18 November 2018Last updated

Healthy body

The dirty truth about ‘clean eating’

We talk to an expert about the problems with this ‘healthy’ eating movement and why ice cream for breakfast isn’t such a terrible idea…

23 Jan 2017 | 03:43 pm

With the new way of eating healthy coming under scrutiny recently, we asked Dubai-based digestion, hormone and physio/rehab expert Keith Littlewood for his thoughts on the trend:

Nutrition is much like religion in some ways. There are many beliefs, awash with dogma, which some people will defend to their death on social media platforms.

Clean eating, much like being good or bad, or eating good or bad, poses many problems from the start. The connotations of guilt-free eating has doomed you before the food even passes your lips. Suggesting that there are foods that have the capacity to make us feel guilty, or ‘bad’, is a recipe for disaster. Eating clean can then, in some cases, become a badge of honour. Eating clean, being good, right or wrong... how about just focus on being, rather than judging food (or yourself) all the time? But this approach really highlights the lack of understanding of biological processes.


Which food is clean?

Let’s suppose the definition of clean eating is ‘consuming a diet of unprocessed foods that are close to their natural state, while avoiding refined foods, which are not as good’. Sounds great, right? There’s no doubt that eating a certain amount of fresh fruit and vegetables is beneficial for human health. However, problems start to occur when we try to consume foods in their rawest, greenest (or brownest) states – usually at the expense of eating good energy-producing foods, such as fruits, syrups, honey and even sugar. (Yes, I said sugar.)

If we were to assume a food was clean when it’s in its most natural state we would be overlooking some crucial factors. First is that unless you ate a purely organic diet (and even organic comes at a chemical cost), food is sprayed with dozens of pesticides, exposed to environmental pollutants and is hardly what you would call clean. Some compounds in vegetables act like toxins and, while eating vegetables is good for you, people can get sick from eating too many vegetables, just like people can get sick from eating too much sugar or drinking too much water.

Second, the chemicals found in many fruits and vegetables actually exert their protective effects (in some cases) as they contain compounds that are toxic and challenge the body by a process called hormesis. Brassica vegetables, which include broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages and sprouts, contain some of the most potent hormone disrupters, second to environmental pollutants.

Diets high in nuts, grains and seeds pose similar problems – they are hard to digest so can cause issues with energy levels. A common problem is that we often get wrapped up in the science of nutrition...we read that a food has been tested in a laboratory and has been found to contain a certain compound (a vitamin, for example) and we can get hung up on this fact. But that doesn’t mean our bodies will be able to access that compound when digesting the food, or that it is ‘good’ for us.

Photos by shutterstock

Sugar Fearmongers

People often cite the unfounded claims about sugar being toxic, addictive, causing diabetes and even causing cancer. However there is no research to confirm these statements. Yes excessive eating is a problem – overconsumption of anything can create problems. But what research suggests is that sugar consumption has gone down, but obesity is still increasing. Could it be that other factors like environmental stimulus, pollution, disconnection from society and foods high in unsaturated fatty acids contribute to diabetes and obesity instead? There is certainly data to suggest so.

It’s easier to convince people to have a soy or nut-milk drink than to make them understand that sugar in the right amounts is actually beneficial for better energy and mood. Yet some apparently ‘clean’ foods (like the vegetables mentioned earlier) can have a negative effect on health when eaten regularly.

The confused messages behind inaccurate sugar-fear statements also confuse people about a low-carbohydrate diet. It’s surprising how many people I hear who are scared to eat fruit because of the sugar (we can call these people ‘carbophobes’). It should come as no surprise that these are the people who come to health practitioners with complaints of having less energy, having cold hands and feet, poor digestion and bad sleep due to their lowered metabolism and compromised hormone function.

When folks don’t eat ‘clean’, they often feel that they are letting themselves down, which can develop into the phenomenon known as orthorexia (the paradoxical eating disorder that is driven by the quest to eat healthy). The problem for many is that they have gone from one end of the spectrum to another. Feeling different, or even feeling better, after changing the way you eat is inevitable – particularly if you have over eaten, or eaten fast foods for long periods of time. Eating clean may lead to people under-eating, particularly when people are into excercise and fitness, or into dieting – both of whom commonly present with energy and hormone problems.

Understanding which foods create good biological function is a much better aim rather than aiming to be ‘clean’ or ‘good’. Good energy, good bowel function and good sleep should be the goal – not feeling cold, irritable, tired and constipated.

Unfortunately, many people (men and women) are more concerned about weight loss than they are about actual health issues, such as lack of energy, sleep, emotional balance, libido and fertility. The body may put weight loss at the back of the queue until it achieves better physiological function and trying to force weight loss can be a recipe for disaster from a metabolic standpoint.

Keith says that the ‘clean eating’ trend has meant that some great, healthy foods have had a bad rap. Here are three ‘unclean’ breakfasts that are actually good for you:

1. Stewed apples with vanilla ice cream


2. Hot chocolate with a marshmallow


3. Orange juice jelly


Keith Littlewood is a health and wellness practitioner specialising in digestion, hormones, pain management and physio/rehab. If you have issues with nutrition, energy levels, sleep, or pain, email him at