ever-earnest quest for health (and perhaps to be part of the
hip diet-following crowd), certain phrases make their way into
our gastronomic vernacular. At times, admittedly, they stick
in our craw:
Whole 30. Cleanse.
there’s this one, alluring in its innocence, tantalizing in
its seeming simplicity: clean eating.
sounds, on the surface at least, to be a breath of fresh air
— inhaled and exhaled, slowly and yoga-esque, through the
nose. What, after all, what could be more basic than clean
apparently. The headline on a Good Housekeeping column called
it "Total BS." Huffington Post UK wrote about
"How Clean Eating Became a Dirty Word." For every
website or trainer or dietitian touting it, there’s another
rolling their eyes or giving it a thumbs down.
confusing, they say. It implies if you’re not eating clean,
you’re an overweight sloth whose food is unclean. It can
cause anxiety in a world that already has plenty enough
worries — particularly of the dietary variety.
tend not to use the phrase often," says Sara Asberry,
registered dietitian at the University of Texas at Dallas,
"because I feel it has a lot of mixed messages. It
inadvertently is implying that all other foods are
Kuehn, registered dietitian and personal trainer at Life Time
in Allen, Texas, loves it.
I hear ‘clean eating,’ I think, "Oh, yeah!’"
says Kuehn. "I feel like, honestly, as a dietitian
practicing for 23 years, I think we’ve finally stumbled upon
the catchphrase that gets it."
problem, though, seems to be coming up with a mutually
agreed-upon understanding of the two words. What exactly does
are a lot of definitions, and that’s part of why it can be
so confusing," Asberry says.
defines the concept basically as "minimally processed
foods. If it came from the ground," she says, "it
looks pretty much like it did when it was growing. A potato
chip looks nothing like a potato."
acknowledges, people do get a little carried away:
"Should we get all organic? All local meats? There’s
not a clean-eating council to define it."
past, Kuehn says, so-called "diets" revolved around
eliminating something — for instance, carbohydrates or fat.
"Everybody’s always trying to eliminate a food group,
then another group of scientists comes out and says ‘No, eat
this.’ It’s leaving consumers confused and baffled."
says Asberry, many people are just as baffled with clean
they come to me wanting to eat more fruits and vegetables and
whole grains and lean protein, I can support them," she
says. "But if they come to me wanting to eat all organic
and omit foods from their diet — ‘I hear dairy is bad for
me’ or ‘I hear grains are processed foods so I don’t
want to consume them’ — they’re eliminating really
nutritious foods. A lot of times, if you’re eating too much
of one thing, you’re not eating enough of another."
dietitian on a college campus, working with clients who have
eating disorders, she’s especially sensitive to how people
view what they put into their mouths.
find the term ‘clean eating’ can be very triggering for
people who already obsess about food," she says. "I
tend not to use the phrase because I feel it has a lot of
mixed messages. It’s definitely pretty weak, and
inadvertently is implying that all other foods are
for instance, you decide to celebrate a friend’s birthday
with a slice of — heaven forbid — cake?
does that mean about you?" says Asberry, who has had
clients suffer panic attacks because they ate a bagel.
"Intentions aren’t meant to be ugly or judge-y, but
inadvertently, that’s what happens."
Cleary, a registered dietitian at Baylor Scott & White
Medical Center at White Rock, also cautions against taking
clean eating too far. Say, for instance, you eliminate fast
food. OK; they’re not exactly known as bastions of health.
Then you move on to all deli meats. Again understandable,
because some processed meats have been shown to increase
cancer risk. Then you read online that you should be grinding
your own meat.
hear that steaming broccoli will change the nutritional
content and rethink this important vegetable. Then you start
turning down dinner invitations for fear you won’t find
anything on the menu that falls into what you consider
"clean eating." Then you begin looking askance at
other people who eat a chocolate-chip cookie or meat that isn’t
not mentally healthy, mainly because it causes a lot of
anxiety, a lot of worry," says Cleary. Plus, "clean
eating, in its most extreme form, is pretty
people find out she’s a dietitian, she says, they often brag
about eating clean. "They’re almost looking for praise
and recognition, like ‘You’re doing something good!’ If
it’s just a quick thing, I say, ‘Yeah, eat your fruits and
vegetables,’ and I leave the conversation. People get
defensive if I say it’s not all it’s cracked up to
Kuehn meets with clients, she stresses the importance of
making small and slow changes that will become part of a
permanent way of eating. She tells them to forgive themselves
for past dietary transgressions, and to look at food as fuel.
eating is a way of eating," she says, "a new
lifestyle. There are no foods they’re not allowed to have.
We move toward a healthy balance and do it as a way of
some tips to eating — call it what you will — clean,
having oatmeal, Asberry says, the label should say "100
percent rolled oats."
we’re looking at yogurt, I want to see milk and active
cultures. Past that, we should be more cautious. Milk, I want
it to say ‘milk.’ Unsweetened almond milk wouldn’t fit
in as clean. It’s a paragraph of ingredients." It’s
not a "bad food," she says, but "they’re
trying so hard to make it a substitute for milk that it has to
be heavily fortified to compare."
FOODS WITH NO LABELS
grocery store perimeters: "Fresh fruits and vegetables,
fresh lean protein, dairy products, really nice whole
grains," Asberry says.
the concept of "just listening to your body and really
trying to nourish your body," Cleary says, "of
trying to recognize your hunger cues, eating when you’re
hungry and stopping when you’re full."
a cheeseburger? Ask yourself if it’s something you really
and truly want. "If it is, allow yourself to have it,
guilt-free, without beating yourself up, and without
overeating," she says.
suggests creating routines: Eat at the table. Instead of
walking around the house mindlessly munching on a bag of
chips, make nutritionally dense trail mix with nuts,
unsweetened dried fruit, whole-grain pretzels and dark
chocolate chips. Put a portion on a plate or napkin, eat that
and put the rest away.
SMALL BEHAVIORAL CHANGES
no magic cure for a healthy diet, no one thing you have to
eliminate or one super food you want to add and you’ll
automatically be super-healthy," Cleary says. "A lot
of people want that."
tend to pick up most meals from a drive-through window, decide
to make lunch or dinner one day a week. "When you feel
comfortable with that, work on two days or three," Cleary
says. "Over a period of time — we’re talking months
and years — you’ll look back and say, ‘I made a big
people have a hard time with this, but I say, ‘You’re in
it for the marathon, not the sprint,’" Kuehn says.
"The goal is 80 percent of the time to be spot-on. Don’t
consider it messing up; consider it training yourself."
AHEAD WHEN EATING OUT
about every restaurant posts its menu online. "A safe
thing is usually grilled salmon or other fish," Kuehn
says. "I tell them instead of couscous or white rice, do
extra vegetables. Or a salad, but check what they put in it.
Are there candied pecans in there?" If so, pick another
CONFUSED? SEEK HELP
you have any question about bloating or feeling gross or you
feel like you’re in a brain fog, lab testing is very
helpful," Kuehn says.
Cleary: "People generally know what their weaknesses are
and what they need to work on. But if you’re having
difficulties, see a dietitian. We’re able to work with you
and help you with your problem areas. You’re supposed to
enjoy your food."