BuzzFeed unveiled “a two-week detox plan that’s actually realistic” this week, and it made me want to throw a head of broccoli at my computer screen. Not because the menu is unappealing—the pictures and recipes appear delicious, actually. Not because the idea of detoxifying your body via a diet is a scam (although it is). Not because it proscribes caffeine and alcohol and provides 1,300 to 1,600 calories a day (which don’t exactly sound “realistic” to me). No, the thing that drives me crazy is that the plan is called the “BuzzFeed Food Clean Eating Challenge,” and “clean eating” is a meaningless term that does more harm than good to our discourse about food.
To be fair, BuzzFeed is hardly the first publication to use the phrase “clean eating” to sex up a low-calorie, plant-based diet regime. The phrase has been in the lexicon for years. There are a multitude of cookbooks and diet books with the word “clean” in their titles (Clean Food, Clean Eating for Busy Families, Clean Eats, and even Eating Clean for Dummies). There is a monthly magazine called Clean Eating that purportedly “takes you beyond the food you eat, exploring the multitude of health and nutritional benefits that can be yours when you subscribe to a clean lifestyle.” There are clean eating explainers, FAQs, and “core principles.” The buzzword has diffused so thoroughly through the media that it would be surprising if BuzzFeed didn’t use the word “clean” in its two-week diet plan.
Clean eating’s ubiquity is part of the problem: The term has been adopted so widely, by people promoting so many different eating choices, that it has no agreed upon definition. If you’re BuzzFeed, clean eating means “low-carb and gluten-free with an emphasis on lean protein (no red meat) and fresh produce.” If you’re Terry Walters, the author of Clean Food, it means forsaking all animal products. If you’re Prevention magazine, which issues an annual list of the “100 Cleanest Packaged Food Awards,” it means foods that contain less than 10 grams of sugar and less than 200 milligrams of sodium, that come in bisphenol-A-free packaging, and aren’t genetically modified. Most “clean” diets focus on unprocessed, plant-based foods, but “clean eating” can mean pretty much anything you want it to mean.
Which brings us to the most pernicious part of the “clean eating” craze: It implies that anyone who doesn’t eat in the way you deem “clean” is eating “dirty.” As fat-acceptance activist Marianne Kirby astutely put it in xoJane last year, “When you tell someone their food is dirty, even by implication, you shit all over their own body autonomy, issues of class and access, cultural food traditions, their own tastes and needs, and issues of health.”
Even more to the point, as Kirby acknowledges, “clean” eating assigns moral value where none exists (since, contrary to popular belief, dieting does not actually make you a better person). Notions of clean and dirty are inextricably tied up with notions of right and wrong; as Steven Pinker in particular has argued, purity is a universal theme of human moral codes. Progressive people generally agree that describing the complex, deep-seated pleasures of sexuality as “dirty” is both inaccurate and psychologically harmful to impressionable minds. We recoil when religious fundamentalists compare a woman who has had sex with multiple partners to a dirty stick of gum. Why should we be OK with describing food—another one of life’s fundamental, complicated pleasures—in similarly loaded terms?
Calling your latest low-cal, gluten-free diet a “clean eating challenge” gives it a misplaced and emotionally charged moral cast. There are plenty of complicated moral problems surrounding food, among them animal welfare, labor rights, and environmental protection. But none of them can be adequately discussed with oversimplified labels like “clean” and “dirty.”