The backlash against clean eating was almost inevitable, but is it our interpretation of the term that’s unhealthy?
Let’s get this straight: I’m not your average ‘eat clean’ girl. I watched last night’s BBC Horizon documentary, Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth with a giant cup of Yorkshire tea and a cookie from WholeFoods. But health , the health industry, healthy eating and the clean eating ‘movement’, as it has become, fascinates me, and indeed probably you if you’re a reader of our site. Because yes we’ve written about clean eating - what publisher of health content hasn’t? - but as a site and as readers, we can all see that the term has taken on a whole new negative meaning. But who gave it that meaning?
First things first; I am fairly sure that the term ‘clean’ in relation to food came about because it rhymed rather nicely with ‘lean’. Certainly my first instance of reading it was with the Duigans ' Clean and Lean plan, a book I devoured and passed onto family members who had tried every diet going to no avail. If you’d called me ‘lean’ when I was a young teenager, awkwardly tall and skinny as I was, I’d have been offended; and yet over the past few years the word has come to be an aspiration for many. Strong, not skinny, is a healthier goal than the airbrushed, size zero ones we had before - but under the guise of ‘strong’, the Instagram crowd now seem to be chasing this concept of ‘lean’; perhaps because we now have instant access to the regimes of athletes who are often described as lean due to their low body fat, and the growth in popularity of HIIT and gruelling training methods is making it mainstream. This, together with the demonisation of gluten and the (correct) push to ditch processed foods has all happened simultaneously, the fitness and nutrition worlds syncing with a strong message which lends itself rather well to social media. And so a neat term was born - a neat hashtag is a happy hashtag after all - and we all began to follow this notion of ‘#cleaneating’.
At its heart, clean eating, if there even is an official definition, is fairly smart; unprocessed food, cooking from scratch. You know, like our grannies did before we ruined it all with McDonald’s and microwaves. So why has it become such an unhealthy trend? There are of course the experts and gurus that Dr Giles Yeo references and talks to in the Horizon documentary; the Deliciously Ellas , Natasha Corretts , the Hemsley sisters, Duigans, Madeleine Shaws and so on who share their healthy, glowing faces and lives on social media and tell us that they got there through their food choices - and who are we to say they haven’t? But many of them cut out entire food groups, many are vegan, most shun gluten despite not being Coeliac, many swear by the alkaline diet (which was swiftly pulled apart and stamped on by Dr Yeo in the show) while others hide behind the term ‘plant-based’ - which may well have worked for them (no one can dispute the fact that they all look radiantly healthy), but that’s not to say it will work for the nation.
Few have any qualifications in the way that a dietitian, nutritionist or doctor does, which of course is a problem when you’re advising millions of followers who hang on your every hashtagged word. Yes, the ‘influencers’ have a hell of a lot to answer for; but even Ella Mills (Deliciously Ella) herself has said that to her, clean eating - a term she says she never used - simply meant unprocessed, natural food; yet now it’s become a dangerous fad, encouraging disordered eating, implying that some foods are ‘dirty’ and demonising food which helps to fuel guilt and shame around our eating habits. That is, it’s become everything that can be unhealthy about a diet.
if there’s one thing that is clear from our disordered eating-filled society, it’s that few human beings seem to be able to do moderation
Where it began as an urge to eat natural, real food, it’s now a case of ‘How clean is your diet?’ with no real definition of what is ‘clean’ (because how clean is clean? Do we have to survive on avocados and nut milk now?) and a process of elimination that has inevitably been taken to the extreme. Cue the rise of orthorexia and other eating disorders being masked as ‘clean eating’. But to give credit where it’s due, it shouldn’t be ignored that the majority of the wellness nutritionistas have encouraged a lot of people to eat more vegetables and less sugar , to take their advice at its most basic level - and that should still be celebrated amid all the backlash. Courgettes and broccoli are selling out faster than cakes and potatoes, and that's got to be a positive step, if only a baby one.
Here’s the thing: give us (and by us, I mean the obesity-crisis-based masses) any advice on eating well and we will turn it into something unhealthy, an obsession, even if it’s the most reasonable, sound advice there is. Tell us to ‘eat clean’ and stop eating processed foods? We’ll go to the extreme and eat chia seeds, avocados and quinoa until even the fancy supermarkets run out and our guts can’t handle meat anymore. Tell us to try a smoothie? We’ll juice and blend our way through a week of mealtimes in the hope of seeing those abs for summer. Give us the 5:2 diet ? We’ll binge our way through five days of ‘I can eat whatever I want on this diet’ bliss and then cry over a fruit pastille on our fast days .
No matter how scientific or sensible a diet, we find a way to take it to the extreme - because if there’s one thing that is clear from our disordered eating-filled society, it’s that few human beings seem to be able to do moderation. As Dr Yeo has said himself, the documentary only proved the most boring line in the history of health advice: everything in moderation. The majority of us can’t seem to do that; and I’d argue that, particularly as women, we will always struggle to be sensible in our diet-ridden lives. We are fed nutritional advice from every media outlet out there, every bookshelf and every tube ad, constantly encouraging us to get healthier (and often thinner) - and because so many of us are emotional eaters , and emotional about our own shape and size, not to mention the obvious fact that our health really is all we have so the subject is always going to be of interest, the advice will keep coming. So what came first, the healthy cookbook publishers or the avocado-on-toast obsessive Instagrammers? I’m not so sure - they’re so interlinked that one feeds the other.
We do need the new research, the new findings, the new advice, though - without it we’d still be eating low-calorie high-sugar everything and thinking we can eat Special K for breakfast, lunch and dinner to successfully nourish ourselves while looking hot in a red swimsuit. Sometimes even the experts disagree with each other; just last week here at GTG we were criticised by nutritionists for featuring a plan devised by a nutritional doctor for Elle Macpherson , and likewise the documentary highlighted flaws in the books of experts the media depend on for facts and details to bring you the most up to date information - but we have to simply rely on the best research and continue to ask questions as we do it.
Is this a sexist issue? The ‘gurus’ who are most vilified by the anti-clean-eating trend are the young, pretty, white middle class girls that we’re now used to seeing plastered on Instagram, bookshelves and even magazine covers. Jamie Oliver, who published a book on superfoods, and the aforementioned James Duigan of Clean and Lean fame, don’t seem to be under the same scrutiny. And on the flip side are the women - us, the consumers - who follow these clean eating connoisseurs and trainers (let’s not ignore that Joe Wicks' following is predominately female) and often struggle with the conflicting advice and endless comparison of food choices and waistlines. Meanwhile, where are the men? Are the readers of Men’s Health despairing over a slice of birthday cake they ate in the office? Are they ditching beer in favour of ‘cleaner’ spirits in the quest for keeping lean? Men of course struggle from exactly the same problems, but it certainly seems to be a far quieter and less judgemental space, with fewer celebrities (looking at you, Gwyneth) pushing extreme lifestyle choices as if they’re perfectly normal and guaranteed to suit everyone.
Anything that leads us to judging ourselves or others on how we eat, how we train, how we live is not going to lead to good health, either physical or mental.
Balance has always been what GTG is about. Beauty and brains is our ethos, and a healthy attitude to good fitness and beauty is something that we aim to sew through the seams of the site. It's why we have both our own healthy eating plan, Project Me as well as an interview with the clean eating parody Deliciously Stella on her week on a plate. It's why we welcome 'the body' Elle Macpherson as a columnist who shares her world with us, but won't allow anyone to tell us we should look like a supermodel. It's why our Instagram is full of motivation and good intentions but interrupted with the occasional swear word or quote about wine.
The documentary was a valuable insight into the science versus the celebrities; but will it really change anything? I don’t think so. It may cause a storm in a carefully filtered teacup when it comes to clean eating on social media for a while, but health books will continue to be published, women (and men) will still diet, ‘gurus’ will still Instagram their ‘guilt-free’ breakfasts. All it’s proven is that language is dangerous, and so is social media - but most of all, we are a risk to ourselves when we take any advice and turn it into a regime and lifestyle that undoes all the good intentions that it was initially built for. Anything that leads us to judging ourselves or others on how we eat, how we train, how we live is not going to lead to good health, either physical or mental.
That’s not easily fixed; food, weight and fitness are emotional issues and it’s not as simple as saying ‘Just eat what you want but keep it balanced!’. But what we can do is be careful about language, and be responsible when it comes to the messages we put out there as influencers, publishers, and as women ourselves (how many times have you said ‘Oh I wish I could eat like you’ or ‘God I need to lose weight’ to your female friends? How many times have you captioned your Instagram of prosecco on a Friday night with words like ‘naughty’ or ‘diet starts again Monday #oops’?). Most of all, though, we need to take heed of health advice without letting it take over our lives in order for us all to be part of the change.
Did you watch the BBC Horizon programme? Let us know what you thought in the comments