'Clean eating' is still distorting our idea of what a healthy diet is.

Eating is tricky to think about. It's politicised, scrutinised, and moralised almost to the same extent that sex is. But the thing is, you don't have to have sex every day.

Speaking as a woman who is dedicated to the cause of eating very, very well but also suffers from a chaotic case of hot-girl IBS, I would say I am forced to think about food perhaps a little more than the average person. 

This also makes me quite sceptical about the messaging around food that we tend to receive from friends, family, and social media. And it's become increasingly obvious to me, through a lot of talking and scrolling, that our understanding of 'healthy eating' can still be wildly skewed – and 'clean eating' is still the dominant force that's pushing us all off track. 

It's highlighted to me by conversations in which women are congratulated by friends for completely dropping meat or dairy, by gloating friends slaving over tofu cheesecakes with date and nut bases and "no refined sugars", or extremely tired-looking people reporting proudly that they haven't touched a carb in days. 

We've all been indoctrinated by years of 'clean eating' influencers shoving chia puddings, smoothies and quinoa down our (literal and figurative) throats. Bone broth, coconut oil, and green juices still have a violent stranglehold on our understanding of what it means to be 'healthy'.

Watch: Sarah Wilson gets real about her 'crazy diet'. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

In fact, I think it's to the point that most of us don't really understand what 'healthy eating' means at all. 

Too many of us have been duped into taking on a heavily Instagrammable and, let's face it, white person diet by skinny people on the internet as our definition of healthy eating – and I think we probably have to inspect that.

To start off with, I think it's probably worth defining what we mean by a 'healthy' diet at all. And the truth is, eating 'healthy' is an entirely relative concept that differs from person to person. 

What does it mean to 'eat healthy'? 

Melanie McGrice, a fertility and prenatal dietitian, told Mamamia that her clinical work in hospitals with a broad demographic of people has led her to realise that everybody has a different idea of what 'healthy' is. 

"To give an example, I'll have one client who goes, 'Oh, I only went to McDonald's three times this week' and they literally believe that they are being really healthy. Where, on the other extreme, I'll have somebody who hasn't had chocolate in six months, who also believes that they're being really healthy." 

McGrice says that when people become too obsessed and strict with their diet and 'eating clean', this can tip into a condition known as orthorexia, which is an unhealthy fixation with eating supposedly 'healthy' food. The line for diagnosis of orthorexia can be blurry, McGrice says, but at least part of the definition depends on a person's ability to "eat socially and with a wide variety of people" and not have stress levels impacted by that. 

This touches on an interesting – and largely underrated – aspect of 'health': that it's intrinsically connected to wellbeing, including socialising. Which means that the success of a diet should also be measured by an ability to connect to other people. 


McGrice points to some really interesting research behind the Mediterranean diet, which is often pointed to as one of the healthiest diets in the world because of its positive health outcomes. Put very basically, part of the success of the diet is thought to be the social habits that surround it: lively family meals at the table with pleasant conversations and the time taken for eating. One study literally measured the 'conviviality' of Mediterranean eating and how taking pleasure in eating amongst family and friends can contribute to overall health benefits. 

This also means that culture should be an intrinsic part of our definitions of 'healthy' eating. 

Dr Rosemary Stanton from the University of New South Wales told Mamamia that the aim of any diet should include "enjoyment, variety, what is affordable, cultural issues, quantity, timing of means, sharing food – and special occasion feasts." 

What we seem to miss in our fixation on Instagrammish clean eating as the definition of 'healthy' food is the importance of the enjoyment, accessibility, and culture of food. 

But where did the idea of 'clean eating' even come from? 

The first inklings of the beast that is 'clean eating' started in 2007 and came with a much more pared-back version of what we see today. 

That year, Canadian fitness model, Tosca Reno, published a book called The Eat-Clean Diet in which she described losing 34 kilograms by dropping refined and overly 'processed foods'. 

The reaction against highly processed foods (any foods that have been altered in some way during preparation) has been propelled by research which indicates that eating too much of them is associated with negative health impacts like cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and cerebrovascular disorders. 


Dr Stanton notes that highly processed foods dominated a lot of our supermarket shelves in the Western world, which is not ideal – but the reaction against that has given rise to 'clean eating' that has become distorted. As food journalist, Bee Wilson wrote in The Guardian in 2017, "clean eating – whether it is called that or not – is perhaps best seen as a dysfunctional response to a still more dysfunctional food supply."

Dr Stanton says that proponents of 'clean eating' will advocate for avoiding all dairy products, anything containing 'gluten', all kinds of meat, and "every grain of sugar" – but that's not what the experts would recommend. 

"['Clean eating'] can then become almost like a religion with 'pleasure' subdued in favour of some strict protocol which goes beyond guidelines for healthy eating – which may recommend 'reducing' ultra-processed foods or meat or whatever, but not 'banning' it from the diet," Dr Stanton says. 

Dr Stanton notes that she doesn't "know of any dietary guidelines" that say that meat and dairy are unhealthy – it's actually kind of the opposite, as long as they don't dominate a person's diet. 

McGrice also says that she has seen clients in the past who believe they're eating healthily because they're following all the 'clean eating' recommendations – but they're plainly not consuming enough calories. 

So... how do you actually eat healthily? 

The short (and probably rather frustrating) answer is that this depends on who you are. 


McGrice says that if you're confused and struggling, dietitians can help to provide personal advice. 

"Working as a dietitian, I'll give different people completely opposite dietary advice within the same day. So, one person might come in and I'm telling them that they need to actually cut down on their carbohydrate intake and for the next person, I'll be telling them to increase it. One person needs more red meat in their diet, one person needs less. I think it should be individually tailored as opposed to following advice from too many influencers." 

For those of us who may not have the time, resources or particular need to see a dietitian, McGrice says that she has a good rule of thumb. 

"One of my favourite things to say to a client is, 'Would you give this to your child? I often see people who say, 'Oh, I can't eat fruit' and I will say, 'If you had a baby, would you give it fruit? Is it healthy for them to eat fruit?' and if they say, it would be healthy, I question why that would be different for them." 

When asked about her own definition of health, McGrice points again to all of the lifestyle and wellbeing factors that need to be taken into account. 

"I think health is about enjoying food with family and friends. And if that means that I'm going to somebody's birthday and they're serving cake, that I can have a slice of cake without feeling guilty about that – but that's not something that I would eat on an everyday basis." 

Elfy Scott is an executive editor at Mamamia. 

Image: Canva. 

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