Having spent a few months in the “food world” as it relates to health, I’ve come to realize one consistently widespread fact about food: it makes people passionately crazy. Eating is one of the most personal choices and acts we humans perform, and just about the only thing we do several items a day, every day. So it came as no surprise to me when I read an article last week on XO Jane titled “There’s No Such Thing As ‘Clean’ Food” that prompted hundreds upon hundreds of people, myself included, to feel the need to passionately weigh in with their thoughts and responses. I wanted to share a few of my thoughts on the article, from the perspective of one who “eats clean.”
The clutch of the article centers around the argument that labeling our foods as “clean” automatically implies that the alternative is “dirty,” language which can be considered hurtful and be construed as shaming. The author goes on to state that eating clean can be expensive and doesn’t really do anything to solve the food crisis we currently have going on in our nation, as it relates to factory farming practices, target marketing of fast food companies, and food deserts. The comment section can suck you in if you let it, as there are hundreds of simultaneous passionate arguments going on from both sides.
I wanted to first address the most common of misconceptions that many people have about clean eating.
The notion of clean eating is more than just a diet — it’s a lifestyle. As it relates to food, it basically means eating whole foods as close to their original state as possible. This means cooking a large amount, if not most, of your food from scratch and moving away from boxed and packaged foods. As it relates to ethics, it means sourcing your food locally, when possible, buying in-season produce, and seeking out animal products that were raised in a humane way, free of antibiotics and hormones. It does not mean switching to an only-organic diet, becoming a vegetarian, ditching dairy, cheese, gluten and even bread, or even avoiding lovely, rich foods such as mashed potatoes and gravy. But it does mean making those potatoes and gravy yourself, so that you can control the ingredients. It also doesn’t mean you will go broke eating this way; but to make some changes, some sacrifices will most likely be made. For us, it has meant eating less meat (since it is quite pricey when it’s high-quality, clean meat) and making more things, including all sauces, dressings, and cooking stock from scratch to conserve resources and save money. As the one who does the cooking and manages our finances, the cost difference between eating clean, compared to how we used to eat, is negligible in the end.
When it comes to anything, especially food, people can go to extremes. But if you watch my Instagram feed, you will see that I enjoy plenty of “dirty” things some extremists may never even consider. As with anything, using extremists to represent a movement or group of people is 100% misleading.
So, let’s now address how clean eating can actually help out this messed up food system we have in America.
As a consumer, your most powerful way to demand change is through your grocery dollars. When you put more demand out there for healthier, more sustainable ways to produce and grow food, you are voting with your dollars every time. You are supporting farms and producers of food by seeing the value in what they do by growing food and raising animals humanely and in a sustainable way. With your support, they will continue to thrive and flourish. By eating clean — that is, cooking more foods from scratch — you reduce your carbon footprint by eating foods that require less packaging materials and demand less fuel to get to the grocery store. The average box of produce sold at the corner grocery store is shipped over 2,000 miles before it lands on the shelves, as is the case with many of the apples sold, and was likely picked up to 6 months prior. To keep them from decaying, they are kept in refrigerated rooms pumped with gases and are sprayed with wax to help them look healthy.
Even if you are strapped for resources or don’t have the time to cook everything from scratch, small changes in buying habits can make big differences. If every U.S. citizen ate just one meal a week (any meal) composed of locally raised meats and produce, we would reduce our country’s oil consumption by over 1.1 million barrels of oil a week.
Of course, food deserts exist, and for some Americans struggling just to put food on the table — even if they have the desire to serve broccoli over French fries — they might find the task near impossible. But the simple fact of the matter is, there are many of us across the country that do have access to affordable, healthy, and nutritious food. Change has to start somewhere to eventually be accessible for everyone.
Besides voting with your grocery dollars, you can help support the movement to get nutritious food more widely available, at an affordable price, by considering the following:
- Contact your congressmen and ask them to support a Farm bill to help the farmers of our country. While you’re at it, ask them to do their part to send government subsidiaries to farmers growing a wide array of crops, not just commodity crops being used at feedlots and to make a myriad of processed foods.
- Source out local farmers markets. There are over 8,000 of them across the country, some of them even being held in the winter time. For further resources to help find fresh food in your area, even beyond farmers markets, visit this amazing page via Farm Aid.
- Support movements like Food Day and Food Revolution, which are targeting efforts towards education of families and children for healthier eating practices.
- Start a community garden, where everyone from youth to the elderly can learn and teach about growing food and become less dependent on the neighborhood grocery store. Studies show that when kids take an active role in the growth and prep of their food, they are more likely to make better choices when it comes to food.
- When possible, buy from a local farmer, even if it’s just a head of lettuce or a dozen eggs. To those skeptics who, for example, think driving 15 miles to a local farmers market is wasting more gas than buying from your corner store, consider how far those eggs had to come in the first place. And by buying direct, you put 100% of the profits straight into the hands of the farmer.
- When in doubt, educate yourself. Last month, I shared 10 books that will have you rethinking your food choices. None of them are from a clean eating perspective, but rather discuss how our food choices do make an impact, and most offer realistic solutions to our food problems in America.
- Silly as it sounds, following just a couple of sane, moderate clean eating foodies on social media can teach you a thing or two, and perhaps even inspire. Here are 10 I enjoy, from a pig farmer to a woman recovering from cancer, I find a good mix of balanced inspiration.
I try to share my journey not from a sense of boastfulness or superiority, but with great humility, as I am learning and still have so much to learn. But I have been able to make some solid changes for myself and my family, and I do take pride in that. But more than anything, I want to show that you can feed your family well and within your means if you set your mind to it. It is not always easy, and it’s definitely not always free of some tantrums and questionable looks. But we’re making headway, and I feel good about it.
So, what about the whole idea of the language of clean eating being harmful?
On the surface, it’s a stretch that I don’t wholeheartedly buy. It’s the same as saying that when women who breastfeed share their stories and post photos of their nursing sessions, it is hurtful to women who can’t breastfeed. But I will agree that some people can be judgmental and approach food choices from a ridiculously superior point of view. I still like to tell the story of the time a friend refused my peas because they weren’t organic. Being judged never feels good, and it’s never okay when it comes to such a personal thing as food. And people can, in fact, send the wrong message when their approach is just the least bit off. In particular, the whole Maria Kang photo controversy comes to mind. The author of the article suggests that instead of calling our food clean, we say, “I’m eating organic, local produce and it’s awesome.” While that does sounds great and all, it would be one helluva long hashtag. Perhaps something simple, like #eatreal (eat real) would be a good alternative?
Or how about instead of taking offense at the choices other people make and how they label those choices, we just focus on our own stuff? Because that’s what’s really most important in the end. Instead of spending time arguing in chat rooms, we use that time to learn how to make a simple, healthy meal? Or volunteer to bring a needy family something good and nutritious? Or plant a small garden, even just some herbs, in one of those balcony container things? Or 10,000 other more positive things, instead of focusing on how someone else can bring us down? In the end, I’m not completely opposed to a name other than “clean eating,” especially if it will get more people to be open to the idea — because at the end of the day, eating clean, healthy, local, nutritiously, or whatever you want to call it, in a way that’s right for you and your family, is really all that matters.
Alert me if you do come up with a different name. As long as it doesn’t create too long of a hashtag, I’ll be on board. In the meantime though, I’ll be busy cooking up something clean, er, something real.
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