I love clean eating. Clean recipes are fun to make, and the fresh, high-quality ingredients make the food taste amazing. Eating clean also allows me to support local farmers and small businesses with my dollars.
But I also think the clean eating craze can have a negative impact, because there’s so much emphasis on eating “good” foods, avoiding “bad” foods, and doing things the “right” way.
A few years ago, I traveled overseas for a mountaineering trip. Every climb burns thousands of calories, so I was excited to eat lots of delicious local food without guilt!
By contrast, there was someone on our trip who was overly concerned with eating clean. They restricted a lot of foods, and seemed to worry that what they did eat was hurting them somehow.
Probably as a result, they didn’t appear to have much energy on our climbs. They also missed out on a lot of cultural experiences and delicious restaurant and home-cooked meals.
On one hand, I totally get it. I’ve been there.
As a short, stocky girl who tends to gain weight easily, I’ve struggled my whole life with rigid diets, restricting, and the shame of eating “wrong.”
This was especially hard when I was young. The social pressure to eat “right” and be skinny was insane. People actually praised my unhealthy, restrictive eating patterns.
If clean eating had been a thing when I was in my twenties, I probably would have died of shame. After all, who wants to be a “dirty” eater?
But the truth is, you can have a very healthy diet without eating clean 100% of the time.
Basically, clean eating teaches us to choose fresh, nutrient-rich foods and avoid processed or packaged ones. This is super-sound advice for weight loss, sports performance, and overall health.
However, society tends to take this good thing to an extreme. When’s the last time you saw a Pinterest pin or blog post about “clean eating rules” or “good and bad” foods? I’m pretty sure there are a few in my Pinterest home feed right now!
This all-or-nothing approach to eating sets people up for failure. Very few of us can stick to a perfectly clean diet over the long-term. Falling into a cycle of failed diets and weight gain can harm your metabolism. It also causes a great deal of shame and despair.
That’s why when you’re eating healthy, flexibility is so important. It’s best to make small changes that you can sustain over the long term.
So don’t make a goal to eat clean. Instead, make a goal to eat cleaner.
But how do you walk that line in a world that judges less than all-out effort and shames you for eating a little Pirate’s Booty?
Here are a few survival suggestions for flexible clean eaters.
Get the basics in place first
Good nutrition isn’t about buying the “right” products from the “right” store (Kroger, bad! Whole Foods, good!). It’s giving your body the substances it needs to function well and prevent chronic disease.
I like to follow the 80/20 principle of nutrition. Simply put, 20 percent of eating practices yield 80 percent of the health benefits.
Science suggests that the following are keys to a healthy diet that prevents chronic disease:
- Eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods every day (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, beans, nuts, low-fat dairy)
- Get at least nine servings of fruits and vegetables every day
- Consume carbs as whole grains at least 50 percent of the time
- Avoid trans fat and keep saturated fat at less than 10% of your total calories
- Minimize added sugar (again, <10% of your daily calories)
- Keep sodium intake under 2,300 mg a day.
If you follow these powerful “20%” practices, your diet may not be perfect. But it will be very healthy. So if you have limited time and energy for healthy eating, that’s where I’d focus.
Now, might you get some additional benefits from eliminating food additives, GMOs, artificial sweeteners, and chemically processed foods? Sure.
But at that point we’re probably talking about diminishing returns for your efforts. So don’t even worry about that stuff until your fundamentals are in place.
Ditch the all-or-nothing attitude
A lot of bloggers and influencers try to sell clean eating as a “lifestyle.” They send the message that this is something you have to do all of the time, or you won’t get the benefits (weight loss, healthy skin, etc.).
However, we live in a world where we get invited to eat out, go to dinner parties, travel, and where sometimes the only restaurant in sight is a greasy-spoon diner.
In other words, living a full, active life means not always having control over your food!
So embrace the idea that clean eating is something that’s nice to do when you can. But you can still get lots of health benefits if you do it on a part-time basis.
For example, if you don’t have time to prep a week’s worth of meals, try having just a few clean meals a week. Or batch up one clean recipe so you can enjoy it through the week.
Make your own rules
Who decides what foods are clean enough? You do!
I like to think about it terms of my living room. It’s not the cleanest living room on the block. And when my mom visits, she will dive in right away and clean it to her standards. But it’s clean enough for me (most of the time), and that’s what matters.
So don’t let anyone — an online influencer, a celebrity, or even your friends — make “clean eating” rules for you.
A common clean eating rule that I don’t choose to follow: GMOs. I’m convinced by the science that says GMOs are very unlikely to cause health problems. So while I might choose organics for other reasons, GMOs don’t factor in.
Am I clean eater? Probably not according to some self-appointed clean eating experts. But who cares? I still get to have my fresh, delicious food and enjoy it.
Trust your body
Holistic health is all about trusting your body to heal itself. Which for the most part, it does. Bodies are truly amazing.
But if this is true, why is there so much hand-wringing about toxins in the clean eating community?
Clean eating bloggers love to analyze the “toxic” properties of food additives and even sugar. But the truth is, a lot of this toxin hype comes from people who don’t fully grasp science.
For example, the alarmist blogger Food Babe wants you to avoid a food additive called the “silly putty ingredient,” because it may contain formaldehyde (“a very toxic substance”).
I guess she doesn’t realize that apples and onions naturally contain formaldehyde.
Now lest I overstate my case, I’m all for consumer activism. We need to hold companies that pollute the environment accountable. I also believe we need more rigorous safety testing for foods.
But should we agonize about eating super clean because packaged and non-organic foods are hopelessly tainted? My answer is no. And for the most part, our livers do an amazing job of removing any toxins that do get through.
Refuse to moralize food
I once asked my friend who’s a registered dietitian with a PhD, “Is high-fructose corn syrup bad?”
Her answer: “No. There are no bad foods.”
Wow. Think about that for a minute.
(And by the way, this was from one of the healthiest, most fit people I know who genuinely loves to cook and eat.)
Most of us very naturally divide the world into “good” food and “bad” food. (Kale, good! French fries, bad!)
These beliefs about food can translate into beliefs about ourselves. Have you ever snarfed down a donut and then felt ashamed? I sure have.
Taken too far, an obsession with eating only “good” foods and eliminating “bad” ones can hurt your self-esteem and decrease your enjoyment of life. It can even develop into an eating disorder called orthorexia.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
The truth is, you can eat almost anything you want and still be healthy. If you’re eating something that’s not in line with your goals, don’t beat yourself up. Just eat less of it, or wait awhile before you eat it again.
So there you have ’em. My best tips on how to eat clean (er) without guilt and stress.
Remember, healthy eating isn’t about following someone else’s rules or restrictive diet plan. It’s about waking up every day and deciding to nourish your body with healthy, good-quality food.
That’s the only thing that works in the long-term. And it will make your life and your relationship with food much happier!
Good luck, and happy (flexible) clean eating!
Originally published Nov. 9, 2018.