How Clean Eating Can Be Demoralizing to Many Low-Income …

Though “clean eating” can help kick-start healthy eating habits, it can be deeply demoralizing for those who live in food deserts. One dietitian shares her experience with this trend.

As a dietitian, I’ve been hearing the term “clean eating” for quite some time. It’s a phrase used all over the nutrition and wellness world.At its root, clean eating is meant to help an individual remove “impurities” from their foods, such as dyes and additives, while focusing on eating more “whole foods,” or foods in their natural form. Clean eating demands that meals are cooked entirely from scratch, using only organic and unprocessed foods.Usually, a client will bring this concept up to me as a way to detox or restart their diet, or even lose weight. And though this phrase might help my clients rethink their health and spur them on the track to a healthier lifestyle, it also has the potential to be deeply demoralizing.Particularly for my clients who live in food deserts.

What is a food desert?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source defines a food desert as an area that lacks the accessibility to foods that allow for a wide range diet, like:

  • affordable fruits
  • vegetables
  • whole grains
  • dairy

People in these areas live more than a mile away from a supermarket and have little access to transportation.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports more than 23 million Americans — including 6.5 million children — live in food deserts across the country. HHS estimates that in 2008, over 49 million people had limited access to adequate food and experienced food insecurity.

Since the 1990s, there’s been a known link between poverty and food availability. A 2014 report in John Hopkins Magazine notes, however, that when looking at communities with similar poverty rates, African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods often have fewer supermarkets and more corner stores that lack fresh food options.

Society’s pressure to eat ‘clean’ can leave these individuals feeling defeated

For those who live in food deserts, figuring out how to feed their family can be a stressful task. The concept of “clean eating” simply adds to this tension. And much of the stress associated with clean eating stems from media and bloggers who push these “perfectly clean” lifestyles.

Often, this narrative is paired with words which put a moral value on certain food items. For instance, organic is “healthy,” processed is “bad.”

While pushing the concept of eating “clean” and moralizing certain foods might be intended to inspire rather than discourage, it often leaves my clients feeling defeated and guilty for not being able to afford this type of lifestyle.

Stress from clean eating can mean forgoing certain nutrients

As mentioned before, the pressure to eat “clean,” “organic,” or “whole” can cause tremendous stress. It can also result in restrictions of certain foods — often those that provide us with the most nutrients.

For people who live in food deserts without access to organic or fresh produce, there’s often a dilemma: Either eat nonorganic, frozen or canned fruits and veggies, or opt out entirely.

Often, they skip produce as a result of the pressure that these aren’t “clean” options.

Skipping fruits and vegetables, however, leads to missing out on the essential nutrients found in fruits and veggies. But the reality is that the importance of these vitamins and minerals far surpasses that of any need for food to be “clean” or “organic.”


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