Is ‘Clean eating’ really that healthy?

The new favourite phrase, used by many celebrities and wellness gurus. But what exactly does it mean, is it really that beneficial for all of us? “Clean eating” has widely been popularised via social media such as Instagram, food blogs and non-expert celebrities1/2. While we are bombarded with many clean eating strategies, we may not realise that sometimes it can have a negative affect on ones mental health and lead to eating disorders such as Orthorexia Nervousa.

So what is “Clean eating”?
“Clean eating” is the concept where one avoids refined and process foods, preservatives and artificial colouring. Variation of the belief may also include elimination of some foods such as dairy, gluten, grains and promote the consumption of only whole and raw foods.

Although one may assume that this is a very healthy model to follow, it can also encourage obsession and exaggeration around food, leading to orthorexia nervousa. Research suggests that following a special diet such as organic, plant-based, vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, vegan/raw, paleo, or, gluten-free) may be linked with higher rates of eating disorders3. The obstacle of dieting behaviour can be associated with the varied use of the word “diet” which can be related to a range of intermittent or chronic behaviours such as an excessive consumption of healthy foods, extreme dietary restrictions such as fasting, and other elimination diets such as limiting carbohydrate intake. This eating strategy is commonly noticed within young adults some of whom show a pathological obsession with eating healthy “pure” foods4. This can sometimes promote a fear of food and drive people to just eat local and organic foods or to follow a purely plant based diet in a belief of its “purity”. Researchers are still trying to investigate why some people pursue these types of strategies. Sociological visual content analysis of Instagram posts hash tagging #cleaneating suggested that food wasn’t the main focus in these posts but the characterisation of “clean eating” as an “embodied endeavour” and its association with the body as a symbol of social status, health and mortality5.

Can “Clean eating” negatively affect our health
“Clean eating” can sometimes have negative consequences and long term health concerns which may resemble those of anorexia nervousa6. Fixation with healthy eating and omitting certain food groups without rationale (for example to alleviate food allergies or intolerances) can affect ones nutritional status, leading to starvation and deficiencies resulting in long term health concerns such as osteoporosis, bone fractures, reproductive issues, amenorrhea, irregular heart beats, difficulties concentrating and depression7. Indeed, varied reasons for pursuing “clean eating” including weight loss, improving health or overall wellbeing may tempt adherers to far-fetched benefits8.

People with underlying psychological conditions may be more potent to justify and embrace these increasingly restrictive diets.

“Clean eating” puts a bad phrase around nutrition. Its proponents fail to provide scientific evidence and promote legitimate health information amongst the general population which in turn contributes to the confusion around well balanced nutrition.

If you have any doubts or are affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article please speak to your health practitioner or book an appointment with Magdalena via www.persea.clinic to discuss your concerns.

Magdalena Marvell is a Nutritional Practitioner and Founder of the Persea Clinic which helps support clients who want to optimise their health in areas such as gut health, hormonal balance, skin conditions, weight management, family nutrition. To find out more about her work please visit www.persea.clinic.

References:
1. doi.org/10.1016/S2468-1253(18)30277-2
2. doi.org/10.3390/nu10091266
3. doi.org/10.1016/J.APPET.2016.07.008
4. Bratman S, Knight D. Health food junkies: overcoming the obsession with healthful eating. New York: Broadway Books; 2000
5. doi.org/10.1177/1461444818777514
6. nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/other/orthorexia
7. dailymail.co.uk/health/article-4709100/Horrifying-toll-clean-eating-fad-taking-young-women.html
8. doi.org/10.3390/nu10091266