If you’re not clear on what we’re talking about, ‘clean eating’ promotes better health through eating more natural, nutrient-dense foods. It advises eliminating processed foods, as well as a range of others, including dairy, refined sugars, gluten, and anything produced using pesticides or genetically modified ingredients. What that leaves are simple, whole, organic foods, as close to their natural state as possible. You may already be familiar with the clean eating staples: kale, quinoa and coconut oil.
That sounds like common sense, right? Shouldn’t we be eating natural food as much as possible?
Yes indeed, according to Clare Collins, Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Newcastle’s Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition. “What clean eating gets right is the fact that our diet needs to improve. One thing we know in Australia is that one third – one third – of what we eat every day is what we call ‘ultra-processed’ food. That’s essentially junk food, or anything you pick up in the supermarket with ingredients you can’t pronounce.”
“There’s no need to buy goji berries picked by nymphs at dawn.”
While the Australian Government’s Australian Guide to Healthy Eating allows for a little junk food, most people are still eating more than twice the recommended daily amounts.
But clean eating has come under fire recently, from being dismissed as another fact-free fad diet (its trailblazers are home cooks, not dietitians), to being criticised for unhealthy messages around body image and food, and to being accused of feeding into the ‘wellness’ money-making machine.
This may be a little harsh, according to Collins. “People are interested in clean eating because they’re interested in what foods are going to make them healthy and strong. That’s commendable. I think better terminology than ‘clean’ is ‘healthy eating habits’, which gets to the heart of what people really want to achieve.”
“People are interested in clean eating because they’re interested in what foods are going to make them healthy and strong. That’s commendable.”
But what does that mean and how is it different to the clean eating philosophy?
“What we encourage is a healthy, varied diet, with a lot more fruit and veggies. But where we need to be careful with clean eating is that it promotes a very narrow idea of what’s healthy,” says Collins. “Bread is technically ‘processed’ food, but it can still be part of a healthy diet. And research has shown that organic food does not provide extra nutrition – cheap frozen vegetables are often fresher and more nutritious. Organic food is also expensive. If you say only organic food is healthy, you’re immediately excluding people on lower incomes from access to ‘healthy’ food. Less than seven per cent of people eat the recommended daily serves of fruit and veg as it is. If you then say your produce has to be organic, you’ve immediately raised the bar way too high for most people.”
Collins also doesn’t have much time for the niche super-foods promoted by clean eating gurus (think organic kale, activated almonds and bone broth). “There’s no need to buy goji berries picked by nymphs at dawn. That kind of super-food talk is misleading and dishonest. The real super foods are hiding in plain sight – they’re in the fruit and veggies section, and hardly anyone is getting enough of them.”
“The food is only half the equation – the skills to prepare the food are equally as important.”
So where do we draw the line then? And how can we eat better without getting lost in misinformation? Collins recommends some healthy scepticism around hot, unqualified celebrities selling cookbooks, and advocates a sensible, research-based, three-step approach:
1. Eat more basic foods, and a greater variety of them.
“Every week in your shopping trolley, add a couple of fruits and vegetables that you didn’t buy last week. Try new legumes, nuts, pulses and seeds. This boosts micronutrients and also phytonutrients, which are the ‘helper’ nutrients that enable cells to divide and repair, support immune function and aid in wound recovery. That’s the best way to improve your health with food.”
2. Learn to cook.
“The food is only half the equation – the skills to prepare the food are equally as important. Get in the kitchen and learn to prepare healthy food that you’ll actually enjoy eating. Try a new recipe every week. Cooking classes are a great idea if you don’t know where to start.”
3. If you want to step it up or you have concerns about your diet, get qualified, expert advice.
“People often aren’t aware that dietitians are available to them. Private health insurance will cover it, most hospitals have a dietetics department, and you can get a referral from your GP. Make sure you’re seeing an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) – this means they’ve studied everything to do with nutrition, including the counselling side.”
If you’re interested in finding out how healthy your diet is, Prof. Collins has put together a free online healthy eating quiz (we tried it – it’s fast, easy to understand and full of great advice).