What is Clean Eating?

You’ve certainly heard the term “clean eating.” As you think about those words, what images, feelings, and connotations get conjured up? What does the term “clean eating” mean to you?

Toby Amidor, RD and media-savvy nutrition expert recently wrote about clean eating in an article in Today’s Dietitian a few months ago. She explained that clean eating “encourages the consumption of more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats with fewer sugary high-calorie beverages and saturated fatty food.” That sounds reasonable, right? I’m a dietitian, of course I’m in support of eating foods that nourish the body and support health.

BUT…I’m also incredibly interested in the power of semantics and the power of the meaning that gets all wrapped up in our eating habits. Sometimes people ask me how I can stand talking about food all day long. Even some of my therapist buddies ask if I ever get bored. And the answer is no! And that’s because food habits are layered with all sorts of meaning. And part of my job is to help my clients untangle the layers of meaning when need be. If the way we eat gets too wrapped up with our identity, our eating habits may lead to exaggerated feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety, depression, and even self-hatred. And these feeling further distance our connection to the physical experience of eating. It probably goes without saying, that feeling this way over the long-term isn’t good for our health.

When it comes to eating, my job is to help neutralize the harmful feelings of judgment and shame while deepening physical connection and awareness.

You may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with the notion of “clean eating?” Perhaps nothing for some of you. But for others, it may be highly problematic. The word clean carries with it the idea of being good, worthy, and virtuous. And the antithesis of clean is dirty, bad, or naughty. If you find that you are constantly feeling guilty about your food habits, these terms might be more harmful than helpful. Creating some distance from the semantic notions of “clean” and “good” might be useful. Instead, you could focus on the physical experience of how certain foods feel in your body during and after a meal.

One way to do this is to try a one day journaling experiment. You’ll be recording three pieces of information. First, you’ll make a note of what and how much you ate. Second, write down any inner commentary on what you ate (ie “that was bad I should haven’t had that”). And finally you’ll indicate how that food tasted and the way it felt physically in your body after (ie tasted yummy but noticed feeling gassy and bloated after). 

This simple practice is intended to help you separate your physical experience from the narrative in your mind. If this concept resonates for you, give it a try. See what it’s like to create some space from the judgement and “shoulds” of eating while discovering what types of foods allow you to feel your best. Your body and your brain just might thank you for it!