Athena Answers the Question "What the Heck Does Clean Eating Even Mean?"
In my Master Your Meal Prep coaching group, one of my clients recently asked if I could explain more about eating organic, what processed foods actually are, and what clean eating actually means. 
I was really glad she asked this question because these nutrition related terms and phrases get carelessly thrown around so often that it can be really confusing to navigate all the information that’s out there! 
Today I want to shed some light on the phrase clean eating for all of you. 
To be honest, I can’t freaking stand the saying! 
A while ago, I posted a question on the Achieve with Athena Facebook page and asked people to leave a comment telling me what clean eating meant to them.
Here are all the responses I received:
  • Clean eating = whole foods, focusing on lean meats and plenty of fruits and veggies. No processed foods.
  • To me it means eating what makes my body feel good.
  • I consider clean eating to eliminate processed foods and focus more of protein, produce, healthy dairy, etc.
  • Fresh veggies & fruits, salads, grilled meats instead of fried, low sugar desserts, low sodium options, etc.
  • To me it means eating fresh foods, such as vegetables, fruits, protein, with no preservatives, additives, chemicals, that are close to their natural form.
  • I think of the Paleo diet when I think of clean eating.
  • No white sugar, no processed or packaged food, no white bread, crackers. Etc. Eating Fruits, veggies, whole grains.
  • Meals prepared from scratch. Things in their more natural state.
  • Clean eating? I don’t really recognize that phrase. I suspect it means free of preservatives and processed sugar.
  • To me, clean eating means eating only whole foods that are not processed. This can include meats, fruits, veggies, and certain complex carbs.
  • Avoiding fats, snacks, grease….eating grilled chicken, fish, vegetables, fruits.
  • I think “free from preservatives” when I think of clean eating.
  • I think it means you eat only raw food, almost no meat or fish.
  • As minimally processed, closest to nature as possible. Only ingredients you can pronounce.
  • No convenience foods- everything made from whole foods at home.
  • Organic food… no preservatives and additives.
  • I have no clue what it means to be honest.
  • I usually mean “not processed” or less processed.
  • No junk or fried food.
  • My interpretation is organic food.
  • I think of cutting back on sugar, fewer ingredients as in preservatives, and avoiding fatty foods.
No wonder my meal preppers are confused!! 

The Problems with the Phrase Clean Eating

1. Clean eating is too vague/broad a term to be a basis for nutrition goals. 

Depending on who you ask, clean eating might mean eating whole foods, it might mean eating raw foods, it might mean eating only green foods, who even knows! And I don’t care if you are asking a registered dietician or Joe Shmo on the side of the street, everyone’s definition is going to be different here. 
I have lots of clients who tell me that their main nutrition goal is to “focus on clean eating,” and I always ask them to describe to me what that even means. Half the time, they don’t even know! They just feel like it’s something they should focus on, haha! How can I help someone achieve something that they can’t even explain?
Because clean eating is such a vague term, it needs to be more clearly defined and specific for the individual in order to be an effective nutrition goal. 

2. Clean eating is a phrase that gives moral value to food. 

If I HAD to pick one thing that I personally most closely associate clean eating with, it would actually be foods without chemicals/pesticides. But let’s just call those foods chemical and pesticide free, yes? Let’s not label the non-organic stuff with a term that makes us feel badly about ourselves and think we’re doing something wrong… because if I choose to eat conventional kale one day, the world isn’t going to end. That choice doesn’t make me BAD. 
The problem with phrases like clean eating is that they nudge us into this ridiculous good versus bad food logic. 
I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like whether I’m good or bad should depend on whether I’m eating vegetables or indulging in some chips and store-bought salsa.
If I’m good, it should be because I’m being kind to someone or volunteering for a good cause, and if I’m bad, it should be because I’m being judgmental or rude to someone. Am I right?!
If you are someone who associates clean eating with consuming only fresh foods, then I want you to ask yourself: what’s the opposite of clean eating? What’s dirty eating? Are you dirty for eating a cheeseburger? LOL! 
This logic doesn’t even make any sense, and it’s precisely why the good versus bad food associations have GOT to go.
When we give food this type of moral value, then we allow food to have more power over us, it contributes to an all or nothing mentality, and it keeps us giving in to extremes. Food shouldn’t have any moral value because it’s inanimate. So let’s stop using terms like clean and good and bad, and instead let’s just neutralize food and consider it benign. 

3. Clean eating makes us feel that certain foods are off-limits. 

Finally, because we associate certain foods with “clean eats,” doesn’t that push anything else into this category of not being allowed or off-limits? To me, that’s a restrictive mentality and one I just can’t get on board with. 
Let’s use gnocchi as an example. One of my 1:1 coaching clients texted me last week to help her with making a decision at lunchtime. She had originally packed herself a quinoa salad with chicken and broccoli in it, but the cafeteria at work was serving gnocchi, her favorite. She wanted to know my thoughts on getting the gnocchi and adding her chicken and broccoli to it.
Instead of telling her that the gnocchi was off-limits or that she shouldn’t have it because it wasn’t “clean enough,” I encouraged her to think about WHY she wanted to eat the gnocchi (was she having an actual craving or was she feeling stressed at work), if she thought the gnocchi would be satisfying, if she would feel deprived if she didn’t eat it, and how she would feel after eating it (ie any guilt or shame). 
Her answer was that she wasn’t choosing it for an emotional reason, but just really wanted her favorite food. Since my #AntiPerfectFitness philosophy is that no foods are ever banned (even dirty ones!), I encouraged my client to enjoy the gnocchi, add her homemade protein and veggies for #GoPROeats to make it more satiating, and to stop eating when she was full. She then kept the gnocchi decision in mind for her snacks and meals the rest of the day.
Truthfully, allowing herself to eat that gnocchi at lunch probably prevented her from overeating later that night or that week out of deprivation and restriction.
That’s much healthier and more impactful long-term than sticking to some make-believe clean eating list, don’t you think!?

I really believe that asking yourself “is this food in line with my goals?” or “is this food fueling my body the way I want to fuel it?” instead of asking yourself “is this food good or bad for me?” or “is this food considered clean?” will completely change your mindset about nutrition and get you a lot closer to your physique goals. I really, really do.  
In fact, another one of my clients said to me last week, “you know, every fitness person that I follow on Instagram uses the phrase clean eating. You’re the only one who doesn’t.” In all fairness to her, I used to be all about #CleanEats too… just like aaaallll the others. But using that language just perpetuated notions about food that contributed to my past all or nothing mentality, so I’d rather take this stand against all the extreme mainstream fitness and nutrition messaging out there and spread a much healthier and more sustainable one. 
I hope you’ll consider doing the same. 

Let’s chat! Do you use the term clean eating? What does it mean to you? How do you think your food vocabulary could be hurting you when it comes to your nutrition goals? 

If this post resonated with you, please consider joining my insider Achieve It Crew. Each week I send an email to this VIP group with my best insights, new workouts and recipes, and exclusive content that’s not on the blog. Being a part of this group will also get you advanced notice about new Achieve with Athena program launches and events, as well as special giveaways and discounts! Just add your name and email here… it’s free!