“Clean eating” needs a clean-up

Let me be clear: I never intended to be a diet blogger, even on occasion. I am not a nutritionist, dietician, nurse, doctor, or any other sort of medical professional. My only dietary claim to fame is having memorized too much of the Glycemic Index as a kid because there are so many Type II diabetics in my family. There is no reason for you to trust my opinions except that most people (at least on The Internet) seem to believe whatever anyone tells them about nutrition, which makes me as qualified as the next person. This particular rant is about “clean eating,” the mistakes people make in attempting it, and some other dietary stupid that floated to the surface of The Internet this week.

I keep seeing Facebook statuses about how someone is “eating clean” because they’re having a fast food salad with, for example, about 40 carbs and 25 grams of sugar (according to the Saladworks website, much higher according to others, e.g. here or here). First, why the hell is pre-packaged dressing part of your “clean diet?” Second, if your salad is that high in carbs (or higher, in many cases, I’m sure), you’re doin’ it wrong.

Then there was the MoJo article comparing “health foods” to Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Donuts are typically not bad for you primarily because of the sugar, but because of that whole, ya know, deep frying in oil/grease thing. Why the devil, then, would you choose something that’s actually pretty low in sugar per serving to demonize the amounts of sugar in “health foods?” It’s like comparing apples and oranges, but with one of these fruits having been deep fried.


Photo: Note that my fancy fair-trade, natural cane sugar from Malawi is still just sugar devoid of other nutrients.

Now, sugar is bad, of course. There is precisely no context in which sugar becomes magically good for you. It can literally make you sick and kill you. All those organic, unbleached sugars, etc.? Still bad. Lookin’ at you, misled commenters  on another noteworthy MoJo health article on the topic. You are just wrong if you think that things other than HFCS are healthy. HFCS is probably worse in some ways than other sugars, yes (although not in the just-plain-wrong ways discussed in the comments). But that doesn’t make table sugar or brown rice sugar or any other concentrated sugar (including fruit juice concentrate) good for you… or even anything other than bad for you, actually. Furthermore, glucose might raise blood sugar levels, but it is not evil; it’s what most organisms utilize for energy, which is why the body responds to it so enthusiastically. Abusing that system leads to bad things, yes, but that’s like saying that you believe water is bad for humans because chugging five gallons will kill you. On the other hand, research suggests that things high in fructose—and we’re not talking about the amounts you find in fruit here—may screw up humans’ satiety and appetite functions and contribute to obesity. Sucrose is a 50/50 split between the two and breaks down as such. Now that that’s settled, back to the donuts.

No shit, these “health foods” are laden with sugar. Yoplait yogurt and Odwalla juices are so sweet, I have to mix them with large quantities of plain yogurt and fresh produce when I use them to flavor smoothies to avoid headaches (and no, I’m not diabetic). Vitamin Water is really just sugar water and they think you’re dumb for believing otherwise. Something involving the word “sweet” and a lot of bread is high in sugar? Noooo! I could go on. And let’s not forget that these things happen with kids’ foods, too. The only thing that kind of surprised me was the Luna bar, but I’ve also never eaten one because I have a fundamental distrust of prepackaged “health foods” for use as anything other than dessert.

It astounds me that things like this have to be pointed out to the masses, lest they think they’re on some kind of “clean” path to dietary nirvana. I mean, for Frigga’s sake, the sugar content is listed on most of those products! And the list could go on. You think a wheat bagel is a healthier choice for breakfast than a donut? You’re not necessarily right, if you care about the simple carbs in each and their effect on blood sugar. I’m not saying you should start switching donuts into your diet Special K style, but good gods, people, read the frickin’ labels if you want to pretend to care about your health! And don’t get all sanctimonious because other people drink soda and you prefer to slurp down chain café beverages like the bitter aftertaste says anything about their sugar content.

Let me be clear that I am all for the pursuit of clean eating as defined on the website linked above. I don’t [yet] avoid sugar additives like the plague (though genetics probably dictates I should) and I love me some dairy, but I’m also keenly aware of what I’d cut out of my diet to lose weight or improve my health if either ever became an issue. Avoiding processed foods and additives whenever possible is a definite plus in my book, so I make even my deliciously unhealthy stroganoff from scratch. But let’s please not make clean eating another stupid fad that no one understands, but that everyone thinks they’re following. I get that nutrition can be confusing and that billions are spent to keep it that way. There is also still plenty about health and nutrition that research can’t yet tell us or confirm. I get that you have to start with small steps, even if it’s from a Monte Cristo for lunch to a packaged salad. But if you actually care about your health or your shape or whatever, read a Wikipedia page now and then, or a scientific article, if that’s within your ken. Screw the pop science, backfiring starvation diets, 90s stigmatization of fat, and anything else that causes weird emotional issues with food of any or all sorts. To my knowledge, no diet high in good fats is correlated with shortened lifespan, higher relative belly fat, or disease, so just eat a bunch of avocados, undoctored nuts, real cheese (not cheese product), or whatever else floats your boat when you get the munchies and stay away from the “health foods” out there that have enough sugar to power a rhino through the afternoon. Then you maybe I’ll let it slide when you fill my newsfeed with a bunch of self-congratulatory statuses about your healthy lifestyle.


7 thoughts on ““Clean eating” needs a clean-up

  1. I agree with this post 110%. I think the confusion around ‘clean eating’ is just as bad as the confusion surrounding calorie counting and the belief that eating 1,200 calories a day is the best way to lose weight. Its such a shame there’s so many fad diets and misleading advice out there.

    • Glad you liked it! I’m with you on the calorie counting. I wish people would just stop to think about what they eat and realize there isn’t a magic trick that’s going to let you eat whatever you want without exercising much. Part of the problem is undoubtedly that there are so many desk jobs in the U.S. and so very many hours spent at them that living a healthy lifestyle becomes an uphill battle, even for those with the knowledge to do so.

  2. Now that was some rant! And I hope the people who need to read it, do read it. That would be all those sugar guzzlers out there, who think that by going gluten free they are getting off scott free on the clean eating band wagon…

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