Laura was previously the editorial assistant on Healthy Food Guide. She is now a freelance journalist specialising in health, wellbeing, food & travel.

Clean eating is the diet du jour, but a recent backlash has thrown its premise into question


What is ‘clean eating’?

While there’s no official definition, clean eating is the ultimate exercise in free-from: free of refined sugar, gluten, grains or entire food groups such as dairy, or food that has been kept as close to its natural state as possible.

What’s so bad about clean eating?

Clean eating has fast become a dirty phrase. The backlash is now becoming so great that the influential bloggers who encouraged its principles are even starting to distance themselves from it.

‘Removing entire food groups from the diet is unnecessary, unless you have a medically diagnosed intolerance or allergy, and not advisable as this can result in nutrient deficiencies,’ explains Dr Stacey Lockyer, a nutrition scientist from the British Nutrition Foundation. A good point, so why is it so popular?

Clean eating claims

Take your pick: that it detoxes you, that you’ll lose weight, that you’ll restore your body’s pH (note: crazy pseudoscience), that you’ll stop farting if you don’t eat gluten, that it’s ‘bad’ or ‘dirty’ to want to enjoy a meaty burger once in a while with your mates. Add to that it’s almost 100% promoted by aesthetically-pleasing unqualified advocates and you’ve got a recipe for a runaway bandwagon of people following unsubstantiated health claims to the letter.

‘Variety is important for a healthy, balanced diet,’ says Stacey. ‘A diet that is very restrictive can lead to nutrient deficiencies, for example if all grain foods are avoided this makes it difficult to get enough fibre, dairy foods are an important source of calcium and iodine in the UK diet.’ What we eat needs to be in line with the Eatwell Guide, not what a blogger with a book deal says works for them and their nutritional therapist friends.

Backed by science: the UK Eatwell Guide
Backed by science: the UK Eatwell Guide


What should we be doing instead?

‘A healthy balanced diet containing lots of variety should be based on the Eatwell Guide, the UK’s healthy eating model.’ This, says Stacey, ensures you’re getting all the nutrients you need for good health and to reduce your risk of developing chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

Here’s some of the more sane advice we can all enjoy:

Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. It’s never a bad thing to add more to your diet. In fact, Stacey says most of us aren’t getting our daily quota right now. But remember: you don’t need to exist only on fruit and veg.

Eat wholegrains. ‘Choosing wholegrain or high fibre versions of starchy carbohydrates is a positive as many of us aren’t eating enough and we should be basing our meals on these foods,’ says Stacey. We need 30g a day. Pass the brown rice…

Reduce/limit processed foods. They often contain high amounts of saturates, sugar and salt, which evidence shows increases our risk of disease. But you’re not an awful person if you have a croissant for Sunday brunch.

Cook your meals from scratch. Because not only is it enjoyable, it’s cheaper and easier to achieve a healthy, balanced diet.

Clean eating pitfalls to avoid

Taking advice from an unqualified source. If you want robust dietary guidance based on scientific evidence, search Freelance Dietitians or the Association for Nutrition.

Going gluten-free unless medically advised. (See above)

Going dairy-free unless medically advised. (See above)

Cutting out. It might as well be called the scissor diet – it cuts out so many important food groups! See the Eatwell Guide.

Overuse of unrefined sugars. They’re not ‘healthier’. Unrefined sugar is still sugar. ‘Honey, syrups and nectars such as agave and date syrup are classed as ‘free sugars’ (the same as table sugar and fruit juice), which is the type of sugar that needs to be reduced in our diets in order to meet government dietary recommendations,’ says Stacey.

Coconut oil.Coconut oil is very high in saturated fat and evidence shows that regularly including coconut oil in the diet raises blood cholesterol when compared to using unsaturated oils such as olive and rapeseed oil. Therefore, if liked coconut oil should only be used occasionally and in small amounts,’ says Stacey.

Promotes disordered eating. Never, ever a good thing.