Oct 16 2017

Clean Eating Antiscience

Eating “clean” is the latest fad diet pseudoscience. A recent article in The Guardian goes over the many aspects of this movement in great detail, and is worth a read. My only complaint is that the author, Bee Wilson, buys into misinformation about the medical profession and nutrition.

Wilson claims that the medical profession was unhelpful when it came to nutrition. I disagree – the medical profession was at the forefront of nutritional research and advice. The problem was that the science-based answers were not what everyone wanted to hear.

There are many aspects to the clean-eating movement, which Wilson does do an excellent job discussing. It is mostly marketing, a way for self-proclaimed “gurus” to make millions selling cookbooks, diet plans, and detox programs with outrageous claims that it will transform you health and cure whatever ails you.

The movement is also partly a reaction to the realities of modern Western culture. There is an obesity epidemic in our culture, and while the exact causes are debated it seems clear that the food industry is partly to blame. Market forces also favor tasty food, which tends to be calorie dense, and supersized portions.

Clean eating is also partly an eating disorder – orthorexia. Obsession with restricting dietary choices and avoiding “bad” food can rise to the level of an actual disorder and be harmful to health.

At its core the clean eating movement is part of the more general phenomenon of  antiscience. There has always been a conflict between academics and genuine experts, and marketing and popular culture. The two don’t always play well together (not to suggest equivalency).

Experts have a problem effectively communicating their findings to the public, engaging in the marketplace, and dealing with the fringe. There is also a tendency to overestimate one’s confidence and underestimate (or at least undersell) uncertainty. This creates a problem of public perception, which is exacerbated by orders of magnitude by the media. They tend to overhype, focus on fringe elements as if they are experts, and gloss over complexity to give a series of ultimately conflicting and simplistic answers. The public is left with a distorted and negative view of “experts,” which the experts do an inadequate job of fixing.

Meanwhile the marketplace finds experts to be an annoyance and obstacle. They are something to be exploited, to the extent that they can, but failing that they cling annoyingly to facts and reality when marketing sometimes requires something else.

The net result is our modern world. There are millions and sometimes billions of dollars to be made selling falsehoods. That money becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop, whereby it funds spreading the very falsehoods on which it depends. This means, often by necessity, attacking and diminishing any experts who might correct the record.

The media just loves the controversy, and so will elevate gurus, fake experts, and outliers to the level of the sober consensus of scientific opinion in order to attract more eyes. And of course, this has all been exacerbated by social media and the era of “fake news.” Now anyone can hang up a virtual shingle with little up-front cost, and compete on an even playing field with venerable institutions.

That is why I found it ironic that Wilson fell for the notion that mainstream medicine and scientists missed the whole nutrition thing. That is just revisionist propaganda promoted by gurus who are marketing themselves against the experts. The propaganda has embedded itself so deeply in the culture that even an otherwise deeply probing piece missed it.

The standard nutritional advice based on current scientific evidence is exactly what health care providers give. That advice, like science itself, is sometimes difficult. If you are an overweight diabetic, you will be counseled on how to have a diabetic diet and the benefits of calorie control and weight loss. Heart patients are counseled on the current evidence for a heart-healthy diet.

Go to any mainstream health website – it is full of science-based nutritional advice. However, this advice may seem unsatisfying to a public that has already been promised health nirvana just by following this one simple trick.

There are actually several manifestations of the clean-eating marketing con. One is the “simple trick” gambit. Avoid this one food, eat this one thing, follow this simple rule and that you will achieve whatever health goal you have. That is tabloid clean-eating.

However, clean eating also rises in some cases to the level of a religious movement. At that level clean eating is about spiritual and physical purity, it is about being “whole,” “natural,” and “pure”. Eating clean requires dedication and sacrifice, and if it doesn’t work for you then you weren’t fanatical or strong enough. You lacked faith.

At the extreme there is the promise that a hardcore pure existence will allow you to live “forever” (or at least a long time). It maintains itself through heavy doses of guilt and shame. It is judgmental and superior.  That is pretty much like every religion. It is not a coincidence, in my opinion, that many religions contain eating restrictions as part of their code.

Of course for mainstream marketing you don’t want to call your clean eating fanaticism a religion, so it is marketed as a “lifestyle.” There are even lifestyle brands (like Goop) based on clean eating and natural living.

And like many religions, when their articles of faith conflict with science, they have to go full anti-science. They need to delegitimize experts and even the very concept of expertise. They elevate their priesthood as the sole purveyors of “Truth.”

Meanwhile, for most people, the scientific answer to healthy eating is not complex. Eat more vegetables. Eat a varied diet. Exercise regularly. Adjust your caloric intake to achieve a healthy weight. If you do that you are 90% of the way there. The rest are details, most of which will be taken care of if you eat a varied diet and plenty of vegetables.



14 responses so far

14 thoughts on “Clean Eating Antiscience”

  1. NotAMarsupial says:

    Steve, should we refer to orthorexia as an eating disorder despite it not being in the DSM? I’m conflicted. I think it is important to have a term for related symptoms that negatively impact a person, but at the same time when we refer to it as an eating disorder the assumption is there that it is diagnosed in the same manner as anorexia and bulemia.

  2. The term hasn’t been around long enough to be in the DSM. At this point it is a proposed disorder. However, there are people who meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder who use “clean eating” as their rationale. This is not new, people with anorexia justifying their disordered eating with faddish diet restrictions.

    So, in the end it may not be a distinct disorder, just something that some people with anorexia have gravitated to. But in the final analysis this is a distinction without a difference, for the reasons I outline above.

  3. Pete A says:

    Dr. Novella wrote: “Market forces also favor tasty food, which tends to be calorie dense, and supersized portions.”

    I’m wondering in which locales the “calorie dense, and supersized portions” part of that applies because I’ve found the opposite to generally apply within my rural area of England.

    I have to be vigilant as to the calorific content of my food because I suffer from anorexia [noun]: lack or loss of appetite for food (as a medical condition). The ready meals available in my supermarkets, and the servings in my fast food outlets, are totally geared towards those who are struggling to lose weight — everything is low fat, low sugar, low salt, and low every damn thing else that could possibly alarm either the obese or the worried well!

  4. roadfood says:

    The Guardian article says, of clean eating, “it has been more absolutist in its claims and more popular in its reach than any previous school of modern nutrition advice.” Is that last part true? Is it really more popular than *any* previous nutrition advice or fad diet?

  5. Pete A says:


    Within the UK, the distinction between a dietitian and a nutritionist has be succinctly summarised by Dara Ó Briain: “dietitian” is a protected title, they need to be educated to a high level, while anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist”. You have to meet certain, fairly stringent, criteria to call yourself a dentist or dietitian; anyone, though, can call themselves a toothiologist or a nutritionist.

  6. delta-orion says:

    Pete A–

    Or, as a hospital dietitian I once worked with said, “If you want to insult a dietitian, call her a nutritionist.”

    (Of course, I live in Quebec where, if I’m not mistaken, both titles are protected, but that’s not common AFAIK.)

  7. skep4life says:

    #Pete A

    Wouldn’t it be teethologist?

    I fear Dr. Novella overcompensates for his lack of nutrition and fitness discipline by sometimes unfairly attacking them.

    But Cara does it too!

    That’s different: she’s railing against Hollywood.

    I used to be a personal trainer and I knew very serious Iron Man triathletes. When I was researching the effects of acai I asked one if he ever took it as a nutritional component in his recovery regimen.

    He said always and that it was extremely common for many if not most of the triathletes to consume it for recovery.

    The theory was that extreme exercise causes tons of inflammation and to reduce that inflammation to speed and aid recovery athletes should consume foods high in antioxidants.

    This theory was not proven yet almost all of these extreme athletes were eating acai.

    To do more research I read a book called The Peregrine Promise. He was obviously a huckster and had a bit of the acai market cornered but I could still separate that aspect from the theory of the high antioxidants in acai being good for recovery; and evaluate the evidence to make my own determination.

    The book had a lot of good nutritional information if you could mentally weed out the sales pitches and occasional hyperbole.

    But the nutritional profile of acai was unique – containing some carbs, protein, unsaturated fat and very high in antioxidants.

    It really was a perfect recovery food. It still is.

    Yet you have on more than one occasion bashed the fruit as a pure marketing scam. It’s not.

    Perhaps acai has not been studied scientifically yet and when it is we can all laud its findings, but until then the anecdotal findings are good enough for me to incorporate it into my diet as a recovery food.

    When people go to the gym or track or nightclub they ask the fittest people what they do and eat, and so don’t take this the wrong way but I doubt many people are listening to your advice on nutrition and fitness.

    The one issue I have is that the way you present your view of them is rather defeatist. It’s as if there isn’t much we can do and it’s all hype and nonsense. I could see how some people could cozy up to your view and use it to negatively reinforce their helplessness.

  8. CKava says:


    Applying the same reasoning, I guess you should also advocate the widespread use of energy bracelets as demonstrating that they have some unknown efficacy that clinical trials will eventually prove. Sure, some folks oversell the benefits and there aren’t any compelling studies, but if so many athletes use them there must be something to it.

    Or maybe not….

    Your account does not read like someone who has undertook a dispassionate assessment and found the evidence to be compelling but rather like someone who collected anecdotes and then sought out accounts from advocates, and ended up becoming personally invested in acai being a ‘perfect recovery food’. I’d counter that the evidence to date strongly suggests that acai is not some superfood but rather that it is a normal fruit, whose benefits are being oversold as part of a popular health fad.

    That shouldn’t prevent anyone from recommending/consuming it as part of making healthier lifestyle changes but doing so doesn’t require endorsing the claims about it being some unique super food. Your suggestion that acai’s nutritional profile is especially ‘unique’ seems to rely on fairly shaky assumptions e.g. assuming that being ‘very high in oxidants’ translates into being healthy, which suggests that if you are a ‘skep4life’ then this topic is one of your sacred cows.

  9. sarah_theviper says:

    From what I have seen at work they definitely have education for people about diet. Although there are oddballs out there too. My aunt’s husband is a pathologist. Back in the 90’s he was recommending an all meat diet, no fruit, and this heavy whipping cream mixed with diet coke drink for weight loss. He is also a nutjob in other areas, he totally bought into the Mayan calendar end of the world thing, and continues to believe they were just a few years off. Dad has speculated that the other doctors must hate him.

  10. Scifanatic says:

    I see little here but blanket assertions, and they do nothing to persuade me of your argument. I agree that if we want true experts we ought to avoid the likes of the Food Babe, but the frank truth is that the average person, if he wants to eat healthily, will do no worse following her than he will his family doctor. If I want real experts, I will find those with the body and health I want. And I will do what they do. Eating more vegetables and exercising more were enough for me for many years. Then my wife began eating “clean.” I encouraged it, because though I was skeptical, it was clearly an improvement over her former diet. Following the path of least resistance, I ate what she ate. There was no denying the result. My body became leaner and stronger, shedding those few pounds of fat I’ve never been able to rid myself of before.

    The gurus may be disingenuous. They may be con artists. They may base their assertions on ridiculous notions. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. This clean eating is good for this man’s body.

    My qualifications? I’m 54, and I an a lifelong student of science and philosophy. I can recognize nonsense and self-serving rhetoric better than the average man. I sense some of both here.

  11. Robney says:

    I think ‘clean eating’ is too vague a term to either be for or against.

    If clean eating is defined as a general avoidance of overly processed sugary fatty foods, and the focus on a varied diet of veggies, lean meats, oily fish and nuts then its a fairly health approach to nutrition.

    Yeah, its true that processed sugary fatty food is not inherently bad, superfoods are mostly marketing, and natural foods are not necessarily healthy (coconut oil), but clean eating, as a general principle or rule of thumb, has some merit to it I think.

    And ‘clean eating’ as I understand it, is actually fairly consistent with scientific evidence regarding nutrition.

    Diet and nutrition is an area where I think sometimes practitioners sometimes have the edge on research science. For example, scientific evidence often does not support the training methods used by elite bodybuilders and strength athletes (due to a range of methodological deficiencies).

  12. CKava says:

    Who would have though improving your diet could make you feel better/lose weight? This is truly a revolutionary insight offered by clean eating. Next, we will be hearing that people who increase their exercise and decrease their caloric intake consistently lose weight! Perish the thought…

  13. BillyJoe7 says:


    “My qualifications? I’m 54, and I an a lifelong student of science and philosophy. I can recognize nonsense and self-serving rhetoric better than the average man. I sense some of both here”

    So can I – right there in your comment – starting off with an anecdote as if were evidence, interrupted with a failed attempt at self-aggrandisement, and ending with in earned hubris.

  14. Robert Christ says:

    I just follow the guidelines set out by whomever made the food pyramid, eat two meals a day at the same time every day and when I get those (controllable because I’m not eating junk food) cravings I tell myself that is my diet working. And that gives me the willpower to stay the course. My bmi is 23, I’ve been as high as 28, I’m 58 years old and pretty sedentary, not by choice, so I must be doing something right and I didn’t need any diet book, meal plan, or help from a life coach to do it.

    It takes effort, something most people don’t want to put forth. So they buy into these diet fads which are like get rich books. You are going to loose all the weight you want and you won’t have to break a sweat doing it. Just buy our book or expensive meal plans.

    And I do hear from people who buy into adkins that they were somehow misled by public health officials because butter and sour cream and coconut oil and cheese are good for you. And you can’t have a banana cause the glycemic index is too high but it’s ok to cheat every night and have a 7-up with your cocktail. Or eat a turkey pot pie that is loaded with refined flour, or put ketchup on your sweet potato fries.

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