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Clean Eating - The Dirty Truth: 'A movement that seeks to demonise food groups'

Clean eating was a well-intentioned trend but it’s anti-evidence based and it’s far better to eat a normal, balanced diet, writes Ciara Wright.

Image: Shutterstock/Stokkete

DR GILES YEO took a scientific look at clean eating in the BBC2 Horizon programme Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth recently. What was revealed was lots of good intentions but a lack of scientific grounding.

So when did clean eating go bad? The term was originally coined to describe eating foods in their most natural state, that is reducing processed foods and eating more vegetables (a lot more vegetables), whole grains, pulses, nuts, seeds, fish and some unprocessed meat.

It sounds a lot like the Mediterranean diet, or the Mediterranean diet as it would have been 30 years ago at least. I ate this way before it became a thing, maybe the only time I have been ahead of a trend in my life. It sounded perfectly logical to me and I never knew it needed a title, but then that’s why I’m not trendy.

The Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet is the most researched diet in the world and has been consistently proven to have numerous health benefits, including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. We have also all been told that we should eat our “five-a-day”.

Eating five or more fruit and especially vegetables per day has been shown to reduce all-cause mortality (death from any cause) by over 30%.

The Irish National Adult Nutrition Survey (2011) identified that less than 10% of Irish adults get their five-a-day. One slice of tomato on your burger does not mean one portion of veg. One tomato, one carrot or one apple is a portion, and you need to eat at least five, every day.

Where did we go wrong?

shutterstock_549740155 Source: Shutterstock/Foxys Forest Manufacture

When did clean eating go bad? Am I now part of a movement that seeks to demonise food groups or indeed anyone who ever eats cake?

The lines of “clean eating” have become blurred. Instead of just eating natural whole foods, lots of beautiful people on Instagram are now telling us to go gluten-free, dairy-free, grain-free or vegan.

How do we know which, if any, of these more stringent routes is best for us? Did going gluten-free make these people beautiful and if so, will that work for the rest of us? In defence of the purveyors of delicious healthy recipes, they each have their own story about how changing their eating habits has significantly improved how they feel.

The gluten myth

Some people do feel better when they remove wheat or gluten from their diet. However, this does not mean that they are coeliac or sensitive to gluten. It could simply mean that they are eating too many processed foods that happen to be based on wheat.

If you feel a certain food is causing you a problem, you can in most cases, safely remove it from your diet for 3 weeks and see if it makes any difference. It is of course scientifically proven that the placebo effect may make you feel better regardless.

If you do eliminate a food group, it is worth re-introducing the foods, perhaps on several occasions, to check if you really are reacting to them. A recent trial was carried out on a group of people who claimed to be sensitive to gluten. The experiment introduced sprinkles of gluten to their foods in a “blinded” fashion, that is the participants did not know whether they were receiving gluten or not. Very few of the participants reported any reaction.

Nourish yourself

If you do remove a food group from your diet on a long-term basis, it is important that you ensure you are getting sufficient nutrients elsewhere. Excluding wheat does not mean it is okay to include highly processed gluten-free bread as an alternative. In any case, that is not “clean eating”.

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If you cut out dairy, you will want to ensure you are getting enough calcium from other sources. A high number of vegans we test in our clinic are deficient in iron, omega-3 and vitamin B12.

To go “clean” or not?

If you want to clean up your diet by reducing processed foods and replacing them with pulses and vegetables, I am quite sure your body will thank you for it. We advocate the 80:20 rule. If you eat healthily 80% of the time, you can still break out sometimes. There will always be Christmas and there will always be cake.

If you want to turn to Instagram or celebrity nutritionists for inspiration, you will find lots of delicious recipes and ideas. We only recommend a sense check at this point.

Nutrition is a fascinating science and there is so much good food can do for your health – how could anyone possibly argue any other way? Season any grandiose claims with a good pinch of salt and avoid anyone that uses the term “miracle”.

Ciara Wright PhD Dip NT, is director and a senior nutritionist at Glenville Nutrition Ireland

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