Home Clean Eating Boot Camp The Case Against Clean Eating — Wait, What?

The Case Against Clean Eating — Wait, What?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

That’s right, I said it.

Even though my definition of eating clean helped me to accomplish this, that you can see:

Me! Before, and last week.

Me! Before, and last week.

and so much more that you can’t, there’s been a case mounting against clean eating, and the evidence is stacking high.

What, you haven’t read? I don’t have enough hands to count the number of anti-“clean eating” articles I’ve seen over the course of the past few months and, maybe it’s time to just throw in the towel. Maybe it’s time I just own up to a few things.

Let’s recap, shall we? (Feel free to skip the excerpts – they’re dumb long)

From XOJane (and, apparently, Clutch):

Have you heard about this clean eating thing? It’s the way some folks are describing their commitment to eating food that is organic and local and healthy and nonprocessed and all of those other buzzwords we’re hearing so much about at the moment. That doesn’t sound so bad — I’m all for organic and local and healthy and nonprocessed and all of that. It usually tastes pretty darn good. (The current certification and marketing of organic foods is also problematic for a whole lot of reasons — I’m just trying to stay on topic.)

But the language of “clean” eating has pushed a lot of buttons for me and it finally coalesced into some conversation on Twitter a few weeks ago.

Here’s the simple version of my beef with clean eating: I think food moralizing often does incredible damage to the people. Not even the people eating any given way — but to the people who are around the moralizing, eating in other ways, in whatever ways they can.

Prescriptivism is one of my hot buttons because I don’t think any one person can tell any other person the best way to live that other person’s life — as much as it is a cliche to say that everyone is a unique snowflake, it’s a cliche for a reason: really, everyone IS a unique snowflake.

(Note: I’m not talking about giving your friends advice when they ask for it. I’m not talking about your therapist that you pay to give you advice. I’m talking about the unsolicited opinion giving to which so many people feel entitled as they judge the lives of other people.)

Here’s the implication of “clean” eating: Other ways of eating are “dirty.”

And as much as any given person might not mean to give the impression that they think this, intentions are not magical fairies with wands flitting about to undo all the damage that telling someone else their food is dirty can do.

Basically, unless you’ve dropped your food on the floor, it’s clean. (And in that case, the three-second rule still applies.)

The really frustrating thing is that I understand what people are getting at when they say “clean” food — fresh, local, whole foods that have been grown or raised without pesticides are great. But they also are not accessible to everyone, both because of straight up access (food deserts continue to be a thing that people ignore on the regs) and because of cost — my friends don’t call it Whole Paycheck for nothing.

Whole Foods and other grocery stores of that ilk aren’t cheap and unless you have regular access to a farmer’s market AND the ability to go to it all the time, well. Those canned green beans have a shelf life that will get you through the times when your budget and your timeframe just don’t match up.

It also seems like people are confusing food ethics with food morality — I support other people’s efforts to eat without cruelty and I have enough privilege at this point that I can also work toward that, but I also eat the hell out of meat — and, inevitably, anyone who tries to use morality to beat me up about my food choices has no idea why I made that choice.

And that goes for folks trying to shame folks for eating processed foods and easily available fast foods as well. You don’t know anything about the people making those food choices. Everyone has to eat to live. Back off.

When you tell someone their food is dirty, even by implication, you shit all over their own body autonomy, issues of class and access, cultural food traditions, their own tastes and needs, and issues of health. When you tell someone their food is dirty, even with the best of intentions because you want them to make what you see as better choices, you are butting right up against their ability to keep themselves alive.

…but wait! There’s more!

[Clean eating is] a scam that’s promoted by athletes, coaches, trainers, doctors, government officials, schools, diet book authors, and pretty much everyone else who eats.

“Clean eating” has no objective definition and no scientific support.

It’s also an eating disorder. (Note from Erika: Want my thoughts on “orthorexia?” Read here.)

Avoiding specific foods or food groups without a rational reason is one of the  defining characteristics of orthorexia nervosa, and is common in people with binge eating disorder and anorexia.93-95 It’s no surprise this is a common disorder in athletes, dietitians, and other health conscious people.96-103

People who hinder themselves with rigid dietary rules also have a harder time maintaining a healthy weight.104-106

  • Food doesn’t make people gain fat — people over-eating food makes them overweight.
  • Eating some of your calories from less nutrient dense sources is not going to give you a nutrient deficiency.
  • There is no evidence that any food directly damages your health in moderate amounts in every situation.

You’re careful about your diet, which you should be. However, there’s no reason you need to avoid any specific food to achieve optimal health, a lean body composition, and maximum longevity.

Balance and moderation are what’s important, and the definition of both of these terms depends on who’s eating the food and how much they’re eating.


And, because I like odd numbers, there’s also this:


The first thing I want to ask is this: what exactly does clean eating mean?

Most everyone will have somewhat of a different answer to the question. And every answer all boils down to some kind of belief system they’ve created – how they view certain foods. One person, perhaps a Paleo dieter, might actually say that fresh orange juice is off limits because it has too much sugar. However, they might feel a piece of fruit is okay, even though the amount of fructose and sucrose is very similar when comparing the fruit and the OJ.

Another example is someone who labels whole grain foods clean and foods like white bread dirty or off limits.  While the whole grains may have a bit more nutrients or fiber, the impact is minimal and hardly an issue as long as your diet isn’t completely out of whack.

And then we have the group of people who label all foods with any kind of preservatives of chemicals in them as completely off limits only until they get a craving for something or decide to compromise and have that bag of Oreo’s anyway.

As I mentioned earlier, it all boils down to a belief – whatever one believes to be good or clean and bad or a cheat meal. I don’t particular care for such a mindset because it’s very limiting. [source]

So, let’s get some things out of the way, here.

1) The XOJane article makes a fantastic point: wielding your food choices – and any health benefits that they may bring you – is not only super judgy, it’s downright obnoxious. Remember how I praised the art of silence? Remember when I gave you reasons to keep your fitness goals to yourself, over and over again? Remember how I told you it was more valuable to be the change you wished to see in your loved ones, instead of harassing them for not eating like you? This is why. Because, when you don’t, you not only run the risk of having the exact opposite benefit you originally intended, you run the risk of coming across like a total asshole. Do you like sounding like a total asshole? I know I don’t. (Even though, if you come across me prior to having my morning coffee, it might ruin your morning.)

2) Another meaningful point comes across, here, and that’s the issue of access and availability. Not everyone has access to fresh produce and, if they do, they won’t always have the money necessary to splurge on it. Remember when I overlaid the map of food deserts over the map of poverty-stricken environments in the US? No?

Let’s do it again.

Poverty, 2010:

Food deserts, 2013:

And, because this is a weight loss blog that promotes the comsumption of fresh produce and quality protein over all, a map of obesity in the United States:

And, because I’m an overachiever… a map of the population, by race, in the US (the color blue represents black people; green, white people; orange represents the Latinx population):

What does that all mean? The vast majority of communities lacking in grocery stores and access to healthy food are also ones with large amounts of people living with low incomes, and also communities with large populations living with obesity. And these are communities likely to also be predominately black.

That’s why I blog about things like healthy living on food stamps, and the challenges within. (It’s also why I allow myself to take the constant barrage of abuse in the comments sections of these posts.) That’s why I blog about how much location plays a factor in a person’s options for healthy living. That’s why, even with reservations, I loudly and proudly completed the #SurviveOn35 challenge – not so that I could say “Ch…of COURSE my family of three can live on $83/week and do it at Whole Foods all on organic produce,” but so that I could say “No one should doubt my ability to be able to do this because I have extensive education in cooking and budgeting, and here is how I did it so that you can have this information, too. (…while also getting paid to do it.)” The logic, of course, being that if these tips could help me through shopping for my family of three at a Whole Foods, the tips could carry easily for a family without a WF nearby.

People need to acknowledge, and be honest about, the challenges of being able to use fresh produce – what does it taste like? can I be guaranteed actual fresh produce, and not something wilted on the inside? how do I store it? how do I preserve it? how many different ways can I cook it? – so that actual solutions to these challenges can trickle upwards into public policy. Or the creation of a non-profit organization with the sole purpose of educating and providing resources to the underserved. Or, a re-focusing for already-existing organizations so that they can provide services to underserved communities.

3) Clean eating is oftentimes used as a mask to hide eating disorders. Anorexia, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a serious physical and emotional illness in which an abnormal fear of being fat leads to very poor eating habits and dangerous weight loss,” can easily look like “clean eating” and “training hard” to the untrained eye. Why wouldn’t someone who restricts themselves in an unhealthy fashion gravitate towards a lifestyle that they see as giving them the opportunity to restrict in a “healthy,” “socially acceptable” fashion? When you have such a fat-phobic society (that, ironically, is still over 2/3rds overweight according to the BMI), what do you expect?

4) Clean eating (at least, as used on this blog) is often mistaken for clean eating as a term used by the bodybuilding community, a community rife with anorexia, bulimia, exercise bulimia and binge eating disorders masked – for many – in terminology like “on season” and “off season.” Lots of people are following the lead of people in spray tans to hide the paleness they suffer due to extreme dieting, weave pieces to hide the fact that their hair is falling out, people with such major amenorreah that they don’t even remember the cost of tampons or maxi pads, people with such high amounts of lean body mass that it’s been years since they’ve had to handle the plight of losing weight en masse like the average American.

Bodybuilders might be great at manipulating the human body, but they’re doing it for a temporary time frame, and after that, many go on binges and overdo it. Many recommend high-sugar protein powders because they have high amounts of lean body mass that requires that much in carbs to sustain. Many athletes – like the Michael Phelps and Lolo Joneses of the world – can eat all the junk food they can get their hands on without looking the way you’d expect a binge eater to look because they are insanely active, and insanely muscular. They don’t have desk jobs, long commutes, or any of that.

In short, clean eating is championed by some of the least realistic bodies and lifestyles in America. The way they live is simply incompatible with how most of us have to function.

5) Most clean eating dishes taste like straight up cardboard. I’m sorry, but even I knew it in the beginning. You don’t know what you’re doing in the kitchen, so you throw that slab of chicken boob on the grill and eat it, no salt, no seasonings (because, as another #bgg2wlarmy member told me she once believed, black pepper will kill you), and broccoli… no butter. Because that’s clean eating. No sausage (because, as someone once told me, “sausage isn’t clean!!!!!111ONE), no shrimp (because, as someone once told me, they’re “bottom feeders”), no ice cream, no pork, no nay-than.

Your taste buds never had a chance.

Do you notice a pattern, here? I do.

A lot of this has very little to do with clean eating at all. In fact, the first article quoted above says the following: “I understand what people are getting at when they say “clean” food — fresh, local, whole foods that have been grown or raised without pesticides are great.”

What this does mean, however, is that it’s not the actual principle that is problematic – it’s the way people are using it.

The first article doesn’t actually rail against clean eating or what it stands for anywhere near as much as the classist, privileged, ay-holes (I’ve gotta stop cursing) who use their eating habits as a way to lord over other people, judge others and their choices and their experiences and their cultures (gasp, because of course your cultural staples couldn’t be clean…they’re not American!), rain unsolicited food advice down on you, and – by extension – aim to make you feel bad for not living like them… because that’s how they seek their validation. Basically, XOJane published an article about jerks and put an awkward and edgy title on it. Okay.

The last two articles are windmilling – something something anorexia, something something vegans think meat is unclean (that whole animal cruelty bit is just silly nonsense, apparently), something something no real definition (because libraries are so out of style), something something —

Ahh, wait – did you catch this?

However, there’s no reason you need to avoid any specific food to achieve optimal health, a lean body composition, and maximum longevity.

Oh, I’ve got a huge one, alright. And I’ll be sharing it tomorrow.

Scratch that. It’s up now.

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Laura October 21, 2013 - 12:24 PM

I get what they are trying to do here, but damn… “However, there’s no reason you need to avoid any specific food to achieve optimal health, a lean body composition, and maximum longevity.” That statement is so irresponsible that I can literally feel my blood pressure going up. People are out there eating addictive FrankenFood (and pesticides and preservatives and all that good junk on top), and it’s KILLING them. I, like you, believe the best way to influence others to step outside their comfort zone is through positive example, sharing great homemade food, and being there to support and educate when people are ready. Moreover, I agree that I am able to live my own healthy lifestyle because I have the resources and access necessary to do so – and this needs to be addressed at the policy level. But must otherwise-reasonable-seeming individuals insist on painting healthy lifestyle movements with such a broad brush that it turns people off to concepts, techniques, and habits that might actually help them? I just… given that privilege DOES play into access to these lifestyle choices, and assuming one sees the benefit of these lifestyle choices, I would so much rather see airtime used to empower folks to explore the positive parts of the “clean eating” movement. Dissing fringe and corporate elements as representative of the whole field leaves folks with nothing actionable except a seeming justification for the continued consumption of processed foods that really, really hurt them.

Erika Nicole Kendall October 21, 2013 - 12:42 PM

Ahhh, you sound an awful lot like my storify when we originally discussed these articles. Was saving that for tomorrow’s post, but since I DID tweet it days ago….

Laura October 21, 2013 - 12:51 PM

LOL excellent. I appreciate you prematurely sharing, as you are aiding in my post-read cool-down period. I surely *did* get all kinds of particularly-heated over the orthorexia implications. I’m gonna go ahead and affirm that I’m NOT orthorexic just because I’m never gonna eat Lay’s potato chips or Cheez-Its or their many friends in the “middle aisles” again. Turns out I’m just busy throwing down in my kitchen… 😉

Erika Nicole Kendall October 21, 2013 - 2:54 PM

What’s always so mind-boggling, to me, is… nah, let me wait until tomorrow. LOL

Elle October 21, 2013 - 2:27 PM

It raises my pressure too. Completely agree.

Dionne October 21, 2013 - 4:47 PM

So, I do appreciate the point behind this article; however (comma). . . I take extreme exception to the following statement: “However, there’s no reason you need to avoid any specific food to achieve optimal health. . .” It is simply an irresponsible statement and is not true. I’ll use myself as an example. There are many foods which cause inflammation and bloating in the body generally – and in particular if one has a food sensitivity or allergy to those foods. Further, there are certain categories of food that just cause problems for some people (like me). I avoid wheat – it makes me sneeze and causes my belly to be extended/bloated (it took me years to figure this out). I try not to eat simple carbs such as white rice, bread, pasta, bagels, sugar, etc (not because of the wheat necessarily) but because they do bad things to my body. Again, I get bloated, my joints ache, I feel lethargic (like I have been drugged) and generally unwell, and they elevate my blood sugar levels (no I am not diabetic), which in turn pushes my blood pressure up. In fact there are specific foods that I must avoid in order to stay in optimal health. Period. I cannot imagine that I am the only person in the world who feels this way or shares these same observations. One thing I have learned being in the legal profession is that one must be very careful about making sweeping and very specific statements, because you get pinned down by what you said and if it is inaccurate, you run the risk of having your credibility damaged. That’s just my two cents worth. Thanks for your blog! I enjoy reading it.

Kami October 21, 2013 - 5:32 PM

Wow, at this article. I like your workout outfit in that picture.

Emanon October 22, 2013 - 12:31 AM

Great article so much important info. Are you a lil bigger than you were in your original post titled 1 year after? ( hope I don’t sound negative)
Those muscles are popping lol im so mad my boobs are gone and flabby 🙁 lol but glad I’m healthier thx to you:) God bless

Erika Nicole Kendall October 22, 2013 - 12:39 PM

“Are you a lil bigger than you were in your original post titled 1 year after?”

Yeah, I picked up about 200lbs of husband. Zing!

I’m doing major, major bodybuilding, so I’m actually a LOT bigger.

Emanon October 23, 2013 - 7:31 PM

Lol 200 lbs of husband u silly. I went back to the beginning and noticed that u fid mention not really liking that new size frame and ur desire to train…. hence the new size lol … Now I need info on how 2 inflate these flabby boobs roflol is it possible? Btw I’m one year out with my journey also..thx in advance for the advice. Did u post wedding pics??

Loretta October 22, 2013 - 12:57 AM

Erika again I get it da thank you as you continue to inform me ( everyone who need your expertise ) this site is saving my “LIFE”

Stephanie October 22, 2013 - 6:36 AM

Oh wow. I didn’t read the “enitre” article but key points from it. What I don’t understand is why they are making a case against clean eating in the first place? From my understanding of “clean eating”, it comes down to eating more fresh foods (as in nonprocessed or prepackaged, preservative soaked). Taking adavantage of using fresh herbs if lossible helps tonor even making your own if you have that time.Am I wrong? Clean eating is WAYYYYYYYY better than stuffing yourself with those foods soaked in growth hormones and extremely insane amounts of salt. Now I don’t practice eating clean yet, I’m pretty sure its the way humans were eating before food technology changed (GMO and lab grown “meat”) 😛
What caught my eye was the remark about White bread not being too different from wheat or whole grain bread except fiber-wise….I knew that was a sham. If that were the case then they wouldn’t be stressing it at doctors or nutritionist offices to eat whole grains and oatmeal! Hell, its HEART HEALTHY! Clean eating helps the body do what its supposed to and in turn cut down on all these ailments people have from eating processed and/or fast foods. This blog has taught me way too much to fall for that okey doke “article” and I think people understood the proper way to eat clean AND its benefits they would stop trying to fill food corporations and live right for a change.

Lucy May 30, 2014 - 8:08 PM

I have been following “eat clean” for some time now on and off (Right now I’m on holiday and I’m off!)
As someone who has followed extreme calorie control as a teenager I actually have found eating clean to me is just a guideline to how to live in a way to respect my body instead of punishing it. I try to generally eat as “clean” as possible by eating raw, steam fruit and veg, lean meats and oily/white fish and ensuring I incorporate good fats such as avocado, coconut oil, almond butter and olive oil into my diet at regular points as you do need a certain amount of fat for your body to work correctly, also then working on cardio and weight bearing exercises all being things which keep my body healthy and strong, on a tight budget I splurge on good quality olive oil etc as this is consumed in small regular amounts and can be kept and compromise with tinned, frozen fruit/veg, I follow eat clean as a lifestyle choice and not a diet and by no means an exact science, I look now at appreciating having a leaner body as a result of exercise and easily digested food and not an obsession with being skinny and as a result I have clearer skin, a flatter belly, I feel more energetic and positive, the proof is in the pudding as they ironically say.

Erika Nicole Kendall May 31, 2014 - 9:05 AM

Yeah, I talk about all that in the second part of this post, LOL.

tonisha June 30, 2014 - 12:31 AM

Hi Erika just need your opinion on something..my husband and I are extremely overweight we eat a lot of fast food sugary and salty food. We would like to.doa week of water fresh fruits and vegetables in unlimited quantities for a week and do 30min walks. We want to.challenge ourselves to see if we can stick with something because normally it lasts 2 days then we are back to our old ways. Is this an okay idea? Also my husband does highway maintenance and works outside and I want to make sure it’s safe for him. Any advice is greatly appreciated.thanks

Erika Nicole Kendall July 3, 2014 - 10:59 AM

That’s definitely not going to feel like enough for him. He’s going to need much more protein, and probably more in terms of carbs like breads and pasta salads to get him through those long, potentially hot days.

Vieve May 24, 2015 - 10:42 PM

Have you read the book, “Intuitive Eating”. It really addresses this topic and a lot of the other topics you’ve referenced. I love it. It’s all about listening to your body signals, not the trends or hype of any one thing — including “clean eating”. I am a true believer that restrictive eating is detrimental. I am a proponent of healthy choices, but that doesn’t categorize itself as clean eating. I like to live more along the terms of the Michael Pollan motto, “Eat food, mostly plants, and not too much.” It doesn’t restrict anything. It doesn’t set any rules and allows for balance, more of just a flexible guideline when making choices while listening to your body.

Great post. I am glad you aren’t afraid to go against the grain and question some of the trends going around. I am going to be an avid follower going forward. Glad I came across this post and your blog!

Erika Nicole Kendall May 27, 2015 - 9:33 AM

You should probably also check out the second part to this, if you haven’t already.

Dee February 27, 2016 - 8:25 PM

There is little help for the willfully ignorant and willfully self deluded, which is what the author of the first article sounds like. 1st off, giving up processed food is not the same as eliminating a food group because this stuff isn’t real food in the first place. Humans are natural, of the earth, real. For optimal health, longevity and fitness, we require food, actual food, that is also natural, real and of the earth. We live against this truth to our own detriment via sickness and disease and premature death. Needless to say, all of that comes with much suffering. More and more I’m, convinced that people don’t fear actual death ad much as they fear all of the sickness, debility, disability and suffering most people experience before they die. Also, the writer’a position doesn’t allow for those of us who are recovering compulsive overeaters who can’t take just one bite/have a reasonable portion of certain foods. Just today I had to tell my mother I am sending back a certain very sugary cereal she bought for my daughter. It’s a trigger food for me that I haven’t bought in years because I used to eat a whole box in one sitting.

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