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The other selfie: a single case study experiment on “clean eating”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Different locally grown bean varieties for sale at a New York City greenmarket.

Since I began routinely reading Scientific American comments online and in the magazine’s letters to the editor, I’ve encountered a recurring theme: Readers lament that the celebrated publication isn’t as scientific as it once was in the fifties or the nineties (depending on who is writing). Complaints pile up. Teeth gnash. But no disgruntled reader, to my knowledge, has offered solutions beyond complaints. Since commenters keep their arguments shallow, I don’t give them much credence.

But I chew away at questions.

What would these readers want? A content analysis of every issue available online since 1993? What content would be analyzed? Which words? What does “scientific” mean to them? Should writers perform actual experiments themselves? Would that help?

It might.

When fellow Food Matters writer Patrick Mustain wrote about giving up the marketing diet, he rightly summarized that diet fads and crazes over the single-tropical-fruit-that-cures-all-ailments breeze past deeper concerns: nutrition and fitness. And what is a food blog if it does not address the prevalence of diets in modern society — especially in America? This gave me some ideas.

From a convenience-biased sample, I can rattle off four diets friends and family member have attempted or considered. Each approach boasts into its own massive marketing campaign.

My mother - started on a gluten-free diet after a doctor suggested it might cure her idiopathic intestinal pain. (What does gluten-sensitivity really mean? Julianne Wyrick can answer that question.) My sister – wants to go completely vegan. She read about the plant-based Engine 2 diet and tried some of their branded cereal. “It tasted worse beyond cardboard,” she told me. My cousin – experimented with the green tea diet last year and lost weight. But she coupled her drink regime with serious exercise. (A review published via the Cochrane Library does not look favorably on this type of diet by itself.) My friend – discovered The Fast Diet (aka 5:2) started by two Brits and reported back an instant access to more energy.

Cherry tomatoes for sale at the same greenmarket in NYC

The paleo diet has been covered here and here on Scientific American’s pages. These examples comprise the smallest ice crystal buried on an iceberg tip of 420 million Google results for the word “diet” — and I wager the Japanese parliament got mixed up in some of the pages.

Still, my curiosity is not satiated about the hyper-popular, so-called “clean eating” approach to eating. (“You should try it—your sweat stops smelling!” a yoga instructor told my sister.) This approach seems to focus on achieving overall health, not losing weight. To gather some material, I’ve decided to do what comes naturally to any researcher or scientist: a self-experiment!

For the month of October, I will follow a “clean eating” approach. What does this entail, exactly? Neither Google’s nor PubMed’s search engines seem to know. I could find only one lightweight news summary. Part of this challenge will include researching the origins of clean eating. In the meantime, I’ll carefully record all of my raw data, including food consumed each day, costs and any noticeable changes in energy or otherwise. The good news is I won’t need IRB approval for my experiment. The worrying news (for me) is that in order to make this a worthwhile case study, I should keep sleep, exercise and other factors constant.

Here’s my brief overview of what a clean diet… INCLUDES: - all vegetables and fruit, cooked or raw - all dairy products, including eggs and yogurt - beans, lentils, rice, quinoa, pasta - tea, coffee, hand-squeezed juice - nuts - dark chocolate (85 percent cacao) … please? - olive oil and EXCLUDES: - alcohol of any kind – bread - chips - frozen dinners, prepackaged/boxed meals and canned soups or meals - animal and fish meat – processed food (anything with more than 5 ingredients)

So, who would like to join me to compare notes?

Update: Go on over to the Scientific American MIND guest blog to read about “The fat-fueled brain“!

It's time for the pumpkins!

Photo credits Kathleen Raven


Kathleen Raven About the Author: Kathleen Raven is a writer living in Atlanta, Georgia. She received her MS in Ecology with a focus on sustainable agriculture and MA in Health & Medical Journalism from the University of Georgia. Follow on Twitter @sci2mrow.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 17 Comments

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  1. 1. Kevbonham 6:48 pm 10/1/2013

    I would offer to join in, but I can’t seem to stick to these sorts of things. I always get busy, make excuses and grab a microwave meal or hit a fast food joint. Good luck though… I’ll be your friend on LoseIt if you like :-)

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  2. 2. k banco 7:02 pm 10/1/2013

    be sure to be aware of any bias you experience or at risk of experiencing.

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  3. 3. k banco 7:03 pm 10/1/2013

    also, include objective measures at the start and throughout, such as blood tests, weight, body fat percentage, etc.

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  4. 4. RSchmidt 8:14 pm 10/1/2013

    The trolls that claim that scientific american is no longer what it once was and then claim that they are cancelling their subscription are full of it. They are trying to give the impression that they have some sort of objectivity and are voting with their dollars. More likely they are fanatics trying to perpetuate a certain ideology, usually anti-science from a religious or far right world view. They should be ignored. Or better yet, sciam should either restrict the comment sections to subscribers or eliminate them all together as Popular Science has. Very rarely do comments have anything to do with the articles and are usually just a soapbox for climate deniers, creationist, libertarians, religious fundamentalists and conspiracy theorist.

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  5. 5. Kathleen Raven in reply to Kathleen Raven 8:36 pm 10/1/2013

    Good things to keep in mind. I wondered if I could ask my primary care doc to have a blood test now, but may not get in with enough time to make a difference.

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  6. 6. Kathleen Raven in reply to Kathleen Raven 8:37 pm 10/1/2013

    Did I mention that today was Fat Tuesday in my universe? I ate some gelato, which is off the list. The real experiment begins tomorrow. :) Thanks for encouragement — it will be a test of my stick-with-it-ness, too.

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  7. 7. k banco 10:34 pm 10/1/2013

    Oh yeah, if you got a blood test soon, the effects would be noticable within a few days. Especially thinks like LDL/HDL, etc.

    As for how Sciam used to be…why don’t the editors maybe have more diversity in the mag when it comes to super ‘sciency’ articles, as well as more political ones…

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  8. 8. Heteromeles 11:18 am 10/2/2013

    I guess I remember Scientific American as being somewhat intimidating, with math stuff (especially from Martin Gardner). Now that was scientific. Now that I’ve been through grad school, it’s popular science fluff. Perhaps the problem is that we get smarter (or at least better informed) as we age? It would be nice to see some scary equations again, though, just for old time’s sake.

    One semi-correction: the 5:2 diet may have been “invented” by a couple of brits, but it follows pretty closely on the diet prescribed by the Greek Orthodox Church (e.g., which I decided to follow (more or less) on the general theory that I like Greek food, and a few centuries of experience without mass rebellion is pretty good evidence that it works.

    I’m not going to put my health stats online, but the thing I enjoy most about the 5:2 diet, Greek orthodox style (and note that I’m not religious), is that food tastes better throughout the week when you’re hungry for a few hours twice a week or occasionally more. That’s actually a really nice change from food being fuel and a constant source of worry. Since I’m not vegan, making a reasonable vegan dinner twice a week with whatever is in the fridge is also a good challenge, because it forces me to be creative about my cooking, rather than falling into my old ruts. No one talks about these advantages, but having variability and creativity in the diet has actually made it much easier to stick to it. That, and knowing that I get to eat whatever I want the day after.

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  9. 9. Kathleen Raven in reply to Kathleen Raven 11:31 am 10/2/2013

    Heteromeles – This is really interesting. Thanks for sharing your memory story about Martin Gardner articles. You are right that many readers started at young ages, when they may have been reading way over their heads. Grad school changes a person. I also appreciate the clarification on the origins of the 5:2 diet. I’ll see how well I’m able to stick to my experiment this month, and may consider trying others in the future. Certainly fasting teaches all sorts of lessons. Again, good to “meet” you here, and see you around on the site.

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  10. 10. Kathleen Raven in reply to Kathleen Raven 11:31 am 10/2/2013

    K Banco, I’ll certainly mention the weaknesses (of which lack of a blood test may be one) and strengths of my case study. Thanks for your suggestions.

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  11. 11. larkalt 1:20 pm 10/2/2013

    I’ve eaten a lowfat vegan diet for many years, with the appropriate supplements – see
    It isn’t cardboard once you get used to it – it’s very colorful, with starchy vegetables for calories and nonstarchy veg’s for vitamins.
    It’s an excellent way to avoid getting fat as one gets older. And it’s also a low-marketing diet since I get almost all my food from the produce section of the grocery store.

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  12. 12. larkalt 1:37 pm 10/2/2013

    btw people should get tested for celiac disease before going on a gluten free diet.
    The reason is that if you do a lot better on the gluten free diet, and you seem to have a serious problem with gluten, you should find out if you have celiac disease.
    But the tests for celiac disease give a lot of false negatives if you’ve been gluten free for awhile. So to really know if you have celiac disease, likely you’ll have to do a “gluten challenge” – reintroducing gluten for an extended time.
    And if you have a serious problem with gluten, reintroducing it can be a horrible experience. People’s bodies adjust to eating gluten somewhat, even if they have celiac disease – but when they reintroduce gluten after not eating it for awhile, this tolerance for gluten has been lost.

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  13. 13. BWTrainer 1:40 pm 10/2/2013

    Every type of “clean” eating I know about includes meat and fish; it just wouldn’t be “processed” (ie bologna, slim jims, etc).

    Also have to LOL at “all dairy products, including eggs”. What kind of cows do you know?!

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  14. 14. Kathleen Raven in reply to Kathleen Raven 2:56 pm 10/2/2013

    Hi Larkalt – Many of my close friends are on a low-fat, vegan diet, and they appear to be doing fine and in good health. So I appreciate you adding that in as I didn’t mean to shut out any positives of any approach to eating!

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  15. 15. Kathleen Raven in reply to Kathleen Raven 3:24 pm 10/2/2013

    Hi BWTrainer – Good point about the processed meat, and it raises something I failed to mention in the actual post: I’ve been a vegetarian for the past 6 years and so I wasn’t ready to introduce meat back into my diet just yet. That’s a personal reason having nothing to do with the study. What about fish, which I do eat? Well, it seems that it is increasingly difficult to know if fish have been sourced in a sustainable way. While it is possible to find responsibly caught, or healthy farm-raised (i.e., not chock full of antibiotics) fish, I have decided to take a break from fish during this month, too. Regarding the cow comment, yes, I LOL at the interpretation. Some people include eggs when they say “dairy” and some do not, so I was clarifying. But, no, I haven’t met a cow who lays eggs yet. :)

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  16. 16. shadowkat 1:37 am 10/3/2013

    I assume clean eating is what raccoons, do, rinsing all their food in a river before eating…

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  17. 17. Kathleen Raven in reply to Kathleen Raven 9:59 am 10/3/2013

    Thank you, Shadowkat, for saying what we were all thinking. Raccoons: The original “clean eaters.” I jest, but many people have also asked me, “Does ‘clean eating’ mean washing your food before you eat it?”

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