Fighting Words is a column in which writers rub you the wrong way with their unpopular but well-argued opinions on fitness, health, nutrition, what have you. Got something to get off your chest? Send your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I recently attended a lunch held by one of the country's foremost organic companies. The event's host—a yoga teacher who lives in a Connecticut suburb where the streets are jammed with hybrid luxury SUVs and single-source organic almond milk lattes in every cupholder—explained how the brand's holistic world view aligned with her own.
The waiters entered the banquet hall. As they dropped off plates of salmon, risotto, and broccoli, the host announced that this food was 100-percent organic, locally sourced, non-GMO, and free of antibiotics, hormones, and additives. "Enjoy this clean lunch made with real food!" she proclaimed.
I don't buy organic, think the anti-GMO movement is basically BS, and eat a bowl of Lucky Charms with conventional whole milk every night of the week. And for 30 years I've somehow not only survived, but thrived. My docs say my health is stellar—on my diet of what is, apparently, filthy, fake food. Am I a miracle of biology? Not even close.
"Clean eating" is a feel-good diet based around organic, non-GMO, ethically raised foods that are free of unnatural additives. It's a popular method among wealthy yoga moms, Whole Foods hippies, and the occasional fitness fanatic. It offers "fast fat loss that lasts a lifetime," and promises a Gwyneth Paltrow-esque vision of wellness that will "reset" your health.
You also see clean eating on magazine covers and bookshelves—Clean Eating Made Simple, Clean Eats, Clean, and The Eat Clean Diet are all bestsellers. It's the catch phrase of Panera Bread, the $5.1 billion fast-casual brand, who has based their marketing around the idea that "100% of our food is 100% clean." Celebs like Alicia Silverstone and Jessica Alba are on board.
Trouble is, the movement is a wholly classist phenomenon—or, in the words of one of my students who grew up in inner-city Detroit, "Clean eating? That's some rich white people shit." Yet despite a lack of scientific evidence, clean eating is defining the health and weight loss discourse, says Krista Scott-Dixon, a nutritional consultant for Precision Nutrition.
And that's too bad, because if you accept clean eating ideals, you may think you can't afford to eat healthily—organic foods cost about 40 percent more than conventional foods, according to Consumer Reports. "Of course you can't afford to eat healthily—if you're buying $12 bottles of green juice and all organic, non-GMO, clean food," Scott-Dixon says.
Seventy percent of Americans are overweight, and only one in ten eat the recommended amount of produce each day. The poorest states eat even less than that. Adding extra financial and accessibility barriers to entry surely isn't helping the majority, and hits underserved populations especially hard, says Robin Deweese, a food disparities researcher at Arizona State University. "We need to start with access to produce and make it affordable and desirable," she says. "We can't worry about beliefs like clean eating in the communities I work in."
Deweese says she hates the term clean eating. "It's a social status thing. It's more about 'I'm better because I eat clean,'" she says. Adds Scott-Dixon, "'Clean eating' is a preoccupation of people who, in socioeconomic terms, really don't have any real, legitimate worries. It's a first-world problem."
Indeed, labeling some foods as clean frames the rest as dirty, setting up a binary, us-vs-them, self-righteous world view. "It's using food as propaganda. There's a moral component," says Trevor Kashey, a nutrition consultant for Complete Human Performance, who holds a PhD in biochemistry.
When so many people have limited resources, you need to be careful about deeming foods "bad," says John Weidman, deputy executive director of The Food Trust, a nationwide non-profit dedicated to ensuring that disadvantaged communities have access to affordable, nutritious food. "If you're trying to get a kid to eat more bananas," he says, "you don't want kids to think they're eating 'dirty' bananas."
Scott-Dixon agrees: "With the concept of clean eating, there's so many moralistic, judgmental associations." So few people can afford to make every meal 'clean' that it can lead to a skewed relationship with food. "Now every choice you make has this incredible baggage; you can't just make a choice? With clients, the way we see this manifest is that every eating choice becomes this opportunity to be paranoid, anxious, worried, punishing, or critical," she says.
And if you do have the dough to eat 100 percent clean, you hold the moral high ground. "Clean proponents need to realize that not everyone has the resources to go out and buy a grass-fed steak that costs four times as much as the conventional steak, which most research shows is probably nutritionally equivalent," says Anothony D'Orazio, an adjunct professor of biology and nutrition at Ohio State University. "And that doesn't make anyone any less of a person."
Nutrition education programs should be culturally sensitive, Weidman says. "There's no one type of healthy food," he adds. If people want to eat all-organic and GMO-free, his program is happy to help them do that, but at the end of the day, "we just want to help people eat healthier," he says.
There's more than one way to do that. The clean eating movement's big pitch is that its food is healthier and better for weight loss compared to its conventional, "dirty" counterparts. But if you ate the same diet of clean foods instead of dirty ones, no scientific evidence suggests you'd lose any more weight or be any healthier, Kashey says.
"Yes, clean eating will usually result in weight loss. But not for the reasons you think. If you lose weight it's because you stopped eating comfort food and started eating leaves," Kashey says. "That the leaves are organic or non-GMO have nothing to do with your weight loss." The reason: pesticides, GMOs, antibiotics, and chemicals don't impact the energy content of your food, says Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist who researches weight control and obesity at Drexel University.
Regularly eating fewer calories than you burn each day—called a calorie deficit—is the only thing that's been consistently proven to help people lose weight. "At the end of the day, weight loss, gain, or maintenance is calories in, calories out," Lowe says. Years of scientific research agrees. "Claiming something like a non-GMO or organic food will help you lose more weight is like me saying 'what's the alignment of the stars, and which alignment are you born under, and then I'll tell you whether you can lose weight or not,'" Lowe says.
The same goes for health. "Is organic actually healthier? It feels like it should be, but is that scientifically correct? It's hard to say," Scott-Dixon says. After scrutinizing 240 studies on the topic, scientists at Stanford University failed to find any evidence linking organic food to better health.
Just last month, researchers in the UK also looked at the data and concluded that the jury's still out on the topic. They conceded that organic food does have some slight nutritional differences compared to conventional food—for example, organic milk has slightly more Omega-3s but less iodine, while organic produce tends to have more antioxidants—but those differences haven't been shown to improve health outcomes. "A food having slightly more or less of a vitamin or mineral doesn't necessarily mean it will have a practical impact on our ability to thrive as a species," Kashey says.
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Clean eaters often point to potential health threats posed by the pesticides used in conventional farming. Of course, we don't know everything about the long-term health effects of pesticides—and under Trump's EPA, there are clear risks that still need to be evaluated. But we do know a lot, and pesticides used today go through a rigorous approval process before they can be used in farming. Glyphosate, the most widely used pesticide, has been listed as a probable carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). But after more research, the WHO also added a caveat—reporting that it's unlikely to be harmful in the amounts humans are exposed to. In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency also undertook a massive evaluation of glyphosate's link to cancer and concluded: "The available data at this time do no support a carcinogenic process for glyphosate."
Meanwhile, after years of research, GMOs are agreed to not only be safe, but in many cases also more nutritious than their non-GMO counterparts, D'Orazio says. Not only has no one ever died from eating a GMO, but GMO crops are in fact a tool that can help save many of the 3.1-million children who die of malnutrition each year.
Sciencey-sounding food additives—another clean eating no-no—are carefully regulated, and many improve the safety and nutritional value of food. The fearmongering around them plays into what philosophers call "the naturalistic fallacy," a belief that anything natural is more morally righteous. "Guess what, death is natural, typhoons are natural, the plague is natural. The three most deadly chemical compounds—botulinum toxin a, tetanus toxin a, and diphtheria toxin—are all natural," Kashey says. "When did we get this idea that nature is so great? Nature isn't good. Nature isn't bad. Nature just is."
There are, of course, plenty of valid reasons for supporting clean foods—ranging from concern over the treatment of animals to supporting local farmers. But those concerns have nothing to do with health and weight loss, clean eating's big sales pitch.
Those beliefs can even lead to what researchers call the "health halo" effect, a phenomenon wherein people believe that because clean foods may be better for the environment or workers, they're also healthier and better for weight loss. That was the conclusion of scientists at Cornell University who found that people perceived organic foods as having fewer calories and more nutrients than nutritionally-equivalent conventional food. Panera Bread, for example, offers a clean Steak and White Cheddar Panini that has 850 calories, or about the same as a Big Mac and medium fries. People know McDonald's probably isn't a smart choice if your goal is to lose weight, while the "clean" Panera option may not be perceived the same way.
At the end of the day, Dixon says, clean eating is ultimately a made-up rule, like "don't walk on the grass." "Ideally, we want people to shift to an internal locus of control," she says. "That's where you don't have to rely on a made-up list of foods, and instead you're your own scientist who has an awareness of what works for you." That, of course, could include a plate of clean salmon, risotto, and broccoli. But it could also include a bowl of Lucky Charms and discount whole milk.
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Correction (7/17/2017): A previous version of this article stated that 1 in 10 Americans don't eat the recommended amount of produce. In fact, only 1 in 10 Americans do eat the recommended amount.