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The Dirt On Clean Eating

18 July 2017

If you’ve ventured into the world of Instagram’s #smoothiebowl and #greenjuice tags, you’ll be familiar with the concept of ‘clean eating’ and its almost inescapable presence in modern food culture. Certainly, there are issues with what a lot of us are eating, however, this should be met with balanced advice from experts. In reality, fad-diets have inundated society with theories of how specific ways of eating can improve our health. While there is some logical guidance in between the superfoods and juice cleanses, they often include everything from increasingly restrictive and unachievable advice on food consumption to pure misinformation. So why is clean eating a faulty ideology at best and what should you be eating instead?

Dr Alessandro Demaio, a nutritionist at the World Health Organisation, explains that “food-related disease, including obesity, has now become our greatest health challenge for the current century”. He goes on to explain that it isn’t simply “a question of calories in versus calories out but the food we eat, can afford and have access to – and how this is marketed, packaged and served – is a large dictator of our health”.

However, these diets come along with some problematic side dishes of misinformation, pseudoscience and guilt.

It is fascinating that Dr Demaio mentions marketing because this is an area in which #cleaneating thrives. It is a highly marketable lifestyle, such that food journalist Hadley Freeman describes the phenomenon of “wellness” as striking “that crucial point on the Venn diagram between aspiration, self-love and slimness”. It moves away from the Weight Watchers points, a bit outdated and lackluster, to a more ‘effortless’ (with twice the effort, it would seem) way of eating, advocated by a band of bloggers who are almost universally wealthy, thin and lacking in dietetics qualifications.

One of the difficulties with analysing clean eating is the diversity of its manifestations and the lack of a general definition. There are those that exclude all grains, those that advise an ‘Alkaline’ diet and the ‘plant-based’ diet, which combines veganism and a gluten-free diet. The encouragement of an increased intake of vegetables and fruits and a move away from highly-processed products is beneficial when part of a balanced diet. However, these diets come along with some problematic side dishes of misinformation, pseudoscience and guilt.

Food scientist, Rachel Zemser, explains that there is value for brands in this lack of a ‘clean eating’ definition, with an ever-growing list of what should be avoided, as it allows companies to “pave the way for untapped categories of food products”. The danger of having, at best, a loose definition of ‘clean’, is that the diet continues to grow in strictness, and thus comes to consider more food groups comparatively ‘dirty’.

The language that we use to describe food is incredibly influential, especially when the major audience of these bloggers and social media influencers are young people who are still forming their understanding of nutrition. This all-or-nothing, clean-or-dirty labelling is used by non-experts, and is ultimately rooted in guilt and avoidance.

Sophie Medlin, a lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s College London, calls clean eating “sensationalist promotion of non-evidence based and extremely restrictive lifestyles that demonise everyday food essentials”.

Food writer and chef, Nigella Lawson, argues that “clean eating necessarily implies that any other form of eating is dirty or impure and thus bad.” She also alludes to the shaming that such language can potentially induce, and how it actually prevents people from eating healthily.

Even those within the clean eating movement have their doubts. Ella Mills of Deliciously Ella fame, explains the journey of meaning ‘clean’ has experienced, from what seemed initially to be ‘natural’ and ‘unprocessed,’ and which has evolved into a very loaded term.

It is vital to remember that food bloggers, specifically those that advocate for clean eating, are just members of the public voicing their opinions on food on the internet. Many have practically no legitimate qualification and dangerously accrue audiences in the millions.

Gluten avoidance is a common theme across most varieties of clean eating. Gluten is one of the most demonised products within the clean eating movement despite being a healthy product for most of the community. Recent studies outline that gluten avoidance is a ‘necessity’ for up to ‘1.5 per cent of the population with celiac disease and 0.1 per cent with wheat allergies’. On top of this, up to 10 per cent of the population experience gluten sensitivity and would therefore benefit from such a diet. Unfortunately, people increasingly rely on the media and internet, rather than a GP or specialist for their diet advice. Therefore, there is a worry that people who are symptomatic of gluten intolerance may be self-diagnosing and missing an underlying issue.

So what does a good diet look like? Kerin O’Dea, Honorary Professor of Population Health and Nutrition at the University of South Australia, recommends minimally processed foods and mostly plants. For those consuming meat, she encourages choosing the leanest cuts, including wild meats such as rabbit or kangaroo. Concerning dairy products, she advises care in reaching for low fat varieties which often harbour more sugar. O’Dea explains a vegetarian or a vegan diet can be healthy, so long as people are very aware of the ways to ensure appropriate sources of nutrients. She labels one of the clean eating trends of combining a vegan and gluten-free diet as absurd, and is skeptical of so-called superfoods that focus on individual foods rather than the diet as a whole.

Fruit and veggies, wholefoods, lessening your intake of highly processed foods – at its core healthy eating is relatively simple, though it gets clouded by mixed messages and misinformation. It’s boring and we’ve heard it before but moderation is key. We live in a world of extremes, but the more we distance ourselves from the severity of the clean-dirty dichotomy, the healthier our attitude around healthy food will be. No one benefits from the extreme and unhealthy approach that many clean eating advocates seem to push. So don’t throw the kale out with the bathwater, allow yourself some cake (it won’t be the end of the world) and remember that variety is the spice of life.