While the term “clean eating” is one of the hottest eating-style trends of the past few years, it’s leaving consumers, the media, and dietitians alike confused about what the term really means and the benefits it conveys on health.
The core definition of clean eating that most of its advocates agree on is choosing whole foods as they are closest to nature, or in their least-processed state. From there, different interpretations abound, from Paleo to dairy-free, grain- or gluten-free and vegan. But Wendy Bazilian, DrPH, MA, RD, author of Eat Clean Stay Lean defining the term as such: “Clean eating is about taking steps toward real, wholesome, simpler, minimally-processed foods more often (not absolute or always) and away from highly processed foods.” Let’s take a deeper dive into the science behind this healthy food trend.
What is considered processed food?
Most foods undergo at least some processing. Clean eating advocates question how exactly was the product altered. Foods that have certain components, and with them nutrients, removed or have undesirable ingredients added is where processing can turn food away from healthfulness.
According to Dawn Jackson-Blatner, RD, author of The Superfood Swap, “Clean eating is caring, not obsessing, about ingredient quality and doing your best to cut the C.R.A.P.: chemicals, refined sugar/flour, artificial sweeteners/colors/flavors, and preservatives.”
Sometimes foods have nutrients added to them, a type of food processing called fortification, that can help fill disease-threatening nutritional gaps, like folic acid in bread to prevent neural tube defects in embryos, vitamin D in milk to prevent rickets in children, and iodide in salt to prevent goiters. Vitamin C added to make a sugar-laden fruity beverage have a more Nutrition Facts Panel? That may be another story.
But you don’t have to abolish all packaged foods to eat clean. The way I like to best define clean eating is: Eat more whole foods. When you eat packaged foods, choose those made with wholesome ingredients you’d use in your own kitchen.
The processed food continuum
Most foods fall on what I like to call a processed food continuum. A whole apple plucked from a tree and soon thereafter eaten is a whole food its truest form. However, ingredients are added to pre-cut, bagged apple slices to prevent browning. Canned apples have the skin removed and usually sugar added to their liquid. Apple juice is free of pulp and skin, resulting in little fiber in the end product. And fruit juice cocktail may contain apple juice, but plenty of added sugar, too.
Rather than avoiding all processed foods, I prefer using the term “highly processed foods” to describe a less desirable food stripped of good nutrients and filled with ingredients that aren’t doing you any favors. There are plenty of other compelling reasons why whole foods are better than highly processed foods. Here are some of my favorites.
Whole grains are better than refined grains
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 promote that at least half of all grains should be whole, meaning containing the bran and germ, not just the endosperm. However, there is not a single age group meeting this recommendation. In fact, the Guidelines recommend limiting refined grains.