Is ‘clean eating’ just dirty rhetoric?

Summary: The fad of clean eating diets may increase the risk of eating disorders. Additionally, researchers report those who practise ‘clean eating’ often feel morally superior to those who don’t.

Source: Dickinson College

New research published today in the Journal of Eating Disorders finds “clean eating” is perceived as overwhelmingly positive by young people, but those optimistic impressions of “clean diets” may signal a risk for eating disorders. Scientists are also calling for additional research to better understand the nature of the “clean eating” diet fad.

Suman Ambwani, a noted scholar in the field of disordered eating and associate professor of psychology at Dickinson College, and a team of researchers asked nearly 150 college students to define “clean eating.” The students also were asked to read five vignettes featuring different “clean” diets and rate whether they thought the diets were “healthy,” reflected “clean eating” and whether they might try them out. The subjects’ responses varied but overwhelmingly favored “clean eating,” even if the so-called “clean” diets caused problems in work, social and emotional functioning.

“It is concerning that our respondents had positive attitudes toward extreme ‘clean eating’ diets that cause distress and disruption,” said Ambwani. “We know dieting can create an increased risk for developing eating disorders, so we need to better understand how ostensibly healthy diets may devolve into disordered eating.”

This shows veggies on a plate
Trendy, “clean eating” diets are often highlighted on social and popular media, typically by nonexpert celebrities, but there is no scientific consensus around what constitutes “clean eating.” The image is in the public domain.

Definitions of “clean eating” typically include elements such as eating local, “real,” organic, plant-based, home-cooked foods, but frequently also tout more extreme strategies, like eliminating gluten, grains or dairy. Trendy, “clean eating” diets are often highlighted on social and popular media, typically by nonexpert celebrities, but there is no scientific consensus around what constitutes “clean eating.”

The study’s results “highlight the need to train consumers to better distinguish between trustworthy and fraudulent sources of information on nutrition and health behaviors,” said Ambwani. “‘Clean eating’ also appears to bestow an element of moral superiority,” she noted. “It can also signify status and is importantly linked with health-related attitudes and behaviors.”

About this neuroscience research article

Dickinson College
Media Contacts:
Christine Baksi – Dickinson College
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Is #cleaneating a healthy or harmful dietary strategy? Perceptions of clean eating and associations with disordered eating among young adults”. Suman Ambwani, Meghan Shippe, Ziting Gao and S. Bryn Austin.
Journal of Eating Disorder. doi:10.1186/s40337-019-0246-2


Is #cleaneating a healthy or harmful dietary strategy? Perceptions of clean eating and associations with disordered eating among young adults

Although “clean eating” is widely propagated through social media and anecdotal reports in the popular press, there is almost no scientific research on this potentially risky dietary strategy. The current investigation explored definitions and perceptions of “clean eating” and its associations with indicators of disordered eating among diverse U.S.-based undergraduates.

Undergraduates (N = 148, Mage = 19.41 years, 70.3% women) were asked to define “clean eating” via an open-ended question and then read vignettes featuring five “clean” diets, all of which caused mild functional impairment across multiple domains. Participants rated the extent to which they believed the diet was 1) “healthy,” 2) reflective of “clean eating,” and 3) likely to be adopted by them. Finally, participants completed questionnaires to assess body appearance evaluation, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, eating disorder symptoms, and symptoms of orthorexia nervosa.

Open-ended responses indicated that participants defined “clean eating” in varied but overwhelmingly positive terms. Repeated measures ANOVAs indicated that the “meal substitution” vignette was perceived as the least healthy, least “clean,” and least likely to be adopted, whereas the “new” (balanced) diet vignette was rated the highest on these domains. Correlations among diet perceptions and indicators of disordered eating were positive and significant.

“Clean eating” is likely a heterogeneous phenomenon that is viewed favorably by U.S.-based college students even when it is linked with functional impairment and emotional distress. Ongoing examination of “clean eating” could clarify the potential benefits and risks posed by this dietary strategy and thus inform eating disorder prevention efforts.

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  1. People should be celebrated for leaving junk foods behind. Developing a ‘new normal’ of eating nutrient deficient, monocropped junk -that does not provide people with the nutrients which so many people, even in developed countries are lacking- is counterproductive.

    This kind of research wreaks of industry sponsorship. Junk food is a massive problem in the world, not only is it bad for the environment to farm, but it’s low in nutrients and the body must use its valuable sources of micronutrients just to assimilate it. It’s driving obesity and related diseases which is placing huge burden on the health services and shortening lives.

    Here’s my definition: eat 2 or 3 meals per day, base them around the most nutrient dense foods on the planet (animal produce) locally farmed – regeneratively where possible, organic & freerange where not- add seasonal and local veg produce, eat fruit in season. Eliminate omega 6 veg oils, additional sugars and refined carbohydrates.

    That diet is not only appropriate for Humans but supports your community and reduces carbon output via reduced transport/ logistics.

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