The problem with clean eating is that it inspires dichotomous thinking patterns. Dichotomous thinking patterns are also known as black and white thinking, which narrows and limits the broader truth of our realities. Use of the phrase, ‘clean eating,’ is a direct set up to judge foods into categories of good and bad. You are either eating clean, or you are eating dirty. There is no in between. If we need less of anything in this world, it is less judgments and dichotomous thinking. What we need more of is a more balanced, flexible and forgiving relationship to the foods we eat.
Let’s start by defining what ‘clean’ eating is. Generally speaking, clean eating can be defined as eating a diet that is mostly whole foods, that is, less processed foods, including, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and lean meats. Foods that are processed or packaged are generally not considered clean. Fast foods, pizza, burgers, fries, cookies, etc., are also likely not considered clean, unless they are made with gluten free flour… but that is another blog post altogether!
As a dietitian, my background and training is all about endorsing ‘clean foods’ – eating a wide variety of whole foods that can support health and well being. It is not the foods I take issue with, but rather the judgment that this concept ‘clean’ implies. When you think of the word clean, the brain naturally will begin to think of its opposite, that is, dirty. We get into dichotomous thinking when the use of clean is associated with eating. And this is problematic because if someone does not eat clean foods, the set up will be to judge themselves negatively which in turn leaves them feeling demoralized. On the other hand, for some, eating clean foods can be a way to feel virtuous with eating or to elevate ones sense of moral superiority.
We need to separate out morality from our food choices. I joke with clients, that if they eat a brownie and feel guilty that this is an inappropriate emotion to associate that behavior with. If you however steal the brownie from the corner store, then feeling guilty would be an appropriate emotion for that behavior. The good/bad judgments that clean eating promotes diminishes ones sense of self worth. Obviously, this is a distorted translation that does more harm than is warranted.
Our diet-obsessed culture is an incubator for creating countless food moralizations that serve to remove people from the wisdom of their bodies. If someone falls off the wagon of clean eating, and eats a brownie, or two, they may have a hard time sensing the subtle feedback from their body. Instead of noticing how full they are beginning to feel, they may instead silence the guilty feeling by eating another brownie. Judgments of foods into good and bad categories are one of many factors that drive overeating behaviors. Your relationship to food, that is, your thoughts and feelings and judgments about the food you are eating have a powerful effect on whether you will be able to eat that food in harmony (eating the right amount), or disharmony (overeating). If your mind is overwhelmed with judgments it will mask your ability to hear the wisdom of your body. The wisdom of the body is what we need to listen to and trust, not the judgments from our minds.
It can be further argued that feeling guilty after eating ‘dirty’ foods, can and does harm the body especially if this is a chronic pattern. It has been shown that feelings of guilt and shame have harmful effects on our physiology. These feelings create tension, anxiety and depression in our bodies, which in turn increases the production of stress hormones, which negatively impacts health, by increasing inflammation as well as elevating other markers that impact health. In contrast, positive emotional states have been shown to have a protective effect on our immune system. Your thoughts and feeling do make an impact on your physical health. Without a doubt, good nutrition can indeed protect against the development of some diseases, but good nutrition is not nearly as effective to this end if our relationship to food is chronically negative and full of stressful judgments. Take inventory of how you talk to yourself when you are eating that brownie or that slice of cheese pizza. Pay attention to how your self-talk affects your moods, your digestion, and your connection to your body. Just begin to notice what is going on right now in your body.
When there are no negative judgments associated with food and eating, our attention can now be spent towards noticing how the food tastes, noticing how it feels in the body, and noticing how much food it takes to feel satisfied. In other words, it is much easier to eat intuitively when one is out of judgment mind.
To practice intuitive eating requires one to stop judging foods as good/bad, clean/dirty, and instead focus this attention inward, towards cultivating a more forgiving and flexible relationship to food.