For the second time this fall, the British chef and cookbook author Nigella Lawson has spoken out about the clean eating trend. "People are using certain diets as a way to hide an eating disorder or a great sense of unhappiness and unease with their body," she said earlier this week at JW3 Speaker Series in London. "There is a way in which food is used either to self congratulate—you're a better person because you're eating like that—or to self-persecute, because you'll not allow yourself to eat the foods you want."
In an October interview with the BBC, Lawson said, "I think behind the notion of 'clean eating' is an implication that any other form of eating is dirty or shameful."
RELATED: Subtle Signs of Eating Disorders
Lawson's strong feelings may stem from personal experience. On The Late Late Show last Friday, she explained that watching her own mother suffer from an ultimately fatal eating disorder makes her question health trends and the strive to be skinny. "I think my views are slightly different because I've seen people get very ill and very thin, so I don't equate thinness with healthiness."
RELATED: 4 Easy Clean Eating Recipes
So if you're following a clean eating diet, do you have an eating disorder? Nutrition experts agree you can't jump to that conclusion. Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD and Health's contributing nutrition editor says that proponents of clean eating consider it more of a lifestyle than just a diet: It promotes whole, natural ingredients such as fresh produce, whole grains, natural sugars, and legumes in lieu of refined or processed foods like white flour, white sugar, and fatty meat.
"While I understand [Lawson's] concerns that some people may be using the concept of clean eating as a way to restrict their diet, that's not the primary driver of the clean eating movement," Sass says. "In my experience, clean eating is about wanting to eat foods that are as close to their natural state as possible—knowing where your food comes from, how it was made, and eating in a way that optimizes human health and the health of the planet."
Sass points out that weight loss isn't necessarily the main motivation to eat clean, and that many of her clients adopt the lifestyle in hopes of benefiting from reported side effects such as increased energy, better immunity, digestive health, and improved sleep. "Many of the people I work with who eat clean are very focused on what they do eat rather than what they don't—it's not a restrictive approach to food," she explains. "In fact, they tend to get very excited about embracing new foods and cooking homemade versions of the things they used to buy pre-made, such as salad dressing and granola." Sass adds that many people also choose to eat clean to make it easier to eliminate foods they have sensitivities to, such as gluten or dairy.
Keri Gans, RDN, a New York City-based nutrition consultant and author of The Small Change Diet, agrees. "In a way I understand what Lawson is trying to say, but clean eating is more about staying away from foods with additives and preservatives, which can be a healthy way of eating," she says.
Gans adds that although it's possible for someone to take clean eating to an unhealthy level, it's not common. "Certainly someone could use clean eating as a way to restrict their food intake, and it could potentially segue into an eating disorder," she says. "But that can hardly be a blanket statement." One such disorder is orthorexia, a disordered way of eating that's characterized by an obsession with healthy foods. People who suffer from this disorder often stick to a strict diet and are extremely concerned with how their food is prepared and how much they consume.
The bottom line? "There should never be any guilt associated with eating," says Gans. "Instead, we should focus on just generally making better food decisions—eating more fruits and veggies, whole grains, and healthy fats."
RELATED: When Eating Turns Obsessive