You may have been on and off diets your whole life and finally decide to choose wellness instead of dieting; unfortunately, you need to know the dirty truth about wellness or “clean” eating. We like to think of this as a cloak and dagger diet because it masquerades as good health.
Cloak and Dagger Diet
Dieting as we knew it (or as our mothers and grandmothers knew it) in the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s, and even ‘90’s is a thing of the past. Don’t get me wrong, diet-culture still reigns supreme. The fear of weight gain and stigma against people living in larger bodies still dominates the conversation about what and how much we eat. But dieting— as in the purchase or adoption of a program or product for the fast pursuit of weight loss (think Slim Fast shakes, Atkins bars, or Jenny Craig)– has morphed into something new (and you may not have even realized it).
Instead of blatantly pursuing weight loss, diet culture has turned to pursuing wellness instead. What this means is that we’re all still supposed to lose weight– but now it’s not just for aesthetics, it’s for our health. We’re told that skinny bodies are healthy bodies and fat bodies are not and weight loss will make us look and feel great. “It’s not a diet, it’s a healthy lifestyle!” has become the wellness war cry. But any healthy lifestyle that requires you to follow a list of rules around food and exercise– even if in the pursuit of wellness– is undeniably and irrevocably exactly what it claims not to be: a diet.
The dirty truth is that a healthy diet is a diet.
And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to set health and nutrition goals (more on this later), diet culture has gotten it all wrong. Diets and weight loss do not make us healthier, no matter what you call them: lifestyle, eating plan, protocol, cleanse, or detox. In fact, we know from overwhelming evidence that dieting, weight cycling, and weight stigma are all more dangerous to our health than being overweight. Let’s talk more about just a few reasons why this is the case.
‘Clean eating,’ very messy
One of the ways we’ve seen this new wellness non-diet trend manifest is through clean eating. Clean eating states it is a lifestyle approach to food that promotes the consumption of ‘clean’ foods. What exactly does that mean? ‘Clean’ is a term that is frustratingly ambiguous, but often gets associated with raw, unprocessed, organic, natural, and real. Let’s take a moment to set the record straight about what these really mean.
The Dirty Truth about Clean Eating
It’s important to separate out fact from fiction, let’s start with clarity on these definitions often associated with clean eating including raw, unprocessed, organic, natural and real. Hmm, now for the real truth, take a look at these definitions below and see how easy it can be to fall into this wellness trap.
But clean eating is about more than just achieving better health– it’s also about becoming a better person. Ever heard the phrase, cleanliness is next to godliness? Clean eating would have you believe that clean foods are superior in nutrition and morality: that is to say that ‘clean’ foods are better than ‘dirty’ foods, and ‘clean’ eaters are better than ‘dirty’ eaters. And that’s simply not true. Eating food, any food, doesn’t make you a better or worse person.
Let’s also not forget that clean eating, with all its rules about what you can and can’t eat, is definitely still a diet. While many clean-eaters might argue that the goal of clean eating isn’t weight loss, it is also implied that clean eating will transform you into the ‘best version’ of yourself– which also happens to be the thinnest version of yourself. This idea is rooted in the idea healthy bodies are also exclusively thin bodies (again, not true). Thus, diet culture once again rears its ugly head.
From Pure to Problem
What happens when clean eating goes too far? Maybe you’ve already been there, paralyzed in the natural foods aisle, analyzing two boxes of organic, gluten-free, grain-free, salt-free coconut flour crackers and not feeling sure about which brand to choose. Maybe you’ve been laboring over attending a party because you aren’t sure where the food will be from or how it will be prepared. Maybe the only way you feel comfortable dining out is if you bring your own food that you prepared from home.
Diets that require elimination of foods or whole foods groups, especially those that moralize about food like clean eating, put dieters at risk of developing something we call orthorexia nervosa. While this is not an official mental-health diagnosis, we’ve seen clients with the same symptoms time and again.
The Dirty Truth about Orthorexia (extreme clean eating)
These are red flags that your wellness diet or clean eating has spun out of control and is now controlling your life.
Follows restrictive diet that cuts out specific foods or food groups without medical cause
- Heavily focused on food preparation that is often timely and expensive
- Ritualized, complex eating habits
- Concern about food quality, source, processing, packaging, and labels
- Desire to maximize one’s health
- Spends time outside of food prep and meals researching food
- Feelings of frustration, disgust, and self-loathing when efforts to maintain food purity are thwarted
Over time, these behaviors can steal away your precious time, energy, and money. We’ve also seen how this behavior can damage physiological health. Often clients come to us with nutritional deficiencies and digestive disorders. Despite eating what they consider clean and pure, they feel worse and worse with every passing day. Long term health complications can include detriment to bone, hormonal, and heart health.
And while orthorexia may sound eerily similar to eating disorder anorexia nervosa or obsessive compulsive disorder, and does in fact share some similarities with the two, it is undoubtedly its own concern. Dieting in any capacity is a risk factor for the development of eating disorders. And while not everyone who eats ‘clean’ has or will develop an eating disorder, you could think of it as a gateway diet: innocent and harmless, but a slippery slope towards a mental health crisis.
But I just want to eat healthier….is that a diet now too?
No! Wanting to eat healthier doesn’t have to mean dieting. It is possible to have nutrition and health goals without turning yourself over to diet rules– in fact, we love setting goals with our clients in session! Some great examples of health and nutrition goals might be:
- Eat breakfast before work to provide more energy
- Add a serving of fibrous vegetables to dinner to prevent constipation
- Drink more water throughout the day to improve digestion
- Take an evening walk to clear your mind
- Train core muscles to relieve back pain
- Go to bed an hour earlier to get more restful sleep
However, it’s important that you stay honest with yourself about your goals and your motivation to achieve them. Nowhere on that list did I mention eating fewer calories, losing weight, dropping a pants size, or getting six-pack abs. Health and nutrition goals can be set (and achieved!) without focusing on calories, weight, or appearance. Stay curious about your why. Can I find enjoyment in eating more vegetables even if it doesn’t result in weight loss? Will I enjoy this exercise regardless of how many calories I burn? This helps us to stay neutral about food and our bodies, leaving less room for toxic diet culture ideals about morality and worthiness to take hold.
We hope this blog shed some light on the dirty truth about clean eating and inspires you to challenge chronic dieting.
One of our favorite ways to approach food neutrality and nutrition without dieting is through intuitive eating and gentle nutrition. We love working through the Intuitive Eating Workbook* with clients. It is a great way to start on your intuitive eating journey.
Kristin Jenkins, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. Her passion for nutrition blossomed from her own experience and her aspiration to help others who may be facing similar challenges.