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Why I Hate The Term "Clean Eating"

Good morning!

Did you catch me on Instagram last night? I met Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky and got their New York Times Best Selling Cookbook, Run Fast Eat Slow. I’ve been scrolling through the book and I’m already SO EXCITED to make tons of their recipes – a sweet potato lasagna, superhero muffins, beet smoothies, berry crumble, teff cookies…so much yumminess ahead. It was also inspiring to hear about their backgrounds and how they came about to write Run Fast, Eat Slow. 

Run Fast Eat Slow


So, today’s post is a little bit different. I’m focusing on the term “clean eating,” and why I pretty much despise those words together.

"clean eating" , why i hate clean eating, pizza

clean eating, nutrition

What is clean eating?

What does “clean” mean anyway? It’s almost like one of those cult words, like IIFYM (if it fits your macros), but still people will have their own definition. Some may say it’s all vegan, or paleo, or no added sugars, or nothing processed. The reality is that there is no such thing. It’s a subjective term.

What I show on Bucket List Tummy is a real representation of my life. Those who know me well know that I have a super sweet tooth, and I will go out of my way to try something new. I eat balanced most of the time, but I also eat ice cream and cookies and cake. I eat plant-based when I want to, but I also eat meat when I’m craving it. And I’ll definitely dig in to french fries, nachos or wings if I’m at a sports bar or watching football.

[Tweet “You can eat french fries, cookies, cake and ice cream and still be healthy. Read why!”]

I go through greek yogurt like it’s my job. I drink beer, wine and I’m a huge craft cocktail lover. To me, eating all of those things is balance and healthy. I don’t know healthy any other way.  I still feel pretty good the majority of the time, yet my diet may not be what some call “clean.”


clean eating, ice cream

The dangers of clean eating

Let me tell you where I can see “clean eating” going. You’re trying your best to eat clean, and avoid any of the “off limits” foods. You do so well for the first few days, but all you can think about are those cookies at home, or the french fries you want to order out at dinner. And then, you finally “give in,” because you can’t stop thinking about them. But when you give in, you go all in, rather than stopping when you’re full. And then you disappoint yourself for not sticking to “clean” foods, and then you decide to try again the following day. This cycle is likely to keep happening because when we tell ourselves that certain foods are off limits, we want them more. It’s totally normal.

"clean eating" , why i hate clean eating, pizza

We have a high standard as RDs. Yes, we are trained in how the body works, how foods are digested, and why certain foods are linked to chronic disease, while others may decrease risk. But, just because we have this education and credential doesn’t mean we are perfect or clean eaters. We’re humans! We struggle with many of the same things as the normal population, with weight changes, body image issues, hormone fluctuations, lack of time to meal plan and cook all our meals, etc. Sometimes I don’t have an answer to client questions because I struggle with some of the same issues.

I want you guys to know that I’m all about being real. Life happens. I eat out. I drink too much wine when I have to be up early sometimes. Sometimes I eat carbs and only carbs for dinner, with no protein to slow my blood sugar spike. Sometimes I snack my way through a meal, or forget my veggies. These things aren’t worth stressing about day to day. Health is not dependent on our daily activities, it’s the snapshot over time. Our overall habits, feelings and choices.

[Tweet “One meal or one day of eating does not determine your health!”]
"clean eating" , why i hate clean eating, pizza

Will some people disagree with my philosophy? Sure!

Nutrition is very controversial and ever evolving. And then there are also self-proclaimed people (without credentials, mind you) selling diet books and drinks and meal plans, with their own opinions. Do I have to put my RD hat on when I talk to clients? Absolutely. Some people just don’t know why they have diabetes, or high blood pressure, or how to eat with PCOS, and that’s what I love talking about and teaching. I’m trained on that.

clean eating, salad

But I’m not trained in eating perfectly, or clean. Just like each person is so different, each practitioner has his/her own style as well. I can’t preach to my clients what I don’t believe. And I don’t believe in clean eating.

We make so many food choices throughout the day that having to analyze and scrutinize each thing entering our bodies is exhausting! Think about how much brain power that takes. It’s much easier to just eat what you’re craving at that moment and nourish your body. Health is so much more than just the food we put into our bodies.

[Tweet “Health is so much more than the food we put into our bodies… Read why!”]

I’m just asking you not to freak out over clean eating, or lack thereof. You are WAY more than that, and so is your health!

Thanks Amanda, for hosting Thinking Out Loud!

No questions today. Would love to hear your thoughts!

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  1. I definitely agree! I like to focus on eating nutritious foods as much as possible because then I find that I don’t crave junk food as much. I still include sweets, processed foods, and alcohol in my diet, but they are not things I want every day I have definitely learned that I feel my best when I eat mostly unprocessed foods with lots of fruits and veggies, and that seems to work well for me. But I think the key is to not be restrictive or it can definitely backfire!

  2. Even though I often find myself using this phrase or instagram hashtag, I completely agree with you in that clean eating diets don’t last forever. Eventually everyone caves, and often that means most people quit and give up on trying to eat healthier. And YES, I am always telling people that health is so much more than eating your fruits and vegetables. I am an elementary PE teacher and I try to teach some of these concepts to my students, but a lot of the parents need an understanding of overall wellness as well!

  3. Great post! The term clean eating bothers me so much! I’m sure I’ve let it slip into my language before, but categorizing foods as “bad” vs “good” and “clean” vs unclean? dirty? is dangerous because then people will brand themselves and judge others based on the consumption of those foods. Nutritious foods are important, but so are foods that taste good – because food is about health but it is also about companionship, pleasure, and celebration.

  4. Great post! Sounds like binge eating to me, which is a tricky road to end up down. I agree that having nothing off limits actually makes life easier and more balanced in the long run.

  5. Preach it! I love this. “Clean” really is subjective. For me, it should be about eating well, which means as many unprocessed foods as possible but also allowing yourself to have your favorite sweets and treats. Restrictive eating is what’ll get ya on that downward spiral.

  6. Oh man, I sooooooo agree with you on the term “clean eating” it makes me so angry. Like, can food be dirty??
    I actually get upset anytime food comes with a good/bad/moral stance. Food is food.

  7. I really loved this post!!! I do follow a healthy diet but love my indulgences like red wine and french fries, and I’m never going to give them up. Being healthy is definitely not only about eating “clean”.

  8. If I think about it, you’re right! I’m not sure if “clean eating” is the best term, though, because what’s the opposite of clean eating- dirty eating? Doesn’t make total sense! I think balanced eating is a better goal for me personally.

  9. YESSSS. You have no idea how much I loved reading this. It is sooooooo SOOO refreshing. I always have felt the same way about clean eating, but I felt like in this day and age, it would be like a crime to vocalize it. Life is alllll about the balance. Gosh I seriously LOVE this post. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one.

  10. If I could love this, I would!! Such a great post and a good reminder for all of us. I hate the term clean eating too. It puts such a pressure on how we eat and when we label ourselves as that, we feel the pressure to maintain that label! Life is too short to be obsessing over how healthy we eat all the time. I’m so thankful to have that balance like you said with eating the less nutritious food- life wouldn’t be the same without all that stuff!

  11. I just kept saying “YES” to myself the whole time I was reading your post. I can 100% relate and you said things so perfectly. It has taken me a while, but I’ve finally gotten to the point where I don’t feel guilty for indulging. The other night out at dinner I was choosing between salmon and veggies and lobster ravioli and it came down to what I really wanted to eat, not what would be “healthy” (which I obviously chose the ravioli–it was DELICIOUS). It has taken a lot of trial and error and figuring out what works best for me, but I’m happy to feel somewhat balanced finally! Excellent post Sarah 🙂

    1. I love that you went for what your body really wanted at that moment – you are right that it takes time, but it’s a great feeling when you understand what you want!

  12. I am seriously in LOVE with this post Sarah! My friends and I were just venting the other day about how much we hate the term “clean eating”. Like what the hell is “clean” food anyways?! A healthy lifestyle and diet is all about balance.. yes, I’m a dietitian. Yes, I love fruits and vegetables. Yes, I love French fries, ice cream, wine and cheese. I don’t have a “perfect” diet and I don’t want to! In my opinion, no one should. Life is about so much more than that. Rant over, thanks for sharing!

    1. I loved your post. I think it’s so important to portray that even dietitians are not perfect because perfect does not exist. We are all similar on so many levels.

  13. When I went vegan, I did it for ethics so I never saw it as a pathway to clean eating. Some people do need that and came to it that way, but that’s not for me. I spent too long beating myself up for eating badly, that going vegan didn’t change the 75-25 approach I take with my diet. I still ate treats, they were just vegan. There is a lot of vegan junk, and a lot of nutritional vegan food, just like the standard American diet.

    1. That’s wonderful that you’ve found what works for you, Ellie. I love the idea of the 75/25 approach, and just letting our bodies decide what we need in the moment.

  14. Thanks for the reminder of BALANCE! I get so caught up in this and get upset when I don’t eat “clean.” Just find it a difficult balance of what I eat and eating so I can perform in my running. Really enjoyed this post! Thanks for keeping it real!:)

    1. Hi Jolene, thanks for reading. What you mentioned is so normal. What has helped me is thinking that I want to choose foods that help me feel and perform well, and sometimes, that’s an extra slice of cake or ice cream if that’s what I want in the moment. If we listen to our bodies, it’s hard to go wrong!

  15. I read your blog and find such inspiration in you because of your balanced, compassionate, fun and all encompassing image of health. I see you as eating the majority of your diet as wonderfully healthy and chalk full of whole food nutrition, but you balance out your cravings and feed your soul with whatever else you think you delicious. I really inspire to you and see you as exactly where I would like to be in regards to my health, nutrition and mindset. This is (one of the reasons) why I follow your blog and find such friendship in you! Also – I wouldn’t trust a dietician that says they only eat “clean” all the time…. that is just not fun, real, or realistic.
    In terms of the term “clean eating,” though – I guess I do use it when I know I’ve had a meal that is 100% whole foods without anything processed. But I by no means use it as a term for my entire diet.

    1. I always look forward to your thoughtful comments, Cora. I truly appreciate your kind words. I think it’s so true that people are less likely to trust RDs if we portray that we eat perfectly all the time. People can’t relate to that because it’s virtually impossible.

  16. Preeeeeach! I’m an eating disorder dietitian AND I work in the fitness world as a group exercise instructor. In both of these realms, I see this term very often and it makes me cringe every time. I recently went out with a fellow group X instructor who is also body builder and she asked me “do you eat ice cream?”…why yes, yes I do, but I prefer it with a side of cake haha!!

    1. I can imagine that you encounter it often in both of those environments. I think the best we can do as RDs is set the example that there’s no such thing as perfect eating!

  17. Great Article !! 🙂 I imagine most of your followers need this reminder and often! Just when I think I’m feeling more balanced w/o orthorexic tendencies, I’ll hear more “news” on some food danger. Really the only danger for a lot of us (who take “clean eating” too far) is listening to them. Thanks again!

  18. I haaaaate the term clean eating!!! This is such a great post… so glad you shared it. I think you and I have very similar styles of eating especially when it comes to trying out a cool new restaurant #foodie

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