What is clean eating?

The truth about 'clean eating' - nutritionist Jo Lewin explores the myths and the facts behind this controversial lifestyle diet

By Jo Lewin, Public Health Nutritionist

Clean eating has risen in popularity over the last few years, thanks to a host of popular bloggers who have taken over social media channels with images of their shiny lifestyles accompanied with ‘clean’ eating rules to guide you on the path to ‘wellness’.

The principles of clean eating seem relatively straightforward; classify foods into those that are clean, and should be eaten in abundance, such as kale, avocado and nuts, and those which are dirty and should be avoided, specifically demonising sugar, gluten, and dairy.

After a rapid surge in popularity, there has been a recent raft of criticism from scientists, doctors and dietitians who claim it is unhealthy, and worse still can cause harm to individuals who become obsessive in their approach to it.

Clean eating involves excluding a wide range of foods and has been reported to induce feelings of guilt and shame as foods are divided into categories of good or bad, clean or dirty.

A recent Horizon programme on BBC2 Horizon programme called Clean Eating, The Dirty Truth investigated the trend.

Following strict food rules can exacerbate vulnerabilities around foods in those who are susceptible and worse still disorder and change eating habits and patterns which can result in omitting crucial nutrients. The most important message to emerge from the latest round of scrutiny is that the science does not back up the claims.

Common sense advice on clean and dirty food

For those trying to hold on their New Year’s resolutions or just adopt a healthier approach to diet or lifestyle, there is no need to enforce such strict patterns of eating. Instead consider some of these sensible and grounded approaches to what you eat:

-         Food writer Michael Pollan has a number of great quotes, but these two are worth remembering

"Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food"

"Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

-         Eat less, but better meat. Try and have one or two meat-free days and when buying meat look for the highest welfare you can afford

-         Look at the truth, read the labels – remember the basic guidelines for reading a label and if the ingredients list is very long it’s likely to contain a number of nasties

-         Avoid anything that includes the words denial and reward. Instead it should be about balance. Enjoy treat foods occasionally – as treats. There will always be celebrations and dessert.

-         The Mediterranean diet has stacks of evidence to prove the numerous health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.

-         Not all manufactured food is evil, but it is recommended to purchase fewer foods in packets in favour of fresh alternatives e.g. a baked potato is a better choice than a packet of chips

-         If you are eliminating foods, make sure any vital nutrients or minerals (such as calcium) are replaced. Other nutrients to be aware of are iron, omega-3 and vitamin B12