Clean Eating Sends a Dirty Message

During my short commute to work, I listen to Morning Edition on WKNO FM 91.1. I find National Public Radio provides the least sensationalist news at this moment in our national life. Each week, I look forward to hearing Jennifer Chandler of the locally produced Weekly Dish share seasonally poignant recommendations about food and cooking. But her January 24 report on “eating clean” hit a sensitive nerve. When I hear eating clean or clean eating, I imagine that someone . . . . . somewhere  . . . . . is eating something dirty.

Healthy eaters who use phrases like clean foods, clean eating and eating clean mean well, but what do these references mean to them? Fitness Magazine defines clean eating as:

. . . a deceptively simple concept. Rather than revolving around the idea of ingesting more or less of specific things (for instance, fewer calories or more protein), the idea is more about being mindful of the food’s pathway between its origin and your plate. At its simplest, clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real” foods — those that are un- or minimally processed, refined, and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible. However, modern food production has become so sophisticated that simply eating whole foods can be a challenging proposition these days.

In the last few years, I’ve pursued cooking and eating that emphasizes whole foods while reducing the amount of processed foods served at my table. One of my goals in writing in this space is to share my adventures in cooking – particularly slow cooking – because I eat healthier when I know where my food comes from and how it is prepared. I refuse to describe my cooking as clean eating because of the implied message.

I recently wondered if others felt the same way. I asked, “What goes through your mind when you hear phrases like clean eating or clean food” in a recent Facebook post?”  Many of the comments found humor in the terms:

  • Nothing on the floor beyond the 5 sec rule!
  • Washing my hands before eating the whole pizza.
  • Bleach. Don’t even ask.
  • Some Instagram girl who wants attention.

Others appeared to understand clean eating as described by Fitness Magazine:

  • Vegetables and water.
  • Lean meats. No dairy, bread, added sugar, or fats.
  • No processed food.
  • No pre-packaged food.

Another group of folks shared my visceral reaction:

  • A marketing term used to vaguely promote the sale of an arbitrary set of products and ideas to those suffering from orthorexia who have money to burn.
  • I hate these terms! No food is unclean. Some food is definitely healthier for sure. But I find that those who espouse “clean eating” tend to move toward disordered eating. In the vegan community, orthorexia is huge — and it tends to start with a clean vs. unclean food mentality.
  • People with enough money to buy lots of fresh produce and with enough time to prepare it or enough money to have other people prepare it for them. Low fat. Minimum taste.
  • Pseudoscientific drivel preying upon people’s ignorance.
  • One person expressed that clean eating amounted to food shaming of low income mothers.

This last set of observers alludes to what amounts to moralizing and stigmatizing food choices. The clean eating and clean foods trend assumes that people must choose between clean and unclean foods – a practice spanning several thousands of years in human history. Christians may recall the story of Saint Peter’s vision of the sheet of animals from Acts 10:9-16 (New Revised Standard Version):

9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” 15 The voice said to him again, a second time, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven.

The earliest Biblical references to clean and unclean foods in Jewish Law appear in the Old Testament Book of Genesis.  The codes in Leviticus for clean and unclean foods specify ritual cleanliness but also conveyed good health practices which warn about the dangers of certain foods  (e.g., easily understandable to those made sick by spoiled shellfish). But the codes also spell out that people who eat unclean foods become unclean themselves.

The obsession with clean and unclean foods crosses cultures while seeking to establish social and economic classes. Consider the caste system in India. Amrit Dhillon of the South China Morning Post writes:

If the Hindu Caste System has been rigid throughout history, the dietary habits of each caste have been equally immutable. You are what you eat is a simple dictum except in India, where it means much more. What you eat dictates who you marry, where you live, your job, your social status, whether you are “dirty” or “clean”, whether you are entitled or deprived, and whether you can hold your head high or let it hang in shame, because the food you eat is a function of your caste.

Food systems in the present-day United States reinforce social and economic classes. In a perfect world, groceries stores and restaurants would provide affordable, whole or minimally-processed foods. In our imperfect world, the food industry offers highly processed foods made cheap through the support of government welfare subsidies while the cost of many whole foods remain higher. Highly processed carbohydrates, high fructose corn syrup and trans fat sold to people in this country make people sick, sicker if access to alternatives is limited. If I had the resources, I’d love to study health outcomes related to access to healthy food options in Memphis neighborhoods. I wager that people who live along the Poplar Avenue corridor score better on a variety of diet related health outcomes. The following maps based on USDA and CDC data, respectively, allow a comparison of low income and access to food with obesity in Memphis.

memphis-food-desert
Low income and low access data layers (Food Access Research Atlas, USDA, 2015)
obesity-among-adults-aged-18-years
From 500 Cities Project: Local Data for Better Health 2014, Memphis, TN.

Even if people could afford to purchase whole vegetables and meats, many communities subsist in food deserts – neighborhoods with few well-stocked grocery stores within walking distance of people’s homes. The clean eating and clean foods trend assumes that people can choose to eat clean, but structural barriers in our food delivery systems create a choice architecture biased against people of limited means.

The English language offers so many words we can use to promote healthy eating without stigmatizing and shaming people’s food choices. Here at Place at the Table, I pledge to do just that.

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