'Clean eating' deals death blow to dieting - and that's a good thing

chopped vegetables
CC BY 2.0 Personal Creations

Rather than complaining about clean eating being the next big dietary fad, let's celebrate the fact that finally people are being told to look at the big picture and work toward whole-body wellness. It's refreshing.

There was a time when diets were popular, when people – mostly women – were quick to sign up for stringent, highly prescriptive regimes designed to “maximize self-loathing and minimize calories, and lose weight” (Guardian). I have childhood memories of women my mother’s age discussing their various dieting methods and comparing outcomes; their tones of voice mixed despair with self-deprecating humor. To my child’s ears, nobody seemed to be that happy.

As I grew older, I began questioning the concept of diets more closely. They didn’t make sense – an extreme aberration from one’s normal habits for fast results that, logically, would not stick around unless those daily habits were changed. I also witnessed the guilty agony of close friends who felt they had to stick to various ‘cleanses,’ ‘fixes,’ ‘detoxes,’ and whatever other pseudonyms their particular version of a diet happened to use, despite craving something different – often a food item that didn’t seem all that bad to me. Foods fell into strange categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ and the latter always had the longest list.

This is why I’ve been relieved to witness the rising popularity of ‘clean eating.’ Slowly but surely, focus is moving away from brief, intense acts of dieting toward whole lifestyle shifts, paired with concepts like ‘wellness’ and ‘mindfulness’, in order to get better, longer-lasting, whole-body results. Even American supermodel Chrissy Teigen recently tweeted, "I’ve always had an issue with the word ‘diet'. I like ‘eating light’ or ‘clean eating’."

It’s a good thing… right?

Arwa Mahdawi of The Guardian isn’t so sure. While she’s the first to pronounce the diet dead – or rather, “no longer good for your personal brand [because diets] mark you as flawed, shallow, and probably poor” – she’s not such a big fan of the clean eating craze either. She takes issue with its lack of definition (every ‘wellness’ blogger has their own version) and its questionably wide variety of options (roast chicken? quinoa? coconut oil? You name it and it can be ‘clean’, depending on how you frame it). Most of all, however, Mahdawi dislikes the high-minded morality associated with clean eating:

“While the vagueness of clean eating may seem like a drawback, it is what has made the trend so popular. Anyone, you see, can pick up a diet book and follow a diet. But clean eating is less about the food itself and more about the people eating it. Eating clean requires that you yourself are ‘clean’. That you’re someone who shops at Whole Foods and goes to the right exercise classes and wears the right things. Clean eating is a club for those who are in the know. It is a not a meal plan.”

While I agree with Mahdawi that the rise in clean eating is directly linked to social media and people’s innate desire to put their best self forward for the world to see, I don’t think it’s the fad she makes it out to be, because it does focus on the bigger picture in a way that bestselling fad diets have always failed to do. Nor do I think it will lead to widespread obsession with healthy eating, a.k.a. orthorexia, on a scale that poses any serious threat to society. (Too much of anything can cause harm.)

So even if personal brand and image is the motivation behind clean eating, if wanting to have a status-building Instagrammable dinner plate, if using hashtags like #healthychoices and #cleaneating inspires one to incorporate more vegetables into meal prep, then let’s celebrate that and stop trying to find problems with it.

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