Spring cleaning doesn’t only have to apply to your house; you might take it on in your dietary life as well. When researching better-for-you changes, you might come across the spring-appropriate “clean eating” plan. But what exactly does this entail, and is it worth trying?
Trying to pin down exactly what clean eating is — or is not — can result in a quagmire of contradictory views. Most people agree that it involves eating whole foods, drinking plenty of water, and exercising — and that it is not a “diet.” When the term “diet” is used, it’s meant as a way to say what a person is or is not consuming. Instead, most clean eaters believe it’s a change to their lifestyle. After those points, the consensus dies out, as different people tailor the broad message of clean eating uniquely to their daily lives.
A strict view of the diet eliminates all processed foods. That is one of the steps nutritionist Angela Hattaway included in her list of simple steps for clean eating success on Fit Day. This means getting rid of all white flours, rices, sugars, candies, etc. Also on the list of things to avoid were sugar-sweetened drinks, and junk foods. Meat is OK, as long as you buy it whole — ground turkey for example does not make the cut.
In a review of the diet, WebMD spoke to Tosca Reno, who has written several books on clean eating. Reno said the diet consists of lean proteins, good carbs and fats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and water. She says it is important to exercise as well, and from these changes, bodies are turned into fat burning machines.
Reno’s basic principles of clean eating are similar to Hattaway’s, but are more specific. Many of the ideas are a kind of back-to-basics approach to eating, such as eating breakfast daily within an hour of waking up. When taking up clean eating, fiber, vitamins, and nutrients are to come from fresh fruits, and vegetables. It does not advocate counting calories, but does favor portion control. People are to eat six small meals every day, with lean protein and complex carbohydrates at each meal.
In addition to flour and sugar, artificial sweeteners in Reno’s view are off limits, along with chemical additives, preservatives, calorie-dense foods with no nutritional value, saturated and trans fats, alcohol, and sugary beverages. But it is this all-or-nothing approach other dietitians see as a red flag. When a diet completely eliminates a food group, or ingredient, it is more likely that people will not consistently follow it and will eventually abandon that style of eating or living.
Suzy Weems, a professor of nutrition sciences at Baylor, told Fox News Magazine that processed food are unfairly demonized by the clean eating lifestyle. “Most foods are processed to some degree. The initial process of a tomato is picking, washing, and slicing it,” Weems explained. “It’s not that processed foods are bad, but that many of us eat too much in our diet. By eating food in its whole and natural form, we get the most nutritional and fiber content, which is important for preventing disease and for maintaining overall health.”
Scott Gavura discussed Reno’s plan in Science Based Medicine. He, like Weems, finds benefits in the common sense proposals of the diet. However, there are several misnomers and bits of questionable advice. For example, he says it is impossible to avoid every chemical and preservative — they are just too pervasive in our lives. What is worse, though, are the supplements and detoxes Reno advises for people. Reno’s advice is not based in science Gavura states, but rather anecdotal evidence. The supplements were an issue WebMd had with the diet as well because taking them is cautioned against by medical experts.
Gavura also does not see discarding caloric intake as productive, especially if the goal is weight-loss. To him, calories will always play a role in weight, and cannot be ignored no matter how healthy a person’s diet is. Ultimately, there are good principles in the clean eating plan — like whole grains and healthy fats — but for the most part, “clean” is a successful marketing ploy for products and foods.
However, that is only one take on the clean eating diet; because of its vague definitions, a more relaxed view exists too. ”I don’t think it’s realistic to never eat anything that comes out of a jar, box, or bag, but when you do, the very first thing a clean eater looks at is the ingredient list,” Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian, wrote in Health. Instead, the focus should be on what the ingredients are, not that there are ingredients. “Clean eating is about focusing on quality first, and not letting terms like zero trans fat, low sodium, or sugar free, fool you into thinking that a processed food is healthy.”
Sass isn’t the only one who thinks you can promote a packaged food on a clean diet. “I don’t think sugar makes food unclean. Pure fruits are not unclean foods. You can add sugar to foods, and it can be clean. … It’s not about banishing any particular type of ingredient,” Dr. David Katz told ABC News in his explanation of the diet. “Food that’s clean is food that’s for the most part real food and not encumbered with things that compromise health: artificial flavorings, artificial colorings, sugar substitutes.” Katz said to look for foods with short, pronounceable ingredient lists.