By now, you’ve probably spotted plenty of buzz around clean eating on restaurant menus, in trendy diet plans, and (of course) all over Instagram. It’s not hard to see why this squeaky-clean movement is having a moment.
Clean eating sounds good, but… what actually is it?
If you’ve ever felt confused about WTH it really means to “eat clean” — and whether it’s worth giving it a go — we’re breaking it all down.
Unlike branded diets created by doctors (or even Insta gurus), the concept of “clean” eating isn’t proprietary. No one person or group can lay claim to discovering or inventing this eating pattern — so nobody owns its guidelines.
In fact, according to new research from the International Food Information Council (IFIC), there’s not much consensus about what clean eating means, even among the 64 percent of Americans who claim they try to do it.
“There is no firm definition for ‘clean,’” confirms Alyssa Pike, RD, manager of nutrition communications at IFIC.
Essentially, when it comes to this diet-that’s-not-a-diet, we’re all figuring it out as we go.
Ask a dozen people on the street what clean eating looks like and you’ll likely get a dozen answers. But sift through the various opinions — some, admittedly, a bit further off the beaten path than others — and patterns do emerge.
“The term ‘clean eating’ is mostly used in reference to a diet based on whole, minimally processed foods,” explains registered dietitian Carrie Gabriel, founder of Steps to Nutrition.
Per IFIC’s research, most people surveyed about their beliefs on clean eating mentioned choosing foods that are fresh, organic, minimally processed, natural, simple, or just “something I know is nutritious.”
Here’s a look at the various possible definitions of clean eating and whether they translate to a healthier diet.
Clean eating defined as fresh food
We’ve had it drilled into our brains by public health messaging, grocery ads, and even Subway ads! But how necessary is freshness for healthy eating?
Research does suggest that fresh produce sometimes contains the highest amounts of nutrients and antioxidants, especially when eaten in season. (Canned fruits and veggies, on the other hand, can be high in sodium and lower in some nutrients.)
But many frozen fruits and veggies may contain more nutrients than fresh ones, since they’re typically harvested (and frozen) when in season. So the strawberries you get in the produce section in January might not measure up nutritionally to the frozen ones that were harvested back in June.
One 2017 study that compared nutrients in fresh versus frozen produce found that frozen broccoli, strawberries, and other foods retained more nutrients than their fresh counterparts.
The take-home message? Fresh is great if you can get it at the right time of the year. But in general, since most of us don’t get enough produce to begin with, the best fruits and veggies are probably whichever ones we’ll actually eat.
Clean eating defined as organic food
There’s a general idea among some that organic farming practices are good for Mother Earth — though that’s up for debate. And as for whether organic foods are more nutritious than conventional ones, we’ll sum up the evidence as “meh.”
Organic foods contain organic pesticides and antibiotics — sometimes higher amounts of them than conventionally farmed foods. But their actual nutrient content is often pretty indistinguishable.
A 2012 review that looked at more than 220 studies concluded that organic foods weren’t significantly more nutritious than their conventional counterparts.
Clean eating defined as eating “natural”
Among self-described clean eaters, the term “natural” is often interpreted as “not artificial.” (After all, who wants to eat fake food?)
But while the USDA regulates which foods can be called organic, the word “natural” on food packaging is much more of a gray area. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “natural” can be used when nothing artificial or synthetic has been added to a food that “would not normally be expected to be in that food.”
Translation: “Natural” might not mean a whole lot on food labels.
A better strategy might be look out for artificial ingredients. They have a murky history, sometimes linked to health problems.
“There are some [artificial] ingredients that science has shown to be detrimental to our health,” says Megan Meyer, PhD, director of science communications at IFIC. “A prime example of this is partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs). PHOs were the main dietary source of artificial trans fats, which raise LDL cholesterol and increase your risk for developing cardiovascular disease.”
Fortunately, PHOs have been phased out of the food system as of 2020.
Does artificial always = bad for you?
Nope, not all artificial ingredients — even ones that sound chemical-y — are as scary as they seem. “Just because an ingredient is artificial does not inherently mean that it is unhealthy or will lead to negative health outcomes,” says Meyer.
Take ascorbic acid, for example: It might sound like a chemical that’ll tear through your intestines in seconds flat, but it’s actually just a synthetic form of vitamin C.
Clean eating defined as eating minimally processed foods
Like artificial ingredients, processed foods have a seriously bad reputation. Research has linked eating highly processed foods containing lots of added sugar, salt, and fat to increased risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome (a condition that can lead to type 2 diabetes and heart disease).
Clearly, clean eating folks are on the right track by focusing on whole, minimally processed foods. Still, it’s important to remember that “processed” isn’t synonymous with “instant cancer or heart attack.”
“Unless you pull something straight from the ground or eat raw meat, everything goes through a process before it gets to your plate,” says Gabriel. “Some processes are clearly more profound than others.” Even many nutritious foods, like oats, brown rice, and canned tuna, are technically processed.
Besides, in the real world, it’s virtually impossible to avoid processed food altogether. “Rather than eliminate processed food, it’s more ideal to practice mindful eating, since it’s less restrictive and teaches people to eat all foods mindfully,” Gabriel recommends.
If you’ve opted for a clean eating diet, the best part might be your own sense of self-determination. As you navigate your own course toward eating clean, you get to decide exactly what that entails.
This can feel especially refreshing if you’ve been burned by overly prescriptive diets in the past. “It’s a good thing for people to feel autonomous and empowered by their food choices,” says Pike.
A diet high in processed foods often contributes to excess weight, so saying sayonara to them might also lead to weight loss. In the long term, a clean eating diet could also reduce your risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome.
Despite its scrubbed-and-shined image, a clean eating diet isn’t without potential risks. Mainly, having too much of a laser focus on eating clean can be a slippery slope for those at risk of eating disorders.
“Striving to ‘eat clean’ can quickly turn into an obsession with eating only healthy foods, which is also called orthorexia,” explains Pike. “Orthorexia is a serious condition that requires reestablishing a healthy relationship with and view of all foods.”
Even for people without a history of disordered eating, black and white thinking about food can create feelings of guilt and shame. (Because if you don’t eat clean, are you eating… dirty?)
“A big problem with the clean eating movement is that it incorrectly implies ‘clean eaters’ care more about their health, while those who don’t eat clean are unhealthy, uneducated, or lazy,” Pike points out.
Plus, since — let’s be honest — a lot of the info on clean eating comes from online influencers, it’s easy to be swayed more by them than by actual health experts.
Finally, some people might just find the vagueness of clean eating mostly frustrating rather than empowering.
We’ll come clean: It’s entirely likely that you’ll feel awesome when following a diet of fresh, organic, minimally processed food. Each of these categories of foods can come with major benefits.
But there’s no one-size-fits-all diet, and not “eating clean” doesn’t imply a personal failure. “The trouble is — as annoying as it sounds — eating healthy looks different for everyone,” says Pike.
Whether you follow a “clean” diet or any other kind of eating plan, just keep tabs on how it makes you feel emotionally as well as physically. Pike adds, “A healthy relationship with food does not involve restriction, anxiety, or shame around our food choices.”