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Are You a Clean Eater?

Are you eating clean?

Twenty-eight. That's how many times people asked me about clean eating last week. I hear the phrase used in news reports, read it online and now there's even a magazine called "Clean Eating" that's dedicated to the concept. It seems to be everywhere I turn. But clean eating isn't helping people eat healthier.

Clean foods are generally classified as unprocessed, often organic, low calorie and fresh. Dirty foods are ones that have gone through more steps to prepare them for eating, they may be frozen, higher in calories and use artificial sweeteners or flavorings. The problem is, artificially dividing foods into "clean" and "dirty" categories doesn't help people make better decisions. Here's an example.

If I tried to serve my lasagna to someone who's eating clean, they would reject it because it's considered a dirty food. There would be no discussion of how that lasagna is made or the ingredients that went into it. But that's a mistake.

When I make my crock-pot lasagna, I use whole-wheat noodles, spinach, onions, mushrooms, no salt added tomato paste and sauces, part-skim ricotta cheese and olive oil. Individually each of those items are considered clean choices. But put them together into a 400 calorie meat-free meal and call it lasagna? Suddenly those foods cross over to the dirty side.

Here's a link to my crock-pot lasagna recipe!

Clean eating advocates tend to judge food based on their beliefs, not the nutritional facts.

In some people, the goal to eat clean has turned into a full-fledged disorder. Doctor Steven Bratman coined the term "orthorexia" to describe people who have an "unhealthy obsession with eating healthy food." According to Dr. Bratman the word comes from, "the Greek 'ortho,' which means 'right,' or 'correct,' and is intended as a parallel with anorexia nervosa."

People with orthorexia are happy when they make what they believe are "good" food choices, but tend to beat themselves up when they stray. It often starts with a diet that limits certain foods, but as the obsession progresses, more and more foods are put on the "bad" list and eliminated from the diet. Eventually, only a small selection of "good" foods remain. For people at this stage, eating nothing is preferable to a small serving of "bad" foods, no matter what the supposedly bad foods are composed of.

As a fitness professional, the last thing you would expect me to complain about is someone who's trying to eat healthy. The problem isn't the intent, it's the result. Declaring that all pizza is bad, means you can't eat one with a whole wheat crust that's loaded with vegetables. Faced with a constant barrage of "bad" choices, eventually the dieter gets frustrated and slips. Too often that single slip turns into a full-blown binge. Over time, the failure rate of people on highly restrictive diets is over 95%.

The other problem with the concept of clean eating is that it's so subjective. Is food clean because of the way it's cooked, how it's combined or is the source the critical factor? The definition of clean eating changes depending on who you're talking to.

Food isn't the enemy, it's the energy your body needs to function. Eating organic food is good, but so is a small bowl of ice cream. Eating a wide range of foods you enjoy means you won't be tempted to end it all with a binge.

If you're serious about making a healthy change, the best way to start is with a single choice. Pick one small thing you're going to do, and keep doing it for 30 days. It may be something as simple as having breakfast every day, eating meals off smaller plates or exercising twice a week. Pick one small thing and repeat until it becomes a habit. Then pick the next thing.

Consider the wisdom of this old Chinese proverb. "It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward."

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