There’s no question that the concept of clean eating has exploded in recent years. However some nutrition experts doubt whether it has any real benefit or even any real meaning. They argue that it’s nothing more than a way of looking good on social media: at best it’s elitist and at worst it can body-shame us into anorexia and bulimia.
I strongly disagree. I believe clean eating represents a vibrant backlash against processed junk food and the endless health problems it leads to. Clean eating is a vital part of the equation if we want to heal our gut, strengthen our entire body and stay on top form for the rest of our lives.
A quick glance at Instagram, for example, shows just how popular #cleaneating has become. Millions of people every day share images of their clean recipes and clean-fuelled gym bodies.
Dieticians and doctors get their knickers in a twist over it because there’s no official definition of ‘clean eating’, but the average person knows instinctively what it means.
Defining Clean Eating
Here’s are some of the ingredients of what clean eating means from a Gut Geek point of view:
It means eating food that is:
- Not processed. If you’re hazy on what the problems are with processed food or what counts as ‘processed’ take a look at 7 Huge Reasons to Avoid Processed Food.
- Made from whole ingredients. We buy these ingredients and we put them together to make a meal. We don’t rely on a big food company to do it for us in a factory somewhere, then ship it to us inside a package.
- Often made at home, so that we’re in control of the ingredients.
- Free from artificial additives that damage our gut and overall health.
- Free from added refined sugar. It’s important to understand the difference between sugary crap added by manufacturers, such as high fructose corn syrup, and sugar that occurs naturally in, for example, fruit or honey. For more details check out 6 Steps to Shake Off Sugar
The ‘clean’ meals we prepare will contain:
- A wide variety of ingredients, as more variety leads to a richer and more diverse collection of friendly bacteria in our microbiome, which in turn makes us stronger, fitter and happier.
- Lots of vegetables, because if there’s one thing all nutritionists agree on, it’s that veggies are good for us!
- Meat that is grass-fed/outdoor-reared and is from farms that don’t use intensive industrial methods. We don’t like those industrial methods as they are cruel to the animals and fill our meat with growth hormones, antibiotics, pesticide and GM residues, all of which are highly irritating to the gut.
Eating clean means getting our head around the distinction between good and bad fats:
- Trans fats (aka hydrogenated fats) are bad because they are heavily processed and make us sick.
- Your average vegetable oil from the supermarket is also ‘bad fat’ for the same reason.
- Cold-pressed vegetable oils are good fats, as they haven’t been ruined by high temperature processing.
- Contrary to the decades-old myth, not all saturated fat is bad for us. For example coconut oil has tons of scientifically-proven health benefits.
- Saturated fat from healthy, outdoor-reared animals is very beneficial for us.
- Saturated fat from intensively-reared feedlot animals is bad for us, as many of the toxins in their poor little bodies are stored in their fat.
- We don’t buy ‘low fat’ products because they are a food-industry con that should be consigned to the dustbin of history. They are inevitably more processed, contain fewer nutrients and more additives, and often end up making us fatter instead of thinner.
Clean eating does NOT necessarily mean:
- Dairy-free, because fermented dairy products like yoghurt and kefir contain valuable payloads of friendly bacteria. Take a look at Should I Stop Eating Dairy and Two Superfoods To Heal Your Gut That You Can Make Yourself
- Gluten-free, because lots of products marketed as ‘gluten free’ are full of processed crap like tapioca starch and cornstarch. On the other hand, good quality sourdough bread is relatively easy to digest for most people and contains a bunch of useful nutrients. Having said that, when our gut gets really bad, we often need to go completely gluten-free for a period.
And clean eating does NOT necessarily have to be:
- Organic, because it’s prohibitively expensive or unavailable for many of us. That said, if you can buy organic, it is definitely the cleaner option.
- Expensive or elitist. We don’t have to spend our time wandering around farmer’s markets and taking photos of our parsnips if we don’t want to!
- Body shaming, if we’re not setting out to be or look superior to anyone else.
- Followed obsessively.
The concerns about anorexia are important and I’m not dismissing them for a moment. However, there are complex reasons behind why people become anorexic or bulimic. To throw out the idea of clean eating because of this is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Clean Eating And Our Microbiome
Diet is far more critical to our health than we previously thought. Sure, we all have a general understanding that vegetables are healthier than ice-cream, but the picture is expanding rapidly. We now know that:
1) Diet is the number one factor that shapes our microbiome (the friendly bacteria inside us),
2) Our microbiome is fundamental to our digestion, immune system, metabolism, hormones, brain and entire health.
If we step back and take a look at the bigger picture for a moment, there are at least three big signs that something has gone badly wrong with our diet and microbiome:
- The explosion in recent decades of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD’s) such as food allergies, asthma, diabetes type 2, obesity, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Alzheimers and cancer.
- Life expectancy in the West is now no longer rising.
- Sperm counts in the West are dropping by as much as 50%
Every time we chose a ‘dirty’ food option over a ‘clean’ one we’re taking a decision about our health and wellness. Do we want to slide into old age with a miserable combination of obesity and dementia, or do we want to be vibrant and healthy for our entire lives until we die peacefully one night in our sleep aged 99?
Your Definition of Clean Eating
Yes it’s true that there’s no definition of what clean eating is exactly. But so what? I’m always sceptical of official definitions handed down by powers-that-be anyway. That doesn’t mean it’s not ‘evidence based’. There’s plenty of evidence if we look for it.
We need to find our own definition of ‘clean’. I’m not saying that my definition is better than yours. It’s the process of thinking about it and then changing our food choices that counts. This elevates us from mindless consumers to active participants in how our food is grown and how our planet is looked after.
Your definition could be vegetarian, vegan, low carb, high fat, whatever. The point is that you’re thinking about it, not all the time, not obsessively or compulsively but with kindness and compassion, firstly to yourself and your body (which includes your old friends the bacteria), then to your family and then to the planet.