18/07/2016 10:11 AM AEST | Updated 18/07/2016 10:11 AM AEST

Everything You Want To Know About 'Clean Eating'

Being too strict can actually be dangerous.

Clean eating is all about eating fresh foods as close to their natural state.

If you're looking at your lunch wondering whether it's 'clean' or not (and we don't mean if it's still good after you dropped it on the floor), you might want to consider the following information.

A few years ago the term 'clean eating' came in and saturated the food, fitness and social media scene. #cleaneating has since become the mantra of every fitness guru and has accumulated a whopping 23 million photos on Instagram, which boasts endless images of slim, sculpted bodies, Sunday meal prep and chicken breast salads.

But what is clean eating, anyway -- and is it for you?

"Although no clinical definition exists, clean eating is a deceptively simple concept," dietitian and sports nutritionist Robbie Clark told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Rather than revolving around the idea of eating more or less of specific things (for example, fewer calories or more protein), the concept of eating clean is more about how a food is produced and being mindful of the food's pathway between its origin and your plate."


Depending on who you ask and what their fitness goals and dietary needs are, you will probably get a slightly different definition of clean eating, which is why understanding this concept may be difficult.

"You've got your bodybuilder definition, your paleo definition, your vegan definition, your celebrity definition and so on. In addition to that, these definitions can vary wildly from individual to individual," Clark said.

"To put it simply, clean eating is about eating whole foods or 'real' foods -- those that are unprocessed or minimally processed, refined and manufactured, making them as close to their natural form as possible."

In this sense, 'clean eating' is not considered a diet but a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation.

"However, modern food production has become so advanced that simply eating whole foods may prove to be challenging."

Clean eating is something to take inspiration from, but not to follow too strictly.

The basic guidelines for eating clean include:

  • Eat mostly plants and plant-based foods -- buy organic where possible
  • Eat meat and animal products that are minimally processed -- whole cuts from the butcher, not ham or pre-ground mince
  • Cook your own food -- that way you know what is going into your meals
  • Read nutrition labels and ingredients list -- avoid additives, preservatives, colourings and refined sugars
  • Eat whole foods -- choose foods that have just one ingredient
  • Be a mindful eater
  • Avoid processed and packaged foods
  • Avoid most refined foods -- stick to whole grains instead of white flour products
  • Limit added fat, salt and sugar
  • Don't drink your calories -- water should be your drink of choice
Clean eating or not, the more colour the better.

Despite the hype, clean eating certainly has its benefits as it encourages people to eat more food closer to its original state (for example, fruit salad or beans and brown rice).

"Clean eating is beneficial because you are eliminating processed foods and other ingredients which may have an adverse effect on our health when consumed long-term," Clark said. "However, for some, this way of eating may not be sustainable."

When looking on the other side of the clean eating spectrum, is there such thing as 'dirty eating'?

"Where there is a yin there's always a yang," Clark told HuffPost Australia. "If someone explores the concept of clean eating, it's pretty safe to assume these people are avoiding so-called 'dirty' foods."

It's important to understand that everyone has different nutritional needs and desires, and a label of 'good' or 'bad' simply cannot capture the complexity of our relationship with food.

'Dirty' foods have nothing to do with the food being unsanitary, rather it is a term to designate particular foods as being universally 'unhealthy'.

"Again, this definition may be very ambiguous and differ depending who you ask, so the concept or definition of 'dirty eating' should resonate with the individual avoiding these foods," Clark said.

"For example, a person may consider a 'dirty' food as coming from a factory -- not a farm -- or a food product that has more than five ingredients as part of the nutritional information, or have ingredients with numbers attached to it (additives and preservatives)."

For the majority of individuals, this category of 'dirty' foods is generally reserved for foods that are processed, high in fat (particularly saturated and trans fats) and sugar, and lacking micronutrient content. Think chips, lollies, biscuits, cakes and so on.

"In simpler terms, it's what people consider to be 'junk food' or 'empty calorie' foods," Clark said.

Dirty? More like DELICIOUS.

However, with defining food as 'clean' and dirty' and 'good' and 'bad' comes the risk of developing an unbalanced, unhealthy relationship with food. Yes, eating healthy is important, but it's equally important to enjoy the food you are eating and to treat yourself.

"Using moral language in reference to food isn't a new phenomenon," Clark told HuffPost Australia. "If we start attaching moralising labels to our food such as 'good' and 'bad' and to ourselves as eaters, this will create troubling binary categories and have negative impact on our psychology and relationship with food.

"In comes the vicious cycle. At this point you may feel guilty for eating a 'bad' food and transfer the judgement of the food to yourself."

It's okay if you consume certain foods that may not necessarily improve our health every now and then. It should be about balance.

Labelling food this way also doesn't take into account that every person's body is different -- while some of us thrive on lots of carbohydrates, others may not.

"The effect of labelling foods in this way is far more complex, both on a personal level and as a society. It's important to understand that everyone has different nutritional needs and desires, and a label of 'good' or 'bad' simply cannot capture the complexity of our relationship with food," Clark said.

Like with any healthy diet, it's about doing what's right for you. If you like the idea of clean eating, perhaps take its core guidelines and use them as that -- a guide -- rather than focusing on a strict 'clean' or 'dirty' way of eating.

"Let's move away from labelling foods as 'good' or 'bad' and strive towards greater education around how certain foods can help fuel and nourish our bodies, and that it's okay if you consume certain foods that may not necessarily improve our health every now and then. It should be about balance," Clark said.