What is 'clean eating' and should I be doing it?

Selection of

BHF dietitian Victoria Taylor says:

‘Clean eating’ is a term that has been used a lot over the past year or two. But what it actually means is not very clear. It is used to mean anything from making simple, healthy changes to your existing diet, to adopting a rigid diet that excludes whole food groups.

Everyone seems to broadly agree on the benefits of eating more whole foods, such as fruit and veg, grains and pulses, and fewer processed foods such as cakes, biscuits and ready meals. For most of us, these are positive changes.

However, as with all fads, there are extreme versions of clean eating and these don’t have a sound basis. It’s often recommended that dairy and wheat are excluded from the diet, even for those who have not been diagnosed with an intolerance or allergy. Coconut oil is often promoted, despite being high in saturated fat, which is linked to high cholesterol.

Having flexibility in your diet is important if it's going to be a pattern of eating for the long term

Butter is avoided by some clean eaters, but not by others, while most who eat it suggest it should be organic and grass-fed – attributes that don’t change the fact it is high in saturated fat. There is similar inconsistency over sugar. Although white sugar is definitely not viewed as ‘clean’, honey, maple syrup and juices, which are also sources of free sugars, are usually included and even encouraged by some clean eating gurus. They might help you cut back on sugar, for example in tea or fizzy drinks. But, ultimately, you need to reduce the total sweetness of your diet if you want to readjust your tastes in the long term.

While it’s true that there are some foods we should be eating less of and others we should eat more of, this is a world away from thinking about foods in terms of clean and dirty. Clean eating presents an image of perfection that isn’t realistic.

In real life, some days may be better than others and having flexibility in your diet is important if it’s going to be a pattern of eating for the long term, rather than a continuous cycle of deprivation and guilt.

Victoria Taylor Meet the expert

Victoria Taylor is a registered dietitian with 20 years’ experience. Her work for the NHS focused on weight management and community programmes for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. She leads the BHF's work on nutrition.

More useful information