It is hard to avoid the current clean living trend that is championed by numerous stylish lifestyle coaches and shiny cooks and heavily promoted in the media as being the new way of eating to foster good health. The emphasis on eating fresh, unprocessed and nutrient-dense food is undoubtedly beneficial to our health and well-being and sits well with UK government dietary guidelines and the World Health Organization’s obesity prevention strategy. However, when you look a little bit closer at how to achieve ‘clean’ eating, the waters become a bit muddier. What exactly is eating ‘clean’?
Well at best, it is all a bit too confusing to stomach. One bestselling clean-living bible advocates eating a diet free from dairy, wheat and refined sugar. However, a rival cookbook steps up, matches this and goes one further by promoting a plant based diet free from meat, dairy, sugar, gluten, anything processed, chemicals and additives. But now they both face competition from the latest gurus championing a diet full of saturated fat and quality meat but free from grain, gluten and refined sugar. Putting the semantics aside of ‘chemicals’ and the challenge of how to avoid eating them when they are the basic building blocks of all living things, it does make me wonder if eating ‘clean’ is more about what you don’t eat.
The top three clean-eaters tell us to shun gluten and its mates pasta, bread and grains such as couscous. Unless you suffer from coeliac disease or wheat intolerance, this seems to be an efficient way of choosing to eliminate a large number of foods and their nutritional benefits. Processed sugar also joins gluten as a persona non grata and this seems pretty sound given that reducing the intake of free sugars is a priority shared worldwide by governments. But why do clean eaters embrace other free sugars such as raw sugar, maple syrup, agave nectar and honey? Given that an overconsumption of unprocessed natural sugar is just as bad for our bodies as those little white cubes (see my blog on sugar) the concept of eating ‘clean’ gets stickier. And since the clean eaters, themselves, contradict each other about whether your diet should include dairy or meat, the trip to the supermarket has just become even more hellish.
I wonder how many families have the time or willingness to design a ‘clean’ shopping list for the week that caters for everyone and allows for the realities and unpredictability of a busy life? And what about portion sizes? Can you eat as much ‘clean’ food as you like without any consequences? Even labelling this trend as ‘eating clean’ is a bit disturbing. Does this mean that the rest of us are eating ‘dirty’? Surely there are already far too many people who have a problematic relationship with eating. Do we need to add further negative connotations to certain foods and entire food groups?
Although I fully support any movement that encourages eating lots of fresh, nutrient-dense food and cooking from scratch, I really wish the clean eaters had stopped right there. I don’t believe that eating clean is an elixir of good health if this also means unnecessarily limiting your diet because this will only put it at risk of becoming nutritionally unbalanced. Life is busy enough without having to spend a lot of time focusing on what not to eat, and anyone living with a food allergy will tell you what a complete hassle and monumental challenge it can be to maintain good nutrition and stay healthy. And it is even harder if you have a child with a food allergy.
In the end, it may sound boringly straightforward but the key to eating a diet that promotes good health and well-being is to begin with eating a wide variety of foods. Eating a healthy, balanced diet (and the right amount!) will ensure that your body gets all of the nutrients it needs and will help you to maintain a healthy body weight. So bring on the pasta—wholewheat, of course—and instead of eating clean why not just clean your plate.
Or maybe you should avoid being clean for an entirely different reason? Last weekend, my daughter and I got very dirty for the Race for Life Pretty Muddy 5km event in aid of Cancer Research UK. We joined several hundred other women in the pouring rain on a 5km obstacle course that was overflowing with slippery mud and as we climbed and crawled, we were pelted with ice and sprayed with water guns. I have to admit that we loved it!
And from pretty muddy, it went to pretty messy when I made a Noodle salad with satay dressing. Let’s just say that using your hands to mix a salad together can work really well unless your bowl is far too small…I didn’t quite realise what a mess I was making until I turned around to see a look of shock on my child’s face when they caught me up to my elbows in noodles that were overflowing onto the countertop, floor and myself. In any case, the Noodle salad with satay dressing was absolutely delicious.