Home Friday 5 5 Things That Don’t Define Clean Eating

5 Things That Don’t Define Clean Eating

by Erika Nicole Kendall

In keeping with the sort-of theme for this week, I wanted to do a post on something I’m seeing that confuses me.

Mind you, I can’t define “clean eating” for anyone other than myself, and I’m okay with that. But, since this blog is run by one person who contributes all of the recipes and the content, I think it’d be helpful to try to define what clean eating is – and what it’s not – for anyone following my definition of it.



In some of the anti-clean eating articles I’ve read this week, I recognized a lot of misinformation. All of these are articles that y’all have shared with me, confused about what these articles present juxtaposed with what I abide by as “clean eating.” I get it! And, while I firmly believe that we all should be empowered to design an eating lifestyle that works best for us on an individual level, I want to make a few things clear when it comes to my eating philosophy.

So, without further ado,  five things that do not define clean eating:

1) Clean eating is not low-fat. Clean eating advocates that embrace some kind of low-fat thinking in terms of how to eat healthily are not only abandoning basic nutrition science, but are focusing more on old school weight loss mentality and less on pleasurable, fulfilling eating.

As I’ve shared before…

This past December, the Los Angeles Times reported that excess carbohydrates and sugar, not fat, are responsible for America’s obesity and diabetes epidemics. One of the lead researchers in this field, Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “The country’s big low-fat message backfired. The overemphasis on reducing fat caused the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar in our diets to soar. That shift may be linked to the biggest health problems in America today.” Another expert, Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “Fat is not the problem.”

You’re still trying to cut all the fat from your diet? Can’t help but wonder what your hair and skin look like. Yikes.

2) Clean eating is not inherently low-sugar. There are lots of fruits and vegetables that contain sugar, and we eat them in sizable quantities. We like our fruits and veggies as clean eaters, much more than we like, say, our jolly ranchers – especially since a jolly rancher will leave you pissed off at a real watermelon or a real grape wondering why it tastes so ‘different’ – or our hershey bars.

In other words, you can still enjoy cookies, cakes, pies and candies (yeah, I said it!) while still eating clean. Chances are also much higher that you’ll be eating a diet rich in protein, nutrients and – yep, you guessed it – fiber. Why?

If you’re a big processed food eater, know that your foods more than likely don’t have enough fiber to cover the amount of food you’re eating. (The fiber is removed because foods with fiber tend to spoil easier.) It’s also likely that – if your foods have fiber chemically (or “magically”) inserted in them – that their version of fiber simply isn’t sufficient or structured well enough to do what naturally fibrous foods can do. Fiber, much like any other nutrient, is best obtained through natural means.

Fiber, when paired with sugar, helps soften the blow to your body’s blood sugar levels. Since most processed food is running high on sugar and low on fiber, well… you can guess what happens.

Clean eating involves sweets! It’s just up to you to determine how far you will go with your consumption… and you’re far more likely to be able to exercise self-control with them.

3) Clean eating is not just organic food. Like I’ve said before, I’m a huge proponent of healthy living with ingredients and items that are as naturally-sourced as possible (which, even today, is a loaded term), but organic items aren’t necessarily a guarantee of any of that.

Oh, you thought organic packaged/processed food was “safe” from additives and preservatives? You thought you were safe from synthetic substances?

When packaged products indicate they are “made with organic [specific ingredient or food group],” this means they contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. The remaining non-organic ingredients are produced without using prohibited practices (genetic engineering, for example) but can include substances that would not otherwise be allowed in 100% organic products. “Made with organic” products will not bear the USDA organic seal, but, as with all other organic products, must still identify the USDA-accredited certifier.

Oh, you thought organic food was inherently devoid of pesticides?

A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of produce that found nearly 20 percent of organic lettuce tested positive for pesticide residues piqued our interest. Lots of the lettuce contained quite a bit of spinosad, a pesticide marketed by Dow Chemical under the brand name Entrust.

So we called Jeff Gillman, a professor of nursery management at the University of Minnesota, who has written about organic practices for lay readers. Right off the bat he told us:

When people are buying organic food, they often make the incorrect assumption that there are no pesticides. It’s true that organic production often uses fewer dangerous chemicals, but certain pesticides are allowed.

Organic is not, unfortunately, the safeguard we thought it was. Is is important to try to get as close to pesticide free as possible? Of course. Just don’t think that “organics” are what’s gonna get you there. You’re better off hitting up a farmer’s market and simply asking them how they handle

4) Clean eating is not any particular alternative eating lifestyle. Vegetarian, vegan, breathitarian, whatever – there are sustainable and additive, pesticide, and preservative-free methods of obtaining just about any food as close to how nature intended as possible. And, though I get that there are debates on what it means to say “how nature intended,” none of that has anything to do with whether or not animal byproduct can be “clean” in my mind.

The way a person eats might be healthier for them, and better for them, but one size never fits all and our lives aren’t all the same. Even as I advocate for clean eating, I have to recognize that even this in and of itself won’t be possible for everyone. I can still help educate people on how to make healthier choices, even if the won’t get anywhere near 100% with it.

Vegan dishes are delicious, but when they talk about “clean,” they’re talking about something completely different from me. And that’s okay, as long as that’s clear.

5) Clean eating is not bland, flavorless, awkward mishmashes of food, segregated on a plate and un-allowed to touch its other plate-members. Michael Pollan has this great bit in his book about how Americans spent a great deal of time making dishes that “segregated” the food on their plates, possibly because they were so used to segregating things in their day to day lives, and it’s not only embarrassingly true (back then and now), but it also shows food habits that are completely devoid of culture. Clean eating is pasta, it’s dal, it’s gumbo, it’s curry, it’s hoppin’ john, it’s collard greens – with or without a hamhock – and it’s even fried chicken.

People who cling to bland food make me nervous – it’s as if they need to keep the food bland to avoid overeating, which means I’m dealing with a person who doesn’t do the work of learning self-control. I’ll never be able to control the kinds of food at an event or a meeting or goodness knows wherever else, and I’m not going to not be social because I’m afraid of a binge. I understand doing what you need to do for self, but that’s not “clean eating.” Throw some cumin on that or something, jeez.

Tell me, family – what clean eating myths have you heard? What do you think I got wrong in here? Let’s hear it!

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Tabbitha1968 November 1, 2013 - 2:27 PM

Erika, I have to say I dont see what all the fuss is about. Ive been eating as clean as possible for the past five months. I have knocked my high blood pressure out of the box, I have eliminated my skin allergies, and as a result of losing weight (50lbs haha) have stop snoring (all of which required about six different prescriptions and a CPAP machine). My “clean eating” may not be 100% “free of chemicals” but right now the benefits of my version of “clean eating” has improved my health. In my book better health trumps any issue that a person can find against clean eating!!

Tabbitha1968 November 1, 2013 - 2:30 PM

P.S, I havent heard any of the clean eating myths and was quite shocked to find out there were myths period, but I commend you on speaking out. To all the naysayers, get your proof – clean eat and see what it does for you!!

Kami November 1, 2013 - 4:59 PM

Hey Erika,
In the past, almost all the dietitians in NYC that i seen advocate for bland eating such as cooking with no coconut, seasonings or oils. Even my experiences at weight loss camp were horrible. The food had no seasoning it was all diet food and white foods with no fiber or flavor. The nutritional education was horrible, everything was low fat foods and diet soda. Until I took a class in college , then I met professors that said stay away from diet foods and processed foods. However now that this blog is here it has educated me on leaving the processed foods alone. It also helped me understand the reasons I was hungry after frozen or prepackaged meals.
My other goals are to make more frequent trips to the farmers markets. Thank to this I been getting in the kitchen and cooking and making delicious dishes. The curry rice with coconut milk, dal, roti, kale salad etc. I love your blog.

Vivien November 3, 2013 - 12:11 AM

Thank you for your definition of clean eating. I like your philosophy and think you have the balance right!

Aras November 4, 2013 - 2:54 PM

To answer your first question, I think the biggest myth I’ve heard is the one you brought up about veganism and vegetarianism. Sure, one may not eat, as an example, prosciutto (I’ve been thinking about prosciutto a lot lately, which means I need to buy some on my next grocery trip), but don’t tell me that eating a bag of Doritos is better simply because it’s not an animal-based product. It’s not a clean choice after it’s all said and done.

Jennifer Hutchison August 30, 2015 - 12:20 PM

Hey Erika. Love your article.
No. 1 is so on point, and is the man hurdle people have to jump to accomplish clean eating. Sugar has the same influence chemically and physiological as cocaine. Dr. Lustig explains it best in Sugar: The Bitter Truth


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