The “clean eating” trend continues to increase in popularity, particularly due to social media and the endorsements of bloggers and celebrities. It’s no surprise. The concept is easy to buy into. Its focus is on eliminating processed food from your diet and eating more “real” food. Due to how saturated the market is with processed foods (and how often we choose processed foods), I think we could all stand to eat a fresh apple with some peanut butter instead of a bag of chips for our afternoon snack.
The “clean eating” diet, however, has become an extremely restrictive process, even ruling out products like “jarred organic pasta sauce and instant oatmeal” (for reference, you can find a more detailed description of the clean eating diet at “The Complete Crash Course on Clean Eating” over at Fitness Magazine). In addition to decreasing the variety in your diet, a writer at HealthyWay claims that the “clean eating” trend has created a food ideology that is centered around “morality, judgment, and restriction” (check out: “How The Clean Eating Fad Is Taking A Toll On Young Women”).
While I won’t address all of the issues the author of the above-mentioned article finds with the “clean eating” trend (despite the importance of every single one), I do want to address the seeming exclusivity of “healthy” food and the dietary restriction this trend has contributed to and how this is related to a similar culture surrounding veganism, organic produce, and buying local. Since one of the core tenets of food sustainability is equal access to healthy food, I feel the need to distinguish between the (sometimes extravagant) creative process of recipe-development and cooking that is prevalent on plant-based bloggers’ social media accounts (including mine) and the reality of sustainable cooking and consumption.
Since starting this blog and posting, for the most part, exclusively plant-based meals, I have often been asked, “Sooo…are you vegetarian or vegan now?” The answer to this question is surprisingly more complicated than a yes or no. Increasingly, my answer has become, “Kind of.” While I usually prefer to maintain a plant-based diet, there are certainly times when I choose to include meat, fish, dairy, and other animal by-products in my meals. This “flexetarian” approach to food is less about a restrictive diet and more about being mindful about food in regards to how much I am contributing to the meat industry, which uses a disproportionate amount of resources for its outputs; where I am getting my food from; and what my body needs to feel good.
The use of certain “special” ingredients, particularly on social media, can also create an unrealistic standard for plant-based cooking. Dietary additives, such as “superfoods” (chia seeds, kale, acai and goji berries, etc.) and foods that are not easily found, such as exotic fruits and vegetables, are not always accessible, particularly financially, to the majority of consumers. This may contribute to a false sense of exclusivity in regards to plant-based diets. There are, in fact, many ways to customize a plant-based diet to fit your budget. “Vegan Lifestyle on a Budget” has a great list of tips for anyone who is looking to get the most bang for their buck, as well as hacks and recommendations.
The article also mentions that organic produce can sometimes be more affordable than regular produce when it is on sale. While purchasing organic produce helps support organic farms that are using farming practices that are better for the environment, it does not make you “unsustainable” if you don’t or can’t always buy organic. That being said, sales can make organic produce and products more comparable to and sometimes cheaper than traditional products, which seems like a win-win situation to me.
Buying locally-produced foods, another sustainable practice that you can engage in, has benefits for your community and the environment. These products, however, can often be more expensive than mainstream brands you can find in the average grocery store. While this can also cause people to be hesitant to identify with local businesses, this is not always the case. Produce at local farmers markets, for example, can be very reasonably priced and fresher than anything you can get in a grocery store.
A healthy culture of sustainable food practices should be more about mindfulness regarding the production, procurement, and consumption of food than the various dietary trends people of influence popularize. Taking care of our bodies and our Earth is not a competition of resources or a showcase of our ability to conform to trends. Rather, it is an informed personal practice that does not need to perfectly match someone else’s efforts. For more information about what sustainable food practices include, stay tuned for my next article “What Is Sustainable Cooking?”