With this particular myth, there is quite a lot to unpack. First and foremost, we need to answer the question; what does 'eating clean’ actually mean? It’s a good question, and there doesn’t seem to be a single, uniform answer to this question.
For some people, it means eliminating all ‘processed’ foods, for others it’s about eating all organic produce, and for some it’s about avoiding certain foods for ethical reasons… the foods being eliminated may vary somewhat, but there’s a common list of ‘unclean’ foods that seems to be pretty consistent for most ‘clean eating’ diets. Whatever the reasoning, and the exact application, of eating clean, what is consistent is the idea of restriction. Certain foods are off limits, and this dietary approach can be characterised as much by what you can’t eat as what you can eat.
The claim is that eating ‘clean’ leads to better overall health, that processed foods are inherently ‘bad’ for us (thus the ‘unclean’ labelling) and that ‘natural’ food is good while ‘synthetic’ food is bad. But do any of these claims stand up to the scrutiny? Unfortunately not. The studies which have so far been carried out have failed to consistently connect organic foods (animal or plant sources) with better health. While the organic vs conventional is complex, there is currently no evidence that suggests that organic food is inherently superior, and the regulations regarding what can be called ‘organic’ are not as stringent as you might think.
We still recommend a mostly whole foods diet, but not a restrictive one. Some ‘clean’ diets can actually lead to a lack of certain micronutrients, due to their overly restrictive nature, and not allowing you to eat certain foods. Our problem with ‘clean eating’ comes down to a few key points.
First of all, it moralises food - telling us that some foods are ‘good’ and some foods are ‘bad’. In our opinion, all this serves to do is create an unhealthy relationship with food - encouraging negative emotions such as guilt and regret for eating certain things. There is nothing wrong with eating any processed (or whole food), and whether these foods are positively or negatively impacting your health is always context dependant. We should all be trying to follow a mostly whole foods diet, but occasional processed foods, or treats are not going to have a negative impact on your health whatsoever.
The other problem is that clean eating diets often end up restricting highly nutritious foods. Many would restrict carbohydrates such as pasta, white rice and white potatoes (for being too refined or ‘starchy’). However, all three of these foods are incredibly nutritious, healthful carbohydrate sources, and could be a part of any healthy diet. Clean eating, in recent years, has become representative of extremely low-carb diets, and often demonise carbs.
So, long story short, eating clean will not necessarily improve your health. Considering no-one can even agree on what ‘eating clean’ specifically means, how could we even quantify this even if it were the case? Stick to a mostly whole foods diet, but eat whatever processed foods you want on occasion. And most importantly, do not restrict or eliminate specific foods or food groups (unless you have allergies), as this will serve you absolutely no benefit.