Why we fell for clean eating
The oh-so-Instagrammable food movement has been thoroughly debunked – but it shows no signs of going away. The real question is why we were so desperate to believe it.
By Bee Wilson, The Guardian (UK)
Aug 11, 2017
In the spring of 2014, Jordan Younger noticed that her hair was falling out in clumps. “Not cool” was her reaction. At the time, Younger, 23, believed herself to be eating the healthiest of all possible diets. She was a “gluten-free, sugar-free, oil-free, grain-free, legume-free, plant-based raw vegan”. As The Blonde Vegan, Younger was a “wellness” blogger in New York City, one of thousands on Instagram (where she had 70,000 followers) rallying under the hashtag #eatclean. Although she had no qualifications as a nutritionist, Younger had sold more than 40,000 copies of her own $25, five-day “cleanse” programme – a formula for an all-raw, plant-based diet majoring on green juice.
But the “clean” diet that Younger was selling as the route to health was making its creator sick. Far from being super-healthy, she was suffering from a serious eating disorder: orthorexia, an obsession with consuming only foods that are pure and perfect. Younger’s raw vegan diet had caused her periods to stop and given her skin an orange tinge from all the sweet potato and carrots she consumed (the only carbohydrates she permitted herself). Eventually, she sought psychological help, and began to slowly widen the repertoire of foods she would allow herself to eat, starting with fish. She recognised that the problem was not her veganism, per se, but the particularly rigid and restrictive diet regime she had imposed on herself.
As Younger slowly recovered from her eating disorder, she faced a new dilemma. “What would people think”, she agonised, “if they knew the Blonde Vegan was eating fish?” She levelled with her followers in a blogpost entitled Why I’m Transitioning Away from Veganism. Within hours of announcing her new diet, Younger was receiving irate messages from vegans demanding money back from the cleanse programmes and T-shirts they had bought from her site (featuring slogans such as “OH KALE YES”).
She lost followers “by the thousands” and received a daily raft of angry messages, including death threats. Some responded to her confession that she was suffering from an eating disorder by accusing her of being a “fat piece of lard” who didn’t have the discipline to be truly “clean”.
For as long as people have eaten food, there have been diets and quack cures. But previously, these existed, like conspiracy theories, on the fringes of food culture. “Clean eating” was different, because it established itself as a challenge to mainstream ways of eating, and its wild popularity over the past five years has enabled it to move far beyond the fringes. Powered by social media, it has been more absolutist in its claims and more popular in its reach than any previous school of modern nutrition advice.
At its simplest, clean eating is about ingesting nothing but “whole” or “unprocessed” foods (whatever is meant by these deeply ambiguous terms). Some versions of clean eating have been vegan, while others espouse various meats (preferably wild) and something mysteriously called “bone broth” (stock, to you and me). At first, clean eating sounded modest and even homespun: rather than counting calories, you would eat as many nutritious home-cooked substances as possible.
But it quickly became clear that “clean eating” was more than a diet; it was a belief system, which propagated the idea that the way most people eat is not simply fattening, but impure. Seemingly out of nowhere, a whole universe of coconut oil, dubious promises and spiralised courgettes has emerged. Back in the distant mists of 2009, James Duigan, owner of The Bodyism gym in London and sometime personal trainer to the model Elle MacPherson, published his first Clean and Lean book. As an early adopter of #eatclean, Duigan notes that he “battled” with his publisher “to include ingredients like kale and quinoa, because no one had ever heard of them”. Now quinoa is in every supermarket and kale has become as normal as lettuce. “I long for the days when clean eating meant not getting too much down your front,” the novelist Susie Boyt joked recently.
Almost as soon as it became ubiquitous, clean eating sparked a backlash. By 2015, Nigella Lawson was speaking for many when she expressed “disgust” at clean eating as a judgmental form of body fascism. “Food is not dirty”, Lawson wrote. Clean eating has been attacked by critics such as the baker and cookbook author Ruby Tandoh (who wrote a much-shared article on the subject in Vice magazine in May 2016) for being an incitement to eating disorders.
Others have pointed out that, as a method of healthy eating, it’s founded on bad science. In June, the American Heart Association suggested that the coconut oil beloved as a panacea by clean eaters actually had “no known offsetting favourable effects”, and that consuming it could result in higher LDL cholesterol. A few weeks later, Anthony Warner – a food consultant with a background in science who blogs as The Angry Chef – published a book-length assault on the science of clean eating, calling it a world of “quinoa bowls” and “nutribollocks” fuelled by the modern information age.
When Dr Giles Yeo, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, presented an episode of the BBC’s Horizon this year that examined the scientific evidence for different schools of clean eating, he found everything from innocuous recipes to serious malpractice...
... We are not the only generation to have looked in disgust at an unhealthy food environment and wished that we could replace it with nutrients that were perfectly safe to eat. In the 1850s, a British chemist called Arthur Hill Hassall became convinced that the whole food supply of London was riddled with toxins and fakery. What’s more, he was right. Hassall had done a series of investigations for the medical journal the Lancet, and found that much of what was for sale as food and drink was not what it seemed: “coffee” made from burnt sugar and chicory; pickles dyed green with poisonous copper colourings.
Years of exposing the toxic deceptions all around him seems to have driven Hassall to a state of paranoia. He started to see poison everywhere, and decided that the answer was to create a set of totally uncontaminated food products. In 1881, he set up his own firm, The Pure Food Company, which would only use ingredients of unimpeachable quality. Hassall took water that was “softened and purified” and combined it with the finest Smithfield beef to make the purest beef jelly and disgusting-sounding “fibrinous meat lozenges” – the energy balls of Victorian England. The Pure Food Company of 1881 sounds just like a hundred wellness food businesses today – except for the fact that it collapsed within a year due to lack of sales...
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