Clean Eating

"Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es."

--Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, 1826

We’ve all heard the phrase “You are what you eat,” but do you know where it originated and what it means?

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was a French lawyer and politician who made it through the French Revolution without losing his head—or his appetite. By navigating and temporarily fleeing the struggle for authority, he managed to stay on the side of the powerful, while continuing to indulge his strong interest in fine food and gastronomy. His is the first known use of the statement “you are what you eat.”

From there, the idea has taken off. Lots of books have been published that begin with the phrase. Victor Lindlahr’s You Are What You Eat was the first, published in 1940 by the National Nutrition Society. The most recent example is Serge Bloch’s delightfully clever 2010 picture book, You Are What You Eat: and Other Mealtime Hazards, whose cover depicts various vegetables marching in line behind a young boy who is juggling pears.

And, as we all know, “you are what you eat” does not mean that eating lots of broccoli will make you morph into an enchanted forest, à la Mollie Katzen. Rather, the intended meaning is that we must eat good food if we want to be fit and healthy. If we subscribe to this philosophy, then it is only one small logical step to the notion that we ought to eat clean. After all, isn’t cleanliness next to godliness? At least John Wesley said so in one of his sermons. Regardless, the idea of eating clean has become quite popular in the last decade, prompting sales of several thousand diet books and cookbooks. But what does “eating clean” mean, exactly?

One go-to source people often turn to for answers is good ol’ Wikipedia, which says eating clean “is the belief that eating whole foods in their most natural state and avoiding processed foods... offers certain health benefits.

Mayo Clinic, my personal first choice for online health information, states that it is a diet, a way of eating, but also a way of living that benefits our health and overall wellbeing. “Clean eating involves a few key principles that align with basic principles of healthy eating: eat more real foods, eat for nourishment, eat more plant-based foods, and clean up your act.” This last point means exercising enough, sleeping enough, and learning to cope with the stresses of life.

Good Housekeeping’s registered dietitian and certified dietitian nutritionist, Jaclyn London, wrote an article for the magazine titled “Why ‘Clean Eating’ is Total BS.” While she admits that the phrase began with good intentions, she goes on to state:

    …these days, I'm worried that the phrase has taken on a new, misguided meaning. The implication is that if you're not "eating clean," what you eat otherwise is dirty or unhygienic, and that's simply not true. It has also been attached to a health and lifestyle claim. That is, if you're not "eating clean," the reverse is true: You're probably sloppy, lazy, and making yourself sick. It's morphed from a sense of awareness about food into a diet-driven caste system. Not only does the phrase establish a hierarchical model for eating well, it's yet another medium for food-shaming.

However, perhaps Healthline has said it best:
    “Clean eating” is everywhere you look. There are more than 60 million Instagram posts for #cleaneating and #eatclean. Grocery stores promote the latest bars and stacks of kale as 'clean eats.' There are countless blog posts about clean diets. But what does it actually mean to “eat clean?” Despite being discussed nearly everywhere, clean eating has no specific definition. Generally, it means avoiding packaged and processed foods and eating food as close to its natural state as possible. This doesn’t mean that all food must be eaten raw. Characteristics of clean food generally include: home cooked, basic, whole ingredients, no preservatives, food coloring, or other additives, and minimal processing.

So, what should a busy, multitasking librarian look for when choosing titles to purchase on this subject? Should you depend on requests from your users, print run, social media, cover design, price, illustrations, claims of being “clean eating,” or comments posted on websites? While there’s no argument that significant weight should be given to customer interest, what about other factors, such as quality and accuracy of the source? Is the library simply a tax-supported free bookstore, or is it more? Do we offer quality alongside popularity?

Professional journal reviews and awards are a good place to start. Brodart can help with both popularity and authoritative content. Bibz, our online selection tool, offers full-text reviews from ten professional review journals. It also spotlights starred reviews from seven sources, to highlight inclusion in important sources such as Public Library Core Collection, while pointing out titles that have received awards. Relevant awards for titles related to clean eating include the James Beard Foundation Award for Writing and Literature, the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) “Food Matters” Cookbook Award, and the Top Health and Wellness Book of the Year designation by Well + Good and by MindBodyGreen. Print run information (when available) and customer demand level are also featured. Need more? Just refer to the included publisher annotations and cover images.

Another service Brodart offers is customized selection lists on a wide variety of topics. For clean eating, I have pulled together two different lists: one with popular clean eating titles and one with diet, nutrition, and recipe books. The titles in this second list are noteworthy for their factual and informative treatment of healthy, whole, and unprocessed food, as well as their solid advice for readers.

Feel better? Are you reassured? I trust so. That’s our goal, after all. Brodart's team of degreed librarians is here to help put you in touch with what your library needs. Feel free to contact us to keep the conversation going (800-474-9816, [email protected]).

Until then, bon appetit!