The Dirty Truth Behind Clean Eating

This rather persistent and tired trend in healthy eating known as “clean eating;” there’s nothing new or novel about it. It’s just healthy eating, plain and simple, with an emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods. While the vast majority of my diet could perhaps be described as “clean eating,” —that is if you subtract the chips, cookies, donuts, and various other processed shit I love to stuff my face with— I personally find the phrase to be pejorative, disparaging, and classist. As I sit on my sententious soapbox, I would be the first to preach the benefits of eating a colorful, unprocessed, well rounded diet and leading an active life. But I would also be remiss as the un-esteemed holder of a MPH, if I didn’t reproach the clean eating movement for ignoring the role socioeconomics, housing, education, race, and class, among a laundry list of other social determinants of health, play in determining our access to fresh produce, “healthy” food options, and an active lifestyle.

As Nigella Lawson so eloquently pointed out,

“the notion of ‘clean eating’ is an implication that any other form of eating is dirty or shameful”

adding that use of the phrase reinforces the fallacy that people who deprive themselves of certain foods are somehow inherently better and happier than others. Fuck those people. In fact, the antithesis may be true. Of particular note is an eating disorder known as orthorexia nervosa, a condition in which individuals systematically eliminate foods which they consider “unhealthy.” Never mind that any food, however healthy, if eaten in excess can prove to be quite the opposite. And never mind that the relative merits or detriments of any given food are often fluid and dynamic; take the history of our classic frenemy, the egg as a prime example. It wasn’t long ago when only the egg whites were considered “healthy,” whereas today, the yolk is recognized as the powerhouse of the egg’s nutritional value. In other words, orthorexia nervosa is ostensibly an unhealthy obsession with being healthy.

I’m 5’6.5″ tall and my weight is 127 pounds, +/- 2 pounds contingent upon the time of day. When I started medical school I weighed 118 pounds, and by the end of my first year I was up to 137 pounds. I’ve had my fair share of issues with orthorexia and body image as a result, and did go on a diet (of a kind) after that because I had gone up a size in pants, and quite frankly, I was too damn broke to be buying a whole new wardrobe for my lower half. I lost ten pounds between my first and second year, gained it all back again, and then lost it again last summer, and haven’t looked back since. For a long time, I was convinced I needed to go back to my pre-medical school weight to be happy, but I’ve since realized that my weight is healthier as it is (decreased risk of osteoporosis). I should add, however, that I’ve managed to maintain my weight throughout my third year of medical school largely because I often find myself too busy to eat. I don’t eat breakfast; not a breakfast person, never have been, never will be, and my  rotations leave little time for luxuries like drinking water, eating lunch, and emptying my bladder, leading me to eat a passable lunch in the form of a snack [read: granola bar or banana], or skipping lunch altogether, which happens at least twice a week. In other words, I’m basically the poster child for intermittent fasting.

All that being said, my primary issue with the clean eating movement is its nomenclature. A little re-branding would go a long way to creating a more inclusive, less pejorative eating philosophy. So if you don’t want to eat the occasional donut to taint the “temple” that is your body, fine; but don’t deride those of us who live life in moderation [read: enjoy life] as “dirty” or “unhealthy.”

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