Clean eating: The good and the bad

Clean eating has been a trend for the past decade, although there's no official definition of just what "clean eating" means. In fact, it's more a dietary approach than a specific diet, although quite a number of cookbooks have spun off of this trend.

The foun-dation of clean eating is choosing whole foods and foods in their less processed states—choosing from vegetables, fruits, whole grains, pulses (beans, lentils, and peas), dairy, nuts, seeds, and high-quality animal and plant proteins. When possible, food choices are organic and based on what's in season in your geographic region. When choosing packaged foods with a label, foods with shorter ingredient lists are preferred, and added sugars are limited.

So far, so good. However, the movement can go to extremes. Many clean-eating advocates aim to avoid all traces of added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and other additives—a position that might be admirable but is too stringent for most people. In many cases, a cult-like extremism is encouraged by wellness bloggers and celebrities who have no nutrition qualifications or evidence to back up some of their promises, including claims that their version of clean eating will change your life or cure your health issues.

Increasingly, food companies are picking up on the trend, using language in their marketing like "food should be clean" and "don't eat ingredients you can't pronounce." This not only taps into safety fears, but it implies that if food isn't "clean," it's dirty, or that if it's not chemical-free, it's chemical-laden. The truth is that foods don't fall into black-and-white categories. For example, even organic agriculture uses pesticides—most are natural, but some are manufactured.

The good: Some versions of clean eating offer a genuine way to eat a nutritious diet based on fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains, with healthy fats and either plant- or animal-based protein food for balance—while reducing sugar and ultra-processed foods.

The bad: Other interpretations of clean eating can lead to a rigid diet that bans entire foods or food groups like grains—especially glu-ten-containing grains—soy, legumes, and dairy. These extremes are not supported by research, and you can develop nutrient deficiencies if your food choices are too limited. In some cases, clean eating, especially in its more rigid forms, can become less of a diet than an identity and could lead to disordered eating.

The mixed bag: There's real benefit in eating more whole and minimally processed foods, but not in fearing others that are nutritious. Because many consumers perceive that "clean" foods are safer and higher quality, "certified clean" labels are starting to appear on some processed foods, although there's no standard definition behind them. Even the least extreme version of clean eating typically requires cooking most meals at home, which isn't feasible for everyone.

For more information on the healthiest diet plans, check out The Diet Review, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.

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