Food & Fitness After 50: What is Clean Eating?

A funny meme circulated among my dietitian friends. The first woman says, “I can’t eat that, I’m trying to eat clean.” The second woman (probably a dietitian) replies, “It’s banana bread, Susan, not heroin.”

clean eatingIt’s funny and sad at the same time. Many people limit delicious, healthful foods (banana bread) because they don’t fit into what they consider “clean” eating. Some people rely on the front-of-pack “free-from” claims to judge if a food is worthy…. free from sugar, white flour, gluten, additives, colors, GMOs, and on and on.  Which leads us to the concept of clean eating. Most dietitians don’t like the term because the opposite of clean is dirty and no one wants to say they are eating “dirty.”  Saying you eat clean implies a certain moral superiority to the rest us who are microwaving a frozen meal.

But it doesn’t matter if I like it or not, the term clean eating is here to stay. I counted over 70 books for sale on Amazon with “clean eating” in the title.

At a recent conference, I learned from Kris Sollid, a registered dietitian and senior director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council, that clean eating was the the number 1 diet trend in 2019. Some people think clean eating is diet of whole, unprocessed foods. Some people are OK with processed foods if they don’t contain artificial coloring or flavors with hard to pronounce ingredients. Other think foods labeled organic tick the clean eating box, while some ascribe a vegan diet as the only way to eat clean.

2019 Diet Trend for CR

But, when it gets down to the definition of clean eating, it depends on who you ask. “The bottom line is that while the definition isn’t clear, ‘clean’ is often used as a proxy for ‘healthy’” adds Sollid.

Hand-in-hand with clean eating is a trend in the food industry to develop “clean” labels. Many food manufacturers are reformulating products to limit the number of ingredients to satisfy consumer demand.  In many cases this is a good thing; finding ways to reduce salt by using fewer sodium-based ingredients or lowering sugar by finding the sweet spot of less sugar without changing taste are all good moves. But, when a product simply replaces sugar from sugar beets with “pure cane sugar” and makes you think it is healthier, well, sugar is sugar and just because the word “pure” is front of cane sugar it doesn’t make it a healthy ingredient.

So, instead of focusing on eating clean, let’s just focus on healthy eating. Some ways to do that are:

  • Focus on the positives in a food, not the negatives. Choose foods with nutrients that you need, like vitamins, minerals and fiber instead of focusing on sugar or fat content. Sugar and fat are important but take a wider view when choosing foods. For example, as we age, we still need bone building nutrients: calcium, vitamin D, vitamin K, and magnesium. Look for foods with those nutrients and keep in mind that not all dairy foods or plant-based alternatives to dairy contain vitamin D.
  • Ignore the buzz words like “all natural,” “real ingredients,” or “minimally processed.” They don’t mean anything.
  • Recognize the value of processed foods, like frozen berries, canned tomatoes, or ready to eat breakfast cereal. These foods provide big nutrition for little money. Amy Cohn, a registered dietitian with General Mills reminds us that cereal is the number 1 source of whole grains, fiber, B-vitamins, iron and zinc for all Americans at breakfast. And, when paired with milk, the “average bowl of a Big G cereal is about fifty cents.”
  • Don’t be afraid of words you can’t pronounce on list of food ingredients: pyridoxine hydrochloride may sound strange, but it just the chemical name for vitamin B6.

For more tips on healthy eating, check out Food & Fitness After 50, available at Amazon and other booksellers.

Disclosure: I attended a sponsored conference where both Kris Sollid and Amy Cohn spoke, but I was not asked to or compensated to write this post.