The clean eating myth – true or false?

Maria’s exercise in clean eating

Maria was a mom in her late twenties who was dedicated to clean eating. She exercised regularly, ate well and looked after her wellbeing and her family. While she had the best intentions, she noticed she was starting to become judgmental towards those that consumed a ‘lesser’ diet. She was always searching for the answer to the perfect body. Growing up during the time of social media, Maria was striving for perfection but never quite got there. She had tried many different diets but none quite got her looking like her ideal. All the supermodels in the magazines seemed to just ‘drop the weight off’ so effortlessly.

“Every time I looked at myself in the mirror there was just that little bit more to come off. That little bit of fat that just wouldn’t go away”.

Maria started posting pictures of herself on social media, her exercise, her meals, it was just what everyone was doing.

When her children were born, Maria started scrutinizing their diet – forbidding all types of added sugar, that “was evil”, stopping any kind of diary, which “was inflammatory” and endlessly saying the word ‘no’. Was her clean eating “way of life” starting to negatively affect her health? Maria is not an isolated case.

Much time, selfies and social media updates have been devoted to preaching clean eating. In the last few years the trend has reached fever pitch. In its extreme, far from encouraging a healthy approach to weight management, the trend has become the acceptable face of eating disorders. Eating clean has become morally right, with those who do not have kale for breakfast lunch and dinner made to feel ‘dirty’. How much science is really behind clean eating? What impact is this really having on our health, physical and mental and the planet as a whole?

We decided to look at the actual science behind some popular diets and weigh the pros and cons.

A real look at the actual science behind popular dietsClick To Tweet

Overview of some of the more popular clean eating trends & the science


The paleo diet is based on the kinds of foods presumed to have been consumed by early humans, or those of the ‘paleo’ period. The Paleo diet consists primarily of meat, fish, vegetables & fruit, excluding diary, cereal or processed products.

The science:

Small scale short term study conducted by researchers at University California found that even short term changes to a Paleo diet had positive impact on blood pressure and glucose tolerance[1] for obese participants. Another small scale study in Sweden, looked so find the effects of Paleo Diet on healthy individuals over a short 3 week period. The 14 individuals showed decrease in weight, decrease in BMI and decrease in waist circumference and blood pressure, however a decrease

in calcium intake was observed[2]. Most studies on the effect of the Paleo Diet on health are generally small scale and require further testing, nevertheless with various positive effects on health observed.

Gluten Free

The gluten free diet encourages elimination of the protein gluten from your diet. Gluten is contained in wheat, barley, rye and a cross between wheat & rye, called triticale. A gluten free diet is primarily used to treat coeliac disease which causes inflammation in the small intestine of people who have coeliac disease[3].

The science

Coeliac disease is a lifelong autoimmune disease. The body reacts to the protein gluten, damaging the lining of the small intestine and leading to pain and bloating. While gluten has been demonized by the rise of the lifestyle blogger, it is important to note that coeliac disease affects roughly 1 in 100 people[4], and therefore the vast majority of us do not need to be concerned about eating gluten free. It is however important to note that about 2/3 of those who have coeliac disease do not know it. Therefore if you are concerned you should see a doctor.

Sugar free

Sugar has become the ultimate baddie amongst the healthy eating crowd. Some are going to the extreme of recommending swapping fruits out of one’s diet to avoid the dreaded sugar monster. I am no proponent of eating refined sugar (although I am partial to the odd Kinder Surprise egg, a habit left from my younger years), however I am a big believer in making fruits an integral part of your diet.

There is no surprise most of us enjoy sweetness. The sweet taste has been nature’s way of telling us what foods are safe to eat.  It is natural. The food industry has taken advantage of this, with refined sugar entering our diet in countless hidden ways. Sweetness has been used to enhance processed foods as a substitute for wholesome ingredients. So, what is the science, should we avoid sugar altogether?

The science

Research published[5] suggests that the consumption of diet high in refined sugar and fat, reduces our mental abilities and neural plasticity. Other studies have found a link between refined sugar consumption and colorectal cancer[6], however research on the consumption of fruits and vegetables has found correlation between higher consumption and lower risk of heart diseases as well as stroke[7]. In short, not all sugars are made equal. Fruits contain non only sweetness but also essential vitamins and minerals which are needed for good health. Therefore, minimise refined sugar, but do eat varied fresh fruits.


Excluding all animal based sources of food, and consuming exclusively plant based foods. The proponents of the vegan diet have long believed it helps to maintain better health, longer life and lower risk of cancer. But what is the science?

The science

The China Study published in 2006, claimed there were strong links between animal protein, cholesterol and so called “rich diseases” – cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes amongst others. The book is loosely based on the Cornell-China-Oxford Project, a study of the diet habits of 6500 people in China and their relationship to cancer. While the China Study ascertains very clear causal links between consumption of animal protein, high cholesterol and various cancers, analysis of the raw data has suggested that the links are not that straight forward. A good summary, for those that are ‘nerd’ minded was done by Denise Minger and can be found on her blog (Warning: LOTS of statistics).

A body of research exists beyond the China Study Book on the effects of the plant based diets on health. An article published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2003 has suggested that not all diets are made equal. In short, a well balanced vegetarian diet containing all nutrients may lead to lower incidences in certain diseases compared to a non vegetarian diet. However the risks for vegans in particular of malnutrition, from a poorly designed diet, may out weight the benefits of cutting out animal products.

As Peter Thiel said:

“We know more about physics and faraway stars than we know about human nutrition.”

The body of science is growing, however still incomplete. Many studies are small in scale and contain natural biases, so most things should be taken with a grain of salt. As ever, a good dose of common sense is healthy.

Focusing on clean eating and over engineering your diet without professional help can create more risks of poor nutrition than opportunities for feeling better.

Zaggora’s 5 easy steps for creating a healthy diet

1/ Try and eat fresh or home cooked food as much as possible – try to avoid processed & prepackaged meals as much as you can

2/ Focus on adding good things and varying your diet. So if you wish to eat less Snickers, focus on adding more apples. Less Burgers – more berries, you get the idea. By adding new and diverse things to your diet you are more likely to cover nutritional requirements.

3/ Try to exercise more – when we are more active we tend to eat better

4/ Enjoy your food – after all what’s the point of being thin and unhappy?

5/ In summary, as re-known writer Michael Pollan said in his NYT essay. “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”. [8]

[1] Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet, LA Frassetto, M Schloetter, M Mietus-Synder, RC Morris, A Sebastian, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Jul 2008
[2] Effects of a short-term intervention with a Paleolithic diet in healthy volunteers, M Osterdahl, T Kocturk, A Koochek, PE Wandell, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2007.
[5] A high fat, refined sugar diet, reduces hippocampal brain-derivedneurothrophic factor, neuroal plasticity and learning; R. Molteni, RJ Barnard, Z Ying, C.K. Roberts, F Gomez-Pimilla
[6] Refined-sugar intake and the risk of colorectal cancer in humans, Carlo La Vecchia, Silvia Franceschi, Ettore Bidoli, Fabio Barbone, Piero Dolara, International Journal Of Cancer, Sept 93.
[7] Fruit and vegetable consumtion and risk of stroke, a meta-analysis of cohort studies, Luc Dauchet MD, Philippe Amouyel Md PhD and Jean  Dallongeville, MD PhD, Journal of Neurology, Oct 2005.
[8] Michael Pollan, Unhappy Meals, New York Times, 2007

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