is an excellent choice to make, but frozen and dried produce are just as healthy. Furthermore, some cooking methods, like sautéing, can actually increase nutrient absorption from some vegetables.

From my professional experience working in this field, it is ok to aim to eat healthy, but it’s also ok to be flexible with your food choices - healthy eating does not have to be what the Internet defines as “clean eating”. Healthy eating can be fueling your body regularly throughout the day with a variety of foods that make up a balance of all food groups. Trying to follow strict food rules can be a slippery slope that for some could lead to an eating disorder, specifically orthorexia. The term orthorexia, coined in 1998 by Steven Bratman, MD, means an obsession with proper or “healthful” eating. It’s rooted in food restriction in which the quality of food is severely controlled, as opposed to the quantity ( Orthorexia is not formally recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (or DSM), but awareness of this disorder is increasing. It starts with the intention of eating healthier but escalates to an extreme to meet the most “pure” diet, and eventually can lead to the elimination of entire food groups.

This obsession takes up a lot of time and energy, interferes with one’s social life, negatively impacts one’s relationship with food, and can lead to malnutrition. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) lists warning signs and symptoms of orthorexia:

• Compulsive checking of ingredient lists and nutritional labels

• An increase in concern about the health of ingredients

• Cutting out an increasing number of food groups (all sugar, all carbs, all dairy, all meat, all animal products)

• An inability to eat anything but a narrow group of foods that are deemed ‘healthy’ or ‘pure’

• Unusual interest in the health of what others are eating

• Spending hours per day thinking about what food might be served at upcoming events

• Showing high levels of distress when ‘safe’ or ‘healthy’ foods aren’t available

• Obsessive following of food and ‘healthy lifestyle’ blogs on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook

• Body image concerns may or may not be present

The warning signs may indicate a problem, but may not necessarily be an eating disorder. If you have concern about yourself or a loved one, contact us at Focus Treatment Centers at 423-308-2560 for a complimentary assessment. Everyone deserves to have a healthy relationship with food and enjoy a variety of foods without experiencing unjustified guilt or shame.

Written by Courtney Phifer, MS, RD, LDN, Registered Dietitian for IOP and OP Programs, Focus Treatment Centers, Chattanooga, TN