Root Vegetable Salad

Clean Eating, Dirty Reputation

Clean eating, it seems, is earning a bit of a dirty reputation. This popular meme has grown out of the even more popular idea of healthy eating. Cambridge scientist Giles Yeo examined a range of clean eating fads for a BBC Horizons film. With the gentle persistence of a real scientist, Yeo takes apart inflated pseudo-science health claims for gluten-free, grain-free, alkaline, and vegan diets. He presents a compelling story, well worth watching.

The idea that some foods are unclean has ancient religious roots. In a classic paper, theology professor Jerome Neyrey offers a guide to the religious ideas of clean, unclean, pure, polluted, holy, and profane. Even in Greek and Roman civilizations, dietary purity, spiritual purity, and physical health were woven tightly together. Unclean foods defile the body.

Writing in Good Housekeeping, dietitian Jaclyn London is blunt, saying “clean eating is total BS.” She explains:

I’m worried that the phrase has taken on a new, misguided meaning. The implication is that if you’re not “eating clean,” what you eat otherwise is dirty or unhygienic, and that’s simply not true.

It has also been attached to a health and lifestyle claim. That is, if you’re not “eating clean,” the reverse is true: You’re probably sloppy, lazy, and making yourself sick. It’s morphed from a sense of awareness about food into a diet-driven caste system. Not only does the phrase establish a hierarchical model for eating well, it’s yet another medium for food-shaming.

Social status. That seems to be the dividing line for clean eating. The time is ripe to step back and look at unproven presumptions about healthy eating. Perhaps excess zeal in reforming the dietary habits of others carries a risk of its own.

Click here for the BBC documentary, here for more from the Sydney Morning Herald, and here for more from Jaclyn London.

Root Vegetable Salad, photograph © Le Living and Co / flickr

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February 3, 2017

2 Responses to “Clean Eating, Dirty Reputation”

  1. February 03, 2017 at 11:38 am, calle said:

    Well, I was raised eating a clean (healthy, from scratch, home canned, some sugar included vegetarian diet).
    My parents both lived in their own home until they died.
    We were raised to stay healthy, not to depend on pill bottles and medical this and that.
    I have never ever thought of “clean” as the opposite of unwashed, dirty food – unclean.

    We followed the Bible for unclean foods and I wonder about the claim that it is social economic status that defines these beliefs.
    We were not well off at all. And both of my parents were from the bottom of the bucket families.
    All home grown foods, not a huge variety in the winter as all food was canned.
    An orange at Christmas.
    Clean to me means no junk food, no food additives.

  2. February 03, 2017 at 1:43 pm, Katherine Rivard said:

    There is truth that adding fruits and vegetables on a pretty plate makes for a new and potentially fun experience in the mid-winter of the Midwest.

    Many people get onto food jags – only chicken wings are cool, I only eat meat at meals, and the various diets.

    Clean eating with the gym-goers and followers of how to “cut” and “stack” for strength is a trending lifestyle. Once can read all about this and truly build their own lifestyle into this.

    Let’s be the ones to balance the brain on this idea. The idea is to feel better after making food and activity a more conscious part of one’s life. That often entails eating more balanced diets and exercising a pattern of activity.

    Hey – I have developed a new website and have run into publishing challenges with the company from India. So I am working to update my presence!