By Miranda Weindling
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” wrote Micheal Pollan, thirteen years ago. It’s timeless advice, but as Pollan points out, the simplicity of this statement is deceptive.
Around that same time, but really taking off in the 2010s, the concept of ‘clean eating’ began to surface. It shares a lot of principles with Pollan’s advice, and as a testament to clean eating’s benefits, it’s still advocated for today by many, signifying that it’s more than a fad diet. There’s a lot that’s positive about it: for your health, body, mind, and even the planet –– but over the past decade, the clean eating culture has also taken some wrong turns.
So what is clean eating in 2020 (and what is it not)? Is it all veg and no sugar, or can I have my cake (or steak), and eat it too?
Eat Food: What Is Food?
Trick question? No, not really. Food, in this instance, refers to whole, unrefined, and unprocessed foods, such as fresh vegetables and fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. All of these food sources are rich in vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre. They are good for you unless you have certain health conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, in which case some of these foods may not be suitable.
So, what isn’t food? Eliminating highly processed foods is vital for cleaner eating. Processed, packaged, foods have often gone through a lot of different stages, to reach their final form, resulting in lower nutritional value.
Not all foods that come in boxes, tins or jars should be avoided though. To gauge how processed a food is, check out its ingredient label. Sometimes the ‘less ingredients the better’ approach is touted, encouraging you to make everything homemade. But let’s be real, we don’t all have the time or energy to make our pesto from scratch every time we need a 15-minute pasta-and-pesto supper.
Instead, learn how to read food labels and familiarise yourself with different names and types of fats and sugars, and sodium levels. But, don’t get too caught up on it –– the advice around certain foods, fats, in particular, is constantly changing. One day you’ll hear that butter is bad and coconut oil is good, the next day it’s flipped.
Sugar is another, often over vilified, hot topic. However, sugars, as carbohydrates, are the body’s basic fuel. Try to opt for less refined, naturally occurring sugars, as much as possible, over refined sugars. If you have a sweet tooth, there are definitely healthier sugar options, such as maple syrup and coconut sugar.
It’s all too easy to lose sight of why we eat in the first place –– it’s not for pleasure, or to look good –– but to enable our bodies to function. A healthy diet needs to balance carbohydrates, protein, fats, and to be rich in fruits and vegetables for vitamins.
The keyword is mainly.
There are undoubtedly health benefits of eating plant-based diets, but you are only looking at part of the picture if you refuse to recognise the science that backs up the benefits of eating high quality, non-processed, meat.
The consumption of animal products is a particularly challenging contemporary issue due to planetary and ethical implications. But ultimately, the choice is yours whether you choose to eat or eliminate meat. If you choose a plant-based diet, make sure you get all your required vitamins and minerals through alternative sources.
The benefits of fruits and vegetables can’t be overstated. Aim to ‘Eat the Rainbow’ daily, consuming fruits and vegetables of all colours, to get their full nutritional profile. This complete hit of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals helps ensure health, enhance your mood, and supports immune function.
Not Too Much, But Make Sure It’s Enough
This is a tricky one when it comes to clean eating, which has been intimately linked to the eating disorder orthorexia. What starts as a good intention to be healthy can turn into a controlling, obsessive and judgemental attitude towards food, where certain foods are deemed “pure” and “good”, while others are bad.
For this reason, clean eating has its critics – and they are not candy manufacturers – but nutritionists and chefs. These critics still encourage healthy eating, emphasising whole foods, but it shouldn’t be a personal punishment which gives rise to feelings of guilt and judgement if you ‘break the rules’. Pollan’s ‘not too much’ is partially in reference to increased obesity, exacerbated by a lack of nutritious ‘food’.
Clean eating at it’s best leaves you feeling full and nourished, free of obsessive restrictions. The last few years have seen a rise in intuitive eating and food freedom, both of which have an emphasis on how food makes you feel, and no food is out of bounds –– which are great principles to integrate with clean eating.
After all, a lot of clean eating is plain old common sense, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. So, between eating a healthy amount of food and plants, make sure your cleaner eating practices are nurturing your entire being.