"Eating clean" is dangerous to your health

Clean eating salad Since becoming vegan last spring, I have found myself immersed in the “clean eating” community. There is a natural tendency, when you are constantly reading labels to figure out if there’s whey hidden in that loaf of bread, to become a little fixated on the contents of your food. I’ve witnessed--and granted, this is all online as I’m not overwhelmed with an abundance of vegan friends--a shift from reasonably avoiding animal products to becoming obsessed with eliminating every potential source of non-vegan ingredients. Sometimes, this obsession morphs into not only following a hyper-strict vegan diet, but avoiding GMOs, non-organic foods, artificial sweeteners, or anything else that can be perceived as impure.

But vegans aren’t the only people who are susceptible to buying into the idea of “eating clean.” And yes, I will continue to use quotation marks around it because I think the term is, well, bullshit.

The creeping realization that the Standard American Diet (SAD) is a major contributor to our problems with obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes means that Americans are becoming increasingly health-conscious. About 1 in 5 Americans are on a diet at any given time, many of whom may be motivated by vanity but certainly some want to become healthier. Americans privileged enough to have the choice have been turning away from convenience foods and choosing “cleaner” options. Even Wal-Mart sells organic items now that many Americans are convinced that GMOs are dangerous to consume (even though scientists believe they’re safe to eat).

This focus on purity is troubling. It’s easy to go from wanting to do what’s best for your body to severely restricting your diet to becoming obsessed with consuming only the “cleanest” foods. The very idea that some foods are “clean” implies that some foods are “unclean”--and we’re not talking about bacterial contamination or visible dirt. This devolution is called orthorexia--an unhealthy fixation on health which can be characterized by an obsessive desire to “eat clean.”

Because orthorexia isn’t an official mental illness, I haven’t been able to find any statistics about the number of people who suffer from it. What I have found is an abundance of examples of people who demonstrate behaviors that are in line with the symptoms of orthorexia. As a woman in her late twenties who is (1) working in public health, (2) vegan, and (3) a trained cook always searching for a great recipe, I stumble upon what looks like orthorexia all the time. Fitness bloggers, oil-free vegan YouTube stars, and fitspiration creators on Tumblr and Pinterest all espouse eating philosophies that focus on finding only the “cleanest” foods.

The obesity crisis exacerbates this issue. Particularly in public health circles, there is an emphasis on encouraging healthy diets and plenty of exercise as a way of curbing Americans’ collective weight gain. In fact, I began my MPH thinking I would become a nutrition and food educator (though my focus has shifted over time). Because obesity-related health conditions are a strain on quality of life and an economic burden, public health has rightfully invested resources in reducing obesity in our population. But the constant messages to “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables” can easily become, in the minds of those who are vulnerable to obsessive thinking, “The only way to eat clean is to only eat fruits and vegetables” or “Oil is evil.”

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be eating more produce. Absolutely, Americans should be. But I believe there’s a need to be sensitive to the diverse way healthy eating messages will be interpreted. The dangerous concept of “eating clean” is rampant and can have negative consequences for anyone concerned with achieving or maintaining health. Public health professionals should keep this in mind.

And if you’d like, I’m happy to make you some vegan chocolate chip cookies with real sugar, white flour, and lots of fat. I may not eat animal products, but that doesn’t mean I "eat clean."

Baby junk food

Because I don’t have children of my own and don’t personally know any babies, I rarely spend time looking at kid-specific food. However, the frozen section of my grocery store shares an aisle with baby food. And that’s where I found this:

Cheese doodles for little kids. Really little kids. Kids who are still learning how to pick things up and shove them in their mouths. This is baby junk food, pure and simple.

I didn’t want to believe parents would actually feed these to their kids, so I checked the source of the most candid reviews I know—Amazon. Turns out mild cheddar isn’t the only flavor. There’s also vegetable dip, ranch, and cinnamon maple, among others. The 88 reviewers love them all. 70% of reviewers gave them five out of five stars. I’ve chosen a few of my favorite remarks:

They are nutritious, and there may be better snacks out there, but for right now these are awesome.

It’s hard to keep him off of these—I have to literally hide the canister to control his intake LOL.

If I would let him, he’d probably eat the whole container! He whines and complains until he gets another one.

I call them baby Cheetos.

In the words of my Yiddish-speaking forbears: Oy vey.

I’m not a dietitian so I can’t make pronouncements about the relative healthiness of these snacks over others. But I did snap a photo of the nutrition label and ingredients list. The nutrient content seems fairly inoffensive, though light on vitamins and minerals. And get a load of that list!

crunchies2

Cheese seasoning is not an important part of your growing child’s diet, that’s for sure. Even those of us without an RD know that.

More troubling to me is that some of the parents who purchased Lil Crunchies chose the snack because it reminded them of Cheetos. Americans consume an alarming amount of junk food, and we have the obesity rates to prove it. In turn, as parents decide what to feed their children, Gerber is there with a can of cheesy snacks formulated just for baby.

I don’t blame parents for choosing this or any other snack food. Parents feed their children the best way they know how. They peruse the aisles, picking out the foods they think will be best for their child, nutritionally or just because it tastes good.

The real problem is that these products exist at all. Gerber’s website shows a seven page list of crackers and dips, cookies, fruit snacks, and freeze-dried yogurt. (To their credit, Gerber includes two lightly processed vegetable snacks called “Veggie Pick-ups” made of carrots and green beans.) These sweet and salty snacks set today’s kids up for a lifetime of choosing the adult versions of these foods. The snacks teach children that they should choose only foods that provide a kick of salt or sugar with every bite.

Illustration by Nathan Kuruna nathankuruna.com

So what should we do? I’m actually hopeful about this. We are working hard to fight obesity by encouraging Americans to make healthy choices. As more people start making changes, they will teach their children good habits. Letting go of the bag of chips takes time, though, and there’s a lot more work to be done. But I’m optimistic that if we continue to invest resources in nutrition education, we will see the benefits for generations.

 

Also, check me out today over at #PubHT talking about organ donation!

New meat names help us eat healthier

When I shop for meat, I look for the leanest cuts. I go armed with a list of options so I’m ready to tackle the daunting selection of cuts, sizes, and shapes. Despite my preparation, I sometimes turn to Google to see if the “London Broil” on sale is the same thing as the “extra lean top round” on my list (it is!). Image from sillypants.net

The confusion is about to come to an end. The National Pork Board and the Beef Checkoff Program is rolling out a new consumer-friendly naming system. Now, instead of “pork loin top loin chop,” labels will read “Porterhouse chop.” Rather than “beef shoulder top blade steak, boneless,” we’ll see “flatiron steak.” Retailers can either stick with the old, confusing system or upgrade to the new one. Because uniform names are anticipated to help with meat sales, this system will likely catch on quickly.

The new labels include the simplified name, species, characteristics, and preparation suggestions. (Image from independentmail.com)

Healthy eating advocates* must seize this opportunity. By simplifying the names, the beef and pork industries help nutrition activists clearly communicate which options are best for health. Unambiguous naming across retailers will allow the very lean pork tenderloin to sport the same label in most stores. The fatty New York Strip steak won’t be masquerading as Boneless Top Loin steak. Once shoppers learn the names of the few best options, they’ll be able to trust their knowledge and feel confident they’re choosing the lean cuts.

As soon as the new list is announced, advocates should publicize the names of the leanest options, lobby grocery stores to include the new names on their meat case signs and update their websites and materials to reflect the changes. If we are able to effectively explain that the new labeling system empowers shoppers to make consistent and confident choices each time they approach the meat case, we’ll go a long way to promote lean meat as a good option. Going one step further and ensuring our messaging lines up with the retail names enriches our materials and dietary recommendations.

Food industries don’t often make healthy eating easier. So let’s use this rare opportunity to facilitate sound nutrition communication and encourage wise choices.

*Though balanced vegetarian diets are the gold standard for healthy eating, consuming a light to moderate amount of meat seems to be a decent compromise for those of us who love a good steak now and then.

Updated 4/15/13: This video of Letterman playing a game called "Know Your Cuts of Meat" will be a whole lot easier now!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hB5W61rGQ38