Everyone knows the difference between dirty and clean foods, so I don’t have to explain the obvious…or do I? My favorite response to questions about how to eat clean is, “Wash your food.” The biggest problem with discussing foods in these terms is that there’s no clear definition of clean or dirty. The difference might seem obvious, but a closer look shows that it’s far from clear-cut. The confusion is compounded when clean eating is preached as the best way to optimal health and body composition. In this article, I’ll use research and field experience to shed some light on these muddy issues.
The Fickle Nature of Clean
To illustrate the inconsistency of clean through decades, I’ll begin with the 1980’s, widely regarded as the start of the fitness revolution. Through much of the decade, fat (regardless of type) was portrayed by both the academic and lay press as the bad guy. Eating clean in the 80’s was largely characterized by avoiding fat, whether through the plethora of fat-free products, or the vigilant avoidance of all forms of added and naturally occurring fats within foods. Toward the end of the decade, whole grain products were regarded as the foundation of optimal health.
The 1990’s was a decade that dichotomized unsaturated fats as good, and saturated fats as bad. Red meat, egg yolks, and pretty much all sources of dietary cholesterol were to be avoided. Abundant grain consumption was still encouraged, and even more so if the grain product had a low glycemic index (GI). High insulin elevations were considered harmful to health and body composition. Therefore, multiple small meals around the clock was recommended not only to control insulin levels, but also to supposedly raise metabolism.
Clean in the 2000’s was characterized by the beginnings of amnesty toward saturated fat and cholesterol. They no longer were considered as dirty as previously thought; now hydrogenated vegetable oil was the poison. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and flaxseed were placed on a heavenly pedestal, receiving the more-is-better stamp. Carbohydrate was now seen as a potentially greater threat to dieters than fat. Sugar was particularly unclean, as evidenced by the boom of artificially sweetened, low-carb products.
The present decade has just begun, and eating clean has taken some interesting directions. One is an appeal to imagination about Paleolithic eating habits, which eliminates the consumption of grains, legumes, dairy, added salt, sugar, alcohol, and even certain vegetables. This definition of clean is perhaps the most logically inconsistent one. It emphasizes a prehistoric model, yet many of its proponents take an array of cutting-edge nutritional supplements, and use satellite technology to navigate their drive to the closest parking spot at the gym. Fruits and vegetables have always been a mainstay of clean eating, but pesticide-free produce is now somehow cleaner, pests and all. Another twist in the carbohydrate saga has snowballed as well. Insulin spikes from high-GI carbs were the bane of the 90’s. But now, fructose, a low-GI carbohydrate with minimal effects on insulin response, is now one of the top public enemies.
As you can see, the definition of clean is an elusive target. Are there any common threads among the decades with respect to eating clean? Is there any way to objectively label foods as clean or dirty? Before I get to that, let’s take a look at the concept as it’s been traditionally applied to bodybuilding.
Hopefully, this will help everyone understand food just a little bit better.
Oh, and for reference, my favorite part of the article is near the bottom and I don’t want you to miss it, so here it is:
All-or-Nothing Dieting & Eating Disorder Risk
In 1997, a general physician named Steven Bratman coined the term orthorexia nervosa , which he defines as, “an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food.” It reminds me of the counterproductive dietary perfectionism I’ve seen among many athletes, trainers, and coaches. One of the fundamental pitfalls of dichotomizing foods as good or bad, or clean or dirty, is that it can form a destructive relationship with food. This isn’t just an empty claim; it’s been seen in research. Smith and colleagues found that flexible dieting was associated with the absence of overeating, lower bodyweight, and the absence of depression and anxiety . They also found that a strict all-or-nothing approach to dieting was associated with overeating and increased bodyweight. Similarly, Stewart and colleagues found that rigid dieting was associated with symptoms of an eating disorder, mood disturbances, and anxiety . Flexible dieting was not highly correlated with these qualities.