11/09/2017 7:14 AM AEST | Updated 11/09/2017 4:43 PM AEST

Is Clean Eating Bad For You?

Or just a healthy approach to eating?

Getty Images/iStockphoto

'Clean eating' isn't a new concept, but it's a term and diet which is thrown around a lot in the online health and wellness world. While there's no strict definition of clean eating, the idea is to eat minimally processed, whole foods, and steer clear of refined, processed or junk foods.

On the surface clean eating looks like a healthy approach to eating. However, some mental health experts disagree, saying following ultra-healthy diets can have a negative impact on people at risk of eating disorders.

Most recently, SBS's 'Insight' episode The Health Obsession delved into 'when healthy eating becomes unhealthy'. Australians spoke of their pursuit to 'eat clean' or live healthily, which started with a slight dietary change or exercise regime and turned into an eating disorder, with some cases leading to hospitalisation.

But is there a healthy way to approach the idea of clean eating? To gain insight into clean eating from a nutritional standpoint, HuffPost Australia spoke to Jessica Spendlove, accredited practising dietitian, sports dietitian and nutrition consultant.


What is clean eating?

"Clean eating is about eating whole foods which are un- or minimally processed, refined and handled, making them as close to their natural form as possible," Spendlove told HuffPost Australia.

"A good way to think of clean eating is a way to eat more of the most nutrient-rich and healthiest options in each food group, and less of the not-so-healthy ones."

Clean eating refers to:

  • Eating more -- vegetables, fruits, whole grains, good quality proteins and healthy fats
  • Eating less -- refined grains, pesticides, additives, preservatives, unhealthy fats, large amounts of sugar and salt, and highly manufactured foods which have an extensive ingredients list

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Is clean eating bad for you?

While the concept of clean eating is healthy, Spendlove explained there should still be some room in the diet to treat ourselves to discretionary or 'sometimes' foods.

"Clean eating most of the time can be of benefit to most people," Spendlove said. "Eating a diet which contains as little processed and refined foods as possible will always be a good thing.

"If people take even a few steps towards eating cleaner, such as cutting back on processed foods or eating more fruits and vegetables, it can make a big impact on health over the long-term."

However, when clean eating is taken to the extreme it can be potentially dangerous.

"Food should be nourishing and help people meet their requirements, but food should be also enjoyed ... and should be good for the soul," Spendlove said.

If people focus on nourishing their bodies by eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats and then also enjoy the occasional 'choice' meal a few times a week, that is good for health, mood, mind and soul.

"One thing to be mindful of is individuals interpreting clean eating in a different manner and thinking they need to remove food groups or important foods from the diet which have many health benefits," Spendlove said.

"Of course, if you are intolerant to a food you should avoid it, but removing it for any other reason can be unnecessary and detrimental to overall health in the long term.

"Clean eating at the absolute extreme is known as orthorexia. Orthorexia is defined as a proposed eating disorder characterised by an excessive preoccupation with eating healthy food. If an attempt to eat clean turns into an obsession and a person becomes an orthorexic, then that is dangerous."

Mindstyle via Getty Images
Extreme guilt after eating can be a sign of an eating disorder.

What's a healthier way to approach eating?

Rather than seeing foods as good or bad, clean or dirty, as simply macronutrients and micronutrients, Spendlove recommends approaching food as nourishment.

"One of my favourite quotes is 'we eat food, not nutrients', which is an important message for people to be mindful of.

"It is important not to become fixated on macronutrient compositions and micronutrient breakdown. Instead focus on eating plenty of good quality produce, most of the time.

"If people focus on nourishing their bodies by eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats and then also enjoy the occasional 'choice' meal a few times a week, that is good for health, mood, mind and soul. And to me that is balance."