Clean Eating: What’s in a Name?

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If you’re sick of hearing about the paleo diet and gluten-free everything, you may be in luck: “Clean eating” is on the rise, and it may soon displace those other trends as the healthy-eating topic du jour.

Tosca Reno, author of the 2007 book The Eat-Clean Diet, describes clean eating as “a colorful assortment of fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and lean protein.” Clean Eating magazine says it’s “all about consuming whole food in its most natural state, or as close to it as possible.” Clean eating advocate Cynthia Sass, R.D. has written that clean eating “means foods that haven't had anything added to them, and haven't had anything valuable taken away.”

If these definitions sound rather vague to you, you’re not alone. In a recent article on Slate, writer L.V. Anderson complained, “The term [clean eating] has been adopted so widely, by people promoting so many different eating choices, that it has no agreed upon definition.”

To clear up the confusion, it helps to take a quick look at the book of Leviticus. Why? Because that’s where the concepts of clean and unclean foods originated. According to scholars of ancient Judaism, the Hebrew word "tumah," which is usually translated as “clean,” actually means “spiritually pure.” The Israelites avoided unclean foods such as shellfish not because they were dirty or unhealthy but rather to distinguish themselves from neighboring peoples, who had their own definitions of clean and unclean foods.

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Which brings me to another idea—and that’s that diet is more than just a source of nourishment. It is also a source of identity. This is as true for modern health diets as it was for early religious diets, and it explains why the most ardent followers of all diets are prone to negatively judge other ways of eating. What’s different about clean eating is that judgment is inherent in its very name, which even today carries connotations of moral spotlessness, as Anderson observed in her Slate article. So it’s not surprising that the term has been co-opted by vegetarians, the gluten-free crowd, and farm-to-fork activists, to name a few. Nobody wants to think of their diet as unclean.

The problem? Clean eaters themselves stress the term’s connotation of healthiness. But there is no rigorous definition of “clean” that can be used to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy foods.

A more direct and reasonable way to evaluate foods is to look at their actual effects on health. And research has consistently shown that the best health outcomes result from diets that contain lots of vegetables and fruit and no more than small amounts of refined grains, sweets, processed and red meats, and fried foods. Nuts and seeds, dairy, whole grains, and fish and poultry are also health-enhancing but are not needed in great quantities.

These broad parameters leave plenty of room for you to find the specific diet that works best for you. I like this flexible approach—it discourages the “us-and-them” thinking that is so rampant in today’s dietary landscape. If we recognize that many diets are healthy and no single way of eating is healthiest for everyone, we’re less prone to judge other carefully chosen diets as “unclean.” Whatever we may mean by that.

Matt Fitzgerald is a sports nutritionist and author of the new book Diet Cults

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