Ah, 2017. Londoners are fuming about the tube strike, the President Elect of the United States is on another Twitter rampage and rock superstar David Bowie has been gone for a whole year. But it’s not all bad- finally, people are calling bullshit to the hollow and utterly meaningless trend that is clean eating.
Anyone with even a vague interest in food will have seen the obsession with plant-based ‘clean eating’ slowly taking over the food industry for the last six years. The prescriptive diet – or, sorry, ‘lifestyle’, as bloggers insist on labelling it – bans meat, fish, dairy, gluten, sugar and processed foods and focuses on ‘wellness’. The approach gained overnight momentum in 2011 when gorgeous 20-something and heir to the Sainsburys fortune Ella Woodward launched her blog ‘Deliciously Ella’.
Fast forward six years, and many of these health ‘experts’ now hold influential journalistic positions- Woodward herself has her own column in The Times. Greggs, best known for its sausage rolls, sells sourdough pastries, and every café within a 20-mile radius has soya or almond milk readily available. The NHS has written 211,200 prescriptions for low-protein or gluten-free food in the last year, avocado farming is causing gang warfare in Mexico and porridge topped with goji berries and blackstrap molasses now graces the menu of all the most fashionable of brunch joints.
On Sunday, The Daily Mail ran an article where Woodward seemingly innocently distances herself from “health fanatics” following “fad diets”, saying: “My problem with the word clean is that it has become too complicated. It has become too loaded.”
Woodward’s diet embraces wholesome, natural foods- which is good- and cuts out entire food groups that she considers ‘unclean’- which is where the complications start. Surprisingly, Woodward doesn’t see that her and her ‘lifestyle’ are the very things marketing the illogical division of food groups into binary black and whites, good versus bad, clean and unclean foods, and that the very definition of ‘diet’ includes such exclusion. Gluten? ‘Sandpaper for the gut’. Cows milk? ‘Can actually cause calcium loss in our bones!’. But CBD honey sticks and hemp seeds from Gold Bee? A treat.
Enter Ruby Tandoh stage right, putting a clear two fingers up to both Woodward and her overpriced, nutritionally lacking fad, victimising the vulnerable and lying for profit. The series four Bake Off winner highlights how wellness is no longer ‘in vogue’, but a serious health risk- and is holding its advocates to account for it.
In an article for Vice, Tandoh epitomises beautifully the main problem with Woodward’s ‘clean eating’ movement, saying: “Wellness doesn’t cause eating disorders. But when we advocate, and even insist upon, a diet so restrictive, moralizing, and inflexible, and market that diet to young women, and then dress it up as self-care: Just how responsible is that?”
Alongside her are hundreds of women and men, many of who have experienced the horrors of such restrictive diets first hand in the form of life-threating eating disorders. Tandoh is herself an example, as is Not Plant Based campaigner Eve Simmons. Restriction is no longer such fun when you are diagnosed with a calcium deficiency for replacing cow milk with soya, under the advice of wellness bloggers like Woodward. Simmons queries when exactly we, as a generation, began listening to faceless Instagram gurus rather than to qualified, experienced medical experts?
Queen of home cooking Nigella Lawson rubbished the trend years ago, saying: “I despair of the term ‘clean eating’… it necessarily implies that any other form of eating —and consequently the eater of it—is dirty or impure and thus bad.”
Most people, surprisingly enough, understand that eating vegetables and excersising regularly is good for them. Most people also enjoy a slice of cake or a bar of chocolate, for a treat, to celebrate a birthday, or just because they bloody fancy it. This is called balance- and a balanced diet is what we all know we should strive towards.
This ‘balance’ is what Woodward is now claiming she has been advocating from the start- but how, exactly, is cutting out entire food groups ‘balance’? How is demonising gluten, wheat and refined sugars ‘balance’? How is labelling cows milk toxic ‘balance’? By carving her career out of glamorising and romanticising such a militantly restrictive diet, and publicising it so idealistically online, Woodward has targeted an influential and impressionable market, forming a poisonous circle of individuals enforcing a repressive diet without understanding the repercussions that this is having, both physically and mentally.
Biochemist Dr Yeo questions the scientifically unsupported dietary generalisations of the clean eating movement, saying: “If you are going to give such extreme dietary advice, you’ve got to have proof. Otherwise, all you are doing is stoking fear about a food group most people shouldn’t have to worry about.”
Like gluten. Public Health England recommends that a third of your daily diet should be made up of starchy grains, such as pasta, rice, potatoes or bread. Some experts even argue that restricting yourself to a gluten-free diet in the absence of celiac disease can be harmful to your health, as it can deprive your body of the vital nutrients needed to maintain a healthy, balanced diet.
Health At Every Size is an organisation challenging scientific and cultural assumptions about food, working to fight the stigma that all fat people are ill, and the stereotype that thin people are healthy. Health means much more than weight, and self-care is a key factor in this, as nutritionist and HAES-advocate Ellyn Slater points out. She says: “Normal eating is being able to give some thought to your food selection so you get nutritious food, but not being so wary and restrictive that you miss out on enjoyable food. Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good.”
Yes, health is important, but so is happiness. Food is one of the few cherished treasures in life, and there is so, so much more to life than obsession over restriction and weight. As dietitian Michelle Allison says: “Eating a wide variety of foods, trying new things, and taking pleasure in food is good for you.” Being healthy is about finding balance, both physically and mentally. Do yourself a favour and eat flavourful, wholesome food that makes YOU feel good, and you’ll be further on your way to wellness than turmeric lattes ever could have made you.
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Words by Ally head