What the heck is clean eating anyway?
Clean eating is a term I hear thrown about a lot on Instagram, in the health community and in magazine articles. Somehow it seems to have become synonymous with ‘healthy eating’. Another term we hear a lot. But what does all that even mean?
I think originally, and I’m taking this from the urban dictionary, clean eating had something to do with eating food in its most natural state . Fewer ingredients- fewer steps from farm to table.
What it has become though, is a term to label eating certain foods as ‘good’, ‘admirable’ and ‘healthy’ and other foods ‘bad’, ‘greedy’ and ‘unhealthy’. Of course, there is food that supports optimal wellbeing, and food that doesn’t. And yet, I think we enter a whole big field of demonising when we start to think of food as good or bad, clean or dirty, admirable or greedy.
It’s not the job of a nutritional therapist to give you a list of ‘good’ and ‘clean’ foods and a list of ‘bad’ and ‘dirty’ foods, only to send you on your merry way, eating only foods from the clean list and feeling guilty or bad anytime you slip up and eat a … dare I say it … dirty food.
Then what is the job of a nutritional therapist?
I read once (in Eve Kalinik’s book, ‘Be good to your gut’), that a nutritional therapist helps your body to find its way back to homeostasis.
Homeostasis is a beautiful word that means balance.
5 Types of Balance your nutritional therapist can help you to find:
Although there are daily recommended intakes for the nutrients our bodies need, these vary based on age, gender, activity levels, health, stress, the ability to digest foods and absorb nutrients, and the levels of other nutrients. A nutritional therapist will help you find your nutritional balance. They will help you figure out your current nutrient levels, they will help you understand how your current situation and lifestyle affect your body’s ability to store and absorb nutrients, and they will help you figure out which foods you will find easiest and most nourishing to include in your diet in order to find balance in your nutrient levels.
How this isn’t clean eating: sometimes clean eating is sold as a diet full of raw plant foods and very little fats or animal products. However, some people’s digestive systems may not be up to absorbing all the nutrients they need from these foods, or their bodies may not be able to convert the type of nutrients you get from those foods into the type of nutrients your cells can use. Any time a whole food group is cut out the body becomes more vulnerable to nutrient imbalances.
Our hormones play a huge role in how our body functions. They affect energy levels, metabolism, mood, sleep, stress, blood sugar levels and so, so much more. The interesting thing about hormone balance is that once again – the optimum level of each hormone depends on you! Your age, your gender, your time of life, the time of the month, your activity levels, your levels of other hormones, your health. There can be no 'one size fits all' approach. Your nutritional therapist will help you understand your hormones better and then help you identify the foods and lifestyle practices that help your body to maintain the optimum level of hormones for you.
How this isn’t clean eating: did you know that carbohydrates actually reduce the ‘stress hormone’, cortisol, and are necessary for the production of one of our ‘happy hormones’, serotonin? Or did you know that not eating for long periods, as proponents of intermittent fasting recommend, can actually increase the stress hormone in women? Cutting out too many carbohydrates and skipping too many meals in the name of clean eating can wreak havoc with your hormones. Make sure you understand the butterfly effects of your food choices on all the intricate and interconnected processes that happen in your body.
Let’s face it. Eating whole foods, cooked from scratch, preferably organic, is expensive and time-consuming. Not everyone has the luxury to spend hours in the kitchen or to take the time to decorate their plate with wonderful, colourful ingredients. Not everyone is cooking just for themselves, and when cooking for partners and children, many different preferences need to be considered. A nutritional therapist will help you find the balance between eating fresh, whole foods and not spending all your time meal planning, food shopping and cooking.
How this isn’t clean eating: what is sold to us as clean eating on social media often looks like a full-time job to me. Heck, my job is all about food and I still don’t have the time to cook every meal from scratch. Half the time my plate of food is just thrown together with not a second to spare for aesthetics. Don’t get me wrong – I think it is incredibly important that we take the time to appreciate, enjoy and savour our foods. But I don’t think for one second that stressing about whether or not what you are eating is clean and socially acceptable, will help you on a journey towards better health and wellbeing.
Emotional and spiritual balance:
Yes, what we eat matters when it comes to health. No, what you eat will not be the only thing that makes you well. Going back to Eve Kalinik’s book, she wrote another sentence that really stuck with me. She said she thinks that it is better if you eat an unhealthy diet but take the time to chew, savour and enjoy your meals, than if you have a ‘perfect’ diet, but don’t chew or savour or enjoy. You can cut out all the foods you want – if you are stressed, your digestive system will still not be happy. You can follow as clean a diet as possible – if you are not sleeping well, you still won’t feel good. You can create the most beautiful looking bowls of food – unless this brings you joy, purpose and meaning, you still will not feel well. A nutritional therapist will help you connect to the things that bring you joy and give you meaning, and they will help you find ways to invest more energy and time into those things rather than on getting your diet to be even ‘cleaner’.
How this isn’t clean eating: I think sometimes clean eating misses the point. If eating that way brings you genuine joy and meaning I think it is fantastic. If eating that way comes from a place of ‘I should be eating better to be a better person’, then I don’t think you will ever get to a place where your eating feels good enough. Think about why you eat what you eat and think about what reasons you would like to have for your food choices.
By now most of us have heard that gut health is important and that our gut microbes play an important role in that. Those of you who have had a comprehensive stool test, one type of functional test a nutritional therapist might encourage you to have, will know that the test tells you about three types of bacteria: helpful flora, commensal flora and dysbiotic flora. You ideally want a lot of the helpful, some of the commensal and none of the dysbiotic. Too much of some commensal flora or too little helpful flora can be as bad as an overgrowth of dysbiotic flora.
Different species of bacteria play different roles, and the more we have of one species, the less space there is for other species. Our gut works best when there is a balance of the different types of bacteria. What’s the perfect balance? Nobody knows the answer to that question yet – but we do know there is not one perfect balance for everyone and that the more types of bacteria, (generally) the better. A nutritional therapist will help you to find out which foods work well with your body. Their aim should be to help you eat as diverse a diet as possible. Initially, there may be some foods you are unable to tolerate, but over time, as root causes of ill health are addressed and your digestive system is supported, you should be able to eat more and more foods. This, as well as the inclusion of pre- and probiotic foods, will help balance your gut microbiome.
How this isn’t clean eating: in order to feed as many different types of bacteria as possible you need to eat as many different foods as possible. The more unprocessed and colourful the better. By cutting out foods or food groups you might be limiting the types of bacteria you are feeding. Of course, we know refined sugar and processed foods encourage the growth of dysbiotic bacteria, but cutting out sweet fruits like banana may not do you any favours. If clean eating means cutting out lots of foods, I think it can have a negative impact on your gut bacteria balance.
I have picked on clean eating a little bit here. And I don’t want to discount all the positive aspects of the term – like the focus on eating more unprocessed, whole foods. The appreciation that food plays a role in wellbeing. The joy that comes from a beautiful, colourful plate of food. But nutritional therapy is much more than that. And I think an exclusive focus on clean eating can be unhelpful on a journey to better health and wellbeing.
I would love to hear your thoughts! Tag me @efias_kitchen on Instagram or comment below!