It’s January, and that means a lot of people are starting new diets and talking about “clean eating”—which involves choosing more unprocessed foods that are close to their original form over-processed foods and artificial ingredients. Unfortunately, with so many clean eating rules out there, it can be hard to figure out what to believe. Like “healthy eating,” the “clean eating” diet means something different depending on who you ask, and there are a lot of interpretations on what “clean eating” really means.
While some of these interpretations are reasonable, there’s also plenty of misinformation floating around. Here are five common clean eating myths that you’ve likely heard—and why you should ignore them.
Myth #1: Oil is bad for you.
Dietary fats are highly controversial in healthy eating, with debates around animal fats, oils, and everything in between among the healthy eating community. While some oils are healthier than others, nutrition experts agree that one of the healthiest oils to cook with and eat is olive oil—as long as it’s extra virgin.
“Oil is tied to many health-promoting benefits, such as increased HDL, (good) cholesterol, [and] reducing blood pressure and risk for stroke,” says Colleen Christensen, RD, and founder of @no.food.rules. Studies show that fatty acids and antioxidants in extra-virgin olive oil provide wide-ranging health benefits, including a reduced risk of heart disease, lowered blood pressure, and reduced inflammation.
“Fat also provides us with feelings of satisfaction and fullness,” says Christensen. So the next time you’re making a salad or roasting some veggies, don’t be afraid to drizzle some oil on for a healthy flavor boost.
Myth #2: You should only shop the perimeter of the grocery store.
Most of us have heard the advice to shop the perimeter of the grocery store and avoid the middle aisles to make healthier choices when shopping—but this isn’t always the case.
“You can find unhealthy foods in the middle aisles but those aisles also have a ton of nutrient-dense foods that are worth purchasing,” says Leah Forristall, RD, LDN. The middle aisles feature countless healthy foods, foods including beans, frozen fruit, nuts, grains, oils, and vegetables.
Around the perimeter, you can usually find fresh meats, eggs and dairy, and fresh produce, but you can also find bottled juice, baked goods, and alcohol. “Don’t limit yourself to only certain sections of the grocery store,” suggests Forristall. Instead, it’s important to take the time to explore the healthy, clean options in each aisle.
Myth #3: Carbs are your enemy.
Inspired by the increasing popularity of the keto diet, many people look to the insulin response triggered after eating carbs as a driver of fat storage.
While there are some types of carbs we should avoid, carbohydrates don’t make us fat. Instead, consuming more calories than we burn throughout the day increases fat storage. “There’s a ton of contradictory evidence around this complex process,” according to John Fawkes, NSCA-certified personal trainer, nutrition-certified nutritional counselor, and editor at The Unwinder.
Eating “good” carbs, including vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, helps with weight loss, body fat reduction, and improved muscle growth. Complex carbohydrates contain essential nutrients and fiber, providing the energy we need throughout the day. On the other hand, “bad” carbs lacking in nutritional value, such as white bread, sugary drinks, and processed foods, can eventually lead to weight gain.
Myth #4: Gluten-free is always healthier.
To eat healthier, many people swap traditional pasta, cookies, and bread with gluten-free alternatives. Gluten-free products can help ease digestive discomfort, nausea, and other symptoms for those with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities. However, for the rest of the population, the presence or absence of gluten is not related to diet quality.
“If someone is eating wheat as part of their diets without any ill effect, choosing a gluten-free product may not be a better choice,” says Lisa High, MSHS, RD LDN, CLT, and founder and CEO at Single Ingredient Groceries. “Some gluten-free products are more processed, higher in sugar, lower in fiber, and lower in protein than their traditional counterparts.” Additionally, in many cases, gluten-free products have a comparable calorie count to their traditional counterparts.
Myth #5: There’s only one formula for a healthy diet.
Many people believe that there’s only one formula for a healthy diet—and it involves strict rules, complicated guidelines, and expensive foods. However, healthy eating is not one-size-fits-all, and practicing clean eating means something different for everyone.
“Diets around the world look different, with many different foods included,” says nutrition professor Jinan Banna, Ph.D., RD. “However, they do have some general characteristics in common, such as an emphasis on plant-based foods,” she adds. Some traditional clean eating rules, like eating more vegetables, for example, are accurate and make sense. Other ideas about clean eating, however, are actually unhealthy. (No, you don’t need to juice cleanse or avoid “bad” foods).
When creating your diet plan, Banna recommends considering variety, moderation, adequacy, and balance. If you fall off the wagon and order takeout for dinner, you don’t need to feel terrible about the way you eat. Ultimately, deciding which clean eating rules to follow is entirely up to you, your dietary preferences, and your nutritional needs.
Clean eating is becoming increasingly popular in mainstream diet culture—but the term “clean eating” can be misleading. Above all else, deciding what clean eating means for you can help you make healthier choices, eat more intuitively, and design the best diet plan for your unique needs.
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