The “clean eating” movement, and how I overcame my fear of white bread

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This week marks my last week in France. Two years really flew by! For me, periods of change are always accompanied by some amount of reflection (and nostalgia!). I’ve taken some time recently to reflect on what I’ve learned while living in France, and what I can take away with me. What I’ve realized is that much of what I’ve learned centres around food.

A couple of weeks ago, I came across the article “Why we fell for clean eating” in The Guardian, and it felt like the perfect segue to this post. Even as a non-instagrammer, the hashtag #eatclean has made its way onto my radar, and I dove right into this article, which despite its length, is definitely worth a read.


For those of you who don’t have the time, it essentially discusses the pitfalls of the “cleaning eating” movement, which while being great in the sense that it endorses some health-promoting foods, has also been associated with pseudoscience (e.g., claims that certain foods "detoxify" the body) and novel eating disorders such as orthorexia, “an obsession with consuming only foods that are pure and perfect.” 

Pure and perfect? That led me to think – what does that even mean? I have images of sugar plum fairies dancing in my head. (Oh wait, sugar isn't "clean", is it? I must be on the wrong track...)

The bottom line is, none of us really know what constitutes a “pure and perfect” food. Take avocados for example. According to the article, avocados now outsell oranges in the UK. They’re green, they’re a fruit…they must be good for you. But they sure do contain a lot of fat.* So, are they a perfect food? (The top two Google hits when I searched for “avocado” were “Why is avocado good for you?” and “Why is avocado not good for you?”, so it seems that at least among the general public, the jury is still out.) And then there's almond milk. Does its lack of dairy make it inherently good? That depends on who you ask.**

*A medium avocado can contain ~22–25g of fat, and is known to raise the good, heart-healthy HDL cholesterol levels in your body. Eat away – in moderation!  

**According to the article, the author of a new book on orthorexia sees almond milk as "little better than “expensive water”, containing just 0.1g protein per 100ml, compared with 3.2g per 100ml in cow’s milk.” Remember – when looking for non-dairy milk alternatives, make sure they are good sources of protein, calcium, and vitamin D.

My point is that comparing the “purity” of foods is useless, because we have no way of measuring this (somewhat abstract) quality. Instead, to compare the nutritional properties of foods and their health-promoting effects, we should be relying on scientific evidence. Indeed, when referring to clean eating cookbooks, the article states:

“The poison comes from the fact that they are wrapping [clean eating] up in pseudoscience,” Yeo says. “If you base something on falsehoods, it empowers people to take extreme actions, and this is where the harm begins.”

We all know that unbelievable claims such as “Lose 5 lbs a week eating nothing but chocolate” are not to be trusted. So why do we believe that eating nothing but raw vegetables 24/7 is the miracle cure?

Perhaps it comes down to confusion, as there are many conflicting claims out there. Government websites, such as EatRight Ontario are great places to get up-to-date, reliable nutrition information. However, I think the clean eating trend is quelled by more than just conflicting information: I think it’s quelled by fear. Fear of too much fat/sugar/sodium, fear of GMOs, fear of artificial food dyes, fear of pesticides… And all of these concerns are real.

But what if we think of our food in a different way?

Rather than considering the "purity" of a specific food and weighing out its pros and cons, what if we consider how nourishing, filling, and good for the body it is? In case you’ve been wondering, this is where France comes in.

"Light" foods are not always where it's at

"Light" foods are not always where it's at

Since living in Normandy, I’ve noticed a lot less of an emphasis on “-free” or “low” food (e.g., fat-free, sugar-free, low-fat, light, diet…). People also eat real butter (eek!), and more bread than you can imagine (seriously, it’s not rare to see someone walking down the street carrying several baguettes). However, that (white or multigrain, and occasionally whole grain) bread is freshly baked at the boulangerie every morning and goes rock-hard within 24 hours (no preservatives), and well, butter and camembert (a creamy, somewhat smelly French cheese similar to brie) are from Normandy, so they’re eaten without restraint. I’ve followed suit, and pick up a fresh baguette graine (multigrain baguette) to eat with French cheese most days of the week. And I no longer feel guilty about it.

Meals are also longer and less rushed here. Students and employees of larger-sized companies get a large (3+ course) lunch at the cafeteria every day. This typically includes several cold vegetable starters, a main dish (which includes a meat or vegetarian protein, a starch, and hot vegetables), plus your choice of cheese, yogurt, fruit, or pastries for dessert, and of course, bread on the side.*** This is always followed up by a coffee with the group. It’s a long (if you consider 1–1.5-hour lunch “long”), social experience, and at the end of the meal people are more likely to say “J’ai bien mangé” (“I ate well”) than “I’m so stuffed!”

*** These meals are often subsidized by the company and cost less than $5 CDN. (Yes. You read that right.)

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...at the end of the meal, people are more likely to say “J’ai bien mangé” (“I ate well”) than “I’m so stuffed!”

All in all, I’ve found there’s a lot more emphasis on “eating well” than there is on “eating clean,” in a context where “eating well” means eating good, filling, nourishing food and nothing more.

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There are other things that worry me about the clean eating movement, one of these being the way it is marketed. As stated in the article, “clean eating is itself a wildly profitable commercial enterprise, promoted using photogenic young bloggers on a multi-billion-dollar tech platform” and “#Eatclean made healthy eating seem like something ‘expensive, exclusive and difficult to achieve’.” Our social media feeds are already bogged down with hot blondes getting married on sail boats. Do we have to subject our eating habits to these unattainable ideals, too?

Of course, “clean eating” also has its benefits. After all, it generally totes a higher consumption of fruits and vegetables and whole (unprocessed) foods. The article states it best: “Some would argue that, in developed nations where most people eat shockingly poor diets, low in greens and high in sugar, this new union of health and food has done a modicum of good.”

As someone who has studied both nutrition and psychology, the popularity of the clean eating movement doesn't surprise me. Nor does it strike me as being one hundred percent “good” or “bad.” In my opinion, any dietary trend that promotes the consumption of whole (unprocessed) foods, a higher intake of fruits and vegetables, fibre, calcium, and lean protein is definitely on the right track! However, as a general food lover and current resident of France (a country that loves its food), I also disdain the idea of a diet that vilifies cheese for its fat content, bread for its carbohydrates or gluten, or sweet potatoes or fruit for their sugar.****

****Sweet potatoes are chock-full of beta-carotene, which our bodies convert to vitamin A, and there is nothing that could make me give up the delicious (vitamin C-rich) French strawberries that I got at the local farmer’s market this spring. As for cheese, enjoy in moderation! Consumption of dairy products has been shown to be associated with the prevention of weight gain in some studies.

Gariguettes – a super-sweet strawberry variety available in France

Gariguettes – a super-sweet strawberry variety available in France

To sum up, I see nothing intrinsically wrong with “eating clean,” as long as it compels you to eat a nourishing, well-balanced diet. Next time you use the #eatclean hashtag, I encourage you to think about what it means to you. As for me, if I were cool enough to use hashtags, I'd be more likely to use #eatwell. It focuses less on perfection, highlights the joys of eating, and means something different to everyone. To me, "eating well" means eating whole (not processed or prepackaged), nutrient-dense food whenever possible, feeling nourished and satisfied after a meal, and importantly, not beating myself up on days when my meals did not hit the mark. Finally, eating well means that I’m going to return home no longer fearing white bread – unless it’s the Wonderbread kind.

What does clean eating mean to you? What would your ideal "eat__" hashtag be? Feel free to share in the comments!

Bisous,
Samantha

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This post is an opinion piece. All quotes were taken from the article “Why we fell for clean eating.” The Guardian (11 Aug 2017), available at: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/aug/11/why-we-fell-for-clean-eating