Eat “clean.” Eat “natural” and “whole” foods. It’s a pervasive idea in Health and Fitness ™ that many regard as intuitive common sense. But if you ask someone what it means exactly, they’ll give a nebulous answer that’s different from everyone else’s – no dairy, paleo, vegan, ethical, nothing in bags or containers, organic, non gmo, no chemicals, not processed, kosher or otherwise religiously pure. And on and on.
The clean eating concept has absolutely zero scientific veracity because it literally cannot be scientifically tested. Science requires a theory or hypothesis, which by formal definition are statements or ideas that are falsifiable. “Saturated fat intake causes heart disease” is a statement that can be decisively shown to be true or false. “Clean and natural foods increase health” or perhaps the logically inverse “dirty foods are detrimental” are not theories or hypotheses because there’s no decidedly exact definition of what a “clean” or “dirty” is. Furthermore what does it actually mean to increase or decrease health? All the more vague.
A corollary issue: the naturalistic fallacy
Natural is better and good; unnatural is worse and bad. Put these statements into the formal logic gauntlet and they are quickly shown to be fallacious and outright absurd. Give a person with a lethal tree nut allergy a big mac or a handful of organic almonds, which is better? Put a person in a room with harvested natural arsenic gas or manufactured atmospheric gas, which is better? Many “natural” things are dangerous enough to instantly kill you, and many “unnatural” things will keep you alive. I think the guy who ate the almonds would like an epinephrine pen now.
As it turns out the word “natural” does have an explicit dictionary definition. Per Google:
adjective: existing in or caused by nature; not made or caused by humankind.
Biting a mouthful and chewing it is certainly caused by a human. If you really want to be semantically technical it is literally impossible for anything we eat to be natural. Cooking or slicing something in half is “processing” food all the same.
The dirtiest weight loss in history
Enter the McDonalds and Twinkie men. The former lost 56 pounds eating nothing but McDonalds for six months straight, and the latter lost 27 pounds in ten months eating nothing but hostess and a few other gas station stacks. How could this be if eating clean or natural foods is required to lose weight? A fitness freak might knee-jerk respond with something to the effect of “yea but his insides are probably terrible.” Yet per the former article “his total cholesterol dropped from 249 to 190, including a 25 percent decrease in his LDL or ‘bad cholesterol.’ Despite concerns that he was eating too much salt, [he] said his sodium levels and blood pressure are normal. Sorry Morgan Sperlock, he probably didn’t supersize any of his meals.
On our recent inundation with miraculous “super-foods”
Now enter Marion Nestle, a renowned professor, food scientist, and author with no relation to the chocolate company. As part of writing one of her books, Unsavory Truth, she collected 168 studies over a year of the “does [insert “super food] prevent [insert horrible disease or condition]?” format. The result? 93% confirmed the hypothesis, while only the remaining 7% found there to be no significant measurable benefit of some kind. Imagine picking 168 foods at random and testing if they burned fat, prevented cancer, or increased IQ? How many of them would indeed turn out to be super-foods? Maybe a quarter? Half if we’re being optimistic? But 93%? A little suspicious, especially when you consider how this research is funded and organized by the companies that sell the the foods in question. You can read an interview with Nestle about this here, it’s pretty interesting.
All those chemicals
A quick refresher for those who’ve forgotten their high school chemistry class: everything in the universe is made up of chemicals, which are simply various combinations of atoms. Some can be harmful, others like water and oxygen gas are vital for all life on earth. A chemical structure is exactly the same, and will behave exactly the same, regardless of whether it was synthesized in nature or a laboratory. Condemning a chemical for being “unnatural” makes about as much sense as calling an iPhone inferior for being bought from Walmart rather than Best Buy.
Inorganic pesticides and GMOs
This is worthy of it’s own long blog post, at least, but we’ll summarize the basic points that are pertinent here:
Despite at least hundreds of studies spanning many decades being conducted, there’s still no found evidence that organic foods are healthier than their counterparts in any specific way. The same goes for GMOs.
It’s virtually impossible to find a truly organic and non genetically modified item in the modern food supply anyhow. Organic farming still uses pesticides and other unnatural means of cultivation. Crops have been genetically modified for at least hundreds of years since farmers started seed selecting and cross breeding plants, which genetically changes them is the same fundamental way as does in a modern laboratory.
Pro-science food production has and will continue to combat major issues such as climate change, food insecurity, and malnutrition. For those interested in further reading, this article covers the subject comprehensively.
The insidious demon that’s entered the room: orthorexia
Orthorexia is an obsession of the supposed cleanliness or purity of food to a degree that results in an eating disorder. Though not an official medical diagnosis, yet, the National Eating Disorder Association now recognizes orthorexia as a condition in and of itself or as a manifestation of general obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Eating disorders are the second deadliest mental health condition in the United States, surpassed only by opioid addiction. Many more lives of eating disorder victims and their family and friends get ruined. Women are about three times more vulnerable to eating disorders than men. When you consider all the health foods that are obviously marketed towards women it shows how Health and Fitness ™ predates upon womens’ psychological vulnerabilities and is arguably complicit in resultant death or serious injury. The same predation upon men is just as serious of course.
The moralization of food
Ascribing morality to food is an interesting phenomenon that’s occurred in part because of everything we’ve discussed herein. Not only are people reprimanding themselves for doing something wrong when they eat a certain food, people have also developed superiority complexes for eating “ethically.” Guilt tripping yourself for having committed dietary crime or sin is baseless and not psychologically healthy at all.
The pertinent takeaway
Any increase in dietary rigidity and restriction will make it harder to stick to, so if it’s imposed it better be for a good reason that’s worthwhile. And what I’ve hopefully shown is that there is simply no justifiable reason to restrict yourself to foods that ostensibly conform to some idea of “cleanliness” or “naturalness,” neither of which can actually be explicitly defined to begin with. It is absolutely possible to achieve and maintain a healthy physique while enjoying some treats in moderation.