“I hear a lot of talk at my gym about ‘eating clean,’ but it seems like the idea means different things to different people. What’s it all about, and where do I begin?”
Pioneer trend strategist Gerald Celente coined the term “clean foods” in 1993, writing in The Trends Journal that this new standard for health and reliability called for “foods free of artificial preservatives, coloring, irradiation, synthetic pesticides, fungicides, ripening agents, fumigants, drug residues and growth hormones” and those that are “processed, packaged, transported and stored to retain maximum nutritional value.”
Just over a decade later, you’ll find people who “eat clean” embracing lean proteins, healthy fats and carbs, and plenty of produce. Their lifestyle includes five or six small meals a day, lots of water, and regular exercise. “Eating clean” has become such a ubiquitous phrase that consumers—especially baby boomers faced with their mortality and younger folks who’ve grown up with an awareness of the environment and an active distrust of the institutions that are supposed to protect us from harm—aren’t sure whether to categorize it as a gateway to improved health or just another diet regimen.
You could argue that it’s both. No one could possibly find fault with cooking whole foods (mostly plants, as Michael Pollan famously said) from scratch, watching portion size, and avoiding risk factors (such as smoking, obesity, and excessive alcohol consumption) that can lead to poor health. This is nothing new; although the medical establishment is far from perfect, it’s been preaching the virtues of this common-sense approach for a long time.
Because common sense is, er, common, it doesn’t sell (if so, I would be rich beyond my wildest dreams) unless it is given some sort of proprietary marketing twist. Which is why, if you search for the phrases "eating clean" or "clean foods" on Amazon, you’ll find more than 4,000 results, including Eating Clean for Dummies, by Jonathan Wright and Linda Johnson Larsen; The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Clean, by Diane Welland; Clean Food, by Terry Walters; and the Eat Clean series of diet books (which includes a workout journal and The Butt Book: How to Build a Non-Cellulite and Fat-Free Butt in 9 Weeks), by Tosca Reno.
All the books I mention above advocate eating a balanced diet rich with fruits and vegetables, and, let me reiterate, that is a wonderful thing, not just for the individuals who learn how to make smarter food choices but for our public health in general. Unfortunately, though, the various authors have interwoven good, sensible advice with pseudoscientific, outmoded, unproved, or flat-out incorrect claims or recommendations.
You’ll find a handy summary of what I’m referring to in a January 2013 post on Science-Based Medicine, an independent blog written by medical doctors and other health care professionals who evaluate treatments and products “to promote high standards of science in medicine.” There, Ontario pharmacist Scott Gavura takes a clear-eyed look, for example, at the principles listed in Reno’s Eat-Clean Diet (2007). This isn’t a Big Pharma operative in action (the editors and contributors receive no industry funding and have no financial conflicts of interest) but simply someone who knows what he’s talking about, and his points are easily checked by anyone with access to the Internet or, in some cases, a Biology 101 textbook.
Reno, for instance, perpetuates the myth about drinking two liters (eight cups) of water every day (which has its own Snopes page) and advises depending on fresh fruit and vegetables for fiber, vitamins, and enzymes. Grains are another excellent source of dietary fiber and vitamins, and enzymes (specific proteins that act as biological catalysts) in plants are there for the plants’ benefit (germination, photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition) and in no way aid in human digestion—our own enzymes do the job nicely. What galls me the most, however, is the emphasis on fresh. Let’s face it—not everyone has a crisper drawer full of produce at all times, especially this time of year. Unless frozen or canned vegetables contain added salt or sugar, they’re virtually as nutritious as fresh. Especially for low-income or time-strapped families, they’re a key player in putting healthful meals on the table. Two frozen vegetables I’m rarely without are baby peas (less starchy than fresh, unless they’re straight from the garden) and, this time of year, sliced okra—the secret ingredient in many a quick weeknight vegetable soup or slurry to pour over rice. If you’re worried about bisphenol A (BPA), it’s fairly easy to find companies that use BPA-free liners for canned products.
Regarding chemicals in our food, it’s important to realize that all foods—and, indeed, our bodies—are made up of chemicals. Many of those found in food are naturally occurring and include nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates, and dietary fiber as well as thousands of plant-based phytochemicals, which may help the body fight disease.
Take sulforaphane, one of the phytochemicals found in cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and kale. Sulforaphane stimulates enzymes in the body that detoxify carcinogens before they damage cells, and through different mechanisms, two other compounds found in cruciferous vegetables—indole 3-carbinol and crambene—are also suspected of activating detoxification enzymes.
We are also exposed to a vast array of synthetic chemicals in the food we eat, and they can be organized into the following categories:
• residues (such as pesticides)
• contaminants (such as mercury)
• problematic ingredients (such as preservatives or food coloring)
I wish I had the space for a more in-depth discussion of them all, but here are a few guidelines to get you started; I’ve riffed on those of Dr. Gary Adamkiewicz, senior research scientist in environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health and co-instructor of the course “From Farm to Fork: Why What You Eat Matters.”
How to minimize residues
Thoroughly wash produce: This won’t eliminate pesticide residues, but it reduces them and takes care of any nasty pathogens that may be lurking as well. You don’t need a special rinse; simply use cool running water, and, depending on what you’re washing, rub with your hands or a brush.
Go organic and buy locally if possible: Certain pesticides and fungicides are used in organic production, but they are naturally derived, not synthetic or GM. As to whether they’re less toxic, that can depend on the size and frequency of the dose. Because many industrial organic farms use pesticides extensively, try to source your produce from small-scale local farmers and ask them about their methods. I’ve never met a local farmer, organic or conventional, who wasn’t forthcoming about the topic. (Note: The benefits and drawbacks of organic pesticides are a subject for another day; stay tuned.)
Go “semi-organic”: We all pay a premium for organic, and a way of stretching those dollars is to make choices based on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists. You can download a PDF guide or the app for your smartphone.
How to minimize contaminants
If you eat fish, avoid those high in mercury: This metal is found naturally in the environment, but coal-burning plants and other industrial activities greatly increase the amount cycling through the air, water, and soil. Women who are or may become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children are especially at risk; check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in lakes, rivers, and coastal areas, and consult a consumer guide such as that published by National Geographic or the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Avoid processed food: In a dietary intervention study conducted by the Silent Spring Institute, families who avoided processed food for three days reduced their exposure to two suspected endocrine disruptors: the phthalate DEHP, which is used in some soft plastic food packaging, and BPA; for tips on how to get as much BPA out of your kitchen as you can, click here.
Avoid microwaving food in plastic containers: This especially goes for fatty foods that easily absorb the chemicals that can leach from the plastic. What, you’re on the fence about microwaving in general? Read this before you decide.
About aluminum: Aluminum is the cookware material most often avoided for perceived health risks. Read more about it here. (Spoiler alert: The operative word is "perceived.")
How to minimize problematic ingredients
Again, it comes down to processed foods: The more heavily processed a food is, the more dyes, preservatives, and artificial flavors (not to mention added salt or sugars) it contains. If this list of chemicals found on supermarket shelves doesn’t make you want to run screaming out into the street, I don’t know what will. This doesn’t mean you can never enjoy a chip, cracker, or cookie again. Making your own from scratch eliminates any suspect ingredients, and you can control the amount and type of sweetener, for instance, you use. Call it eating cleanish.