What Does Clean Eating Mean?

What Does Clean Eating Mean?

Last weekend’s Globe and Mail featured an article about clean eating. The article’s argument was that we should get rid of food labels like “junk food” and “clean eating” because those words often end up shaming the person eating. Clean food is thought to be “good” and eating it means you’re responsible, disciplined and virtuous. Junk food is bad and consuming it means you’re lazy, slovenly and sinful.

What Does Clean Eating Mean? Well First, FOOD GUILT IS DUMB

I wholeheartedly agree with the author is that feeling guilty about food and food choices isn’t a proper foundation for a healthy diet or mind. There isn’t anything morally good or bad about the existence of a donut, or about you eating that donut. It’s just food. It’s your decision and there’s no need to over-complicate it.

That’s the reason why the term “cheat meal” rubs me the wrong way. If you decide to name it anything, I prefer “party meal” or something else with a celebratory connotation. Shoving pie into your pie hole isn’t anything to feel bad about so long as it comes from a good place, you understand the trade-offs, and it aligns with what’s important to you.

We can all do a better job at remembering this and being less judgmental of ourselves and others. Eat what you want. Other people can eat how they want. Kumbaya!


Here’s where I’m not in full agreement with the article. I’m not saying that terms like “junk food” and “clean eating” are ideal. Actually, they’re vague, have no precise definition, and I do invite some element of moral judgement and guilt. None of that is beneficial.

Maybe some alternative wording is a bit better? Healthy food vs less healthy food? Processed vs. unprocessed? Since our current culture generally accepts that health is a positive attribute, the opposite of healthy is never going to be viewed in a wonderful light. So long as that’s true, there’s always going to be some judgement between healthy and unhealthy, however society defines it.

Well beyond the words we use, the bigger problems are the impossible beauty standards and promises of quick fixes that constantly bombard each and every one of us. That’s a subject for another day though.

I’m not tied to using the words “clean” or “junk” to talk about food - actually, I rarely if ever use them - but I also think we can put on our big boy pants and call things what they are. Generally speaking, unprocessed foods (which some people call ‘clean’) are a whole lot better for your health than heavily processed ones (which some people call ‘junk’). That’s not supposed to make anyone feel bad. It’s just the way it is.

Food exists on a health-continuum. While science doesn’t know everything about optimal nutrition, it’s very clear that some foods are better than others if you value health. Pepsi and Pop Tarts aren’t the same as salmon and broccoli.

But food also exists on a fun-continuum, a social-continuum, a price/budget continuum and on a flavour-continuum. You might prioritise some of these over health. That’s OK. More power to you. But it doesn’t change the fact that junk food exists. [If you don’t believe me, I recommend these books as starting points: “The Dorito Effect” and “In Defence of Food”.]

To tell you the truth, I like junk from time to time. Chocolates mainly. Sometimes french fries. Chances are you do too. There’s no shame in that. But if you over do it, there’s a consequence you have to be OK with.

SO WHAT DO WE DO when it comes to this whole ‘clean eating’ thing?

As a fitness and nutrition coach I pick my words carefully depending on which client I’m in front of and how many emotional scars they bare from being judged about their body, not feeling like they’re accepted, and struggling to eat like they’re “supposed to.”

I don’t care what terms you want to use to describe how you eat. What I do care about is people getting to grips with the trade-offs of different types of foods, and understanding what your priorities are. Then finding a way to embody them consistently with a complimentary style of eating. When all those things line-up, pinch yourself, because you’ve arrived in a special place where you can be at ease with food choices.

Ultimately it’s up to each one of us to decide what we want to get out of eating. Do you want to emphasize enjoyment, flavour, health, energy, social connection, or something else? No matter how hard you try, you can’t maximize them all. You’ve got to find the right balance for you, accept the consequences, and own it! And don’t take any shit about it.

There used to be a wonderful cooking show on the BBC called “Two Fat Ladies”. The co-hosts epitomized this idea. Embrace what food means to you and run with it! If you can do that, I’m not sure that the words you use - like junk-food or clean eating - matter all that much.