Why I’ll Never Ascribe to Clean Eating

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Since A Life Loved launched, I’ve known I’ve wanted to write this article but shied away from it so many times. Not because I don’t believe 100% in the words I’m about to write, but because of the feeling of  ‘where do you start’…

‘The Beast From The East’ is at my door, I’m snowed in from my usual evening activities and it’s ‘Eating Disorders Awareness Week’, so I guess I’ll start here.

The origins of ‘clean eating’ are hard to pinpoint. Exactly who started what, and when seem largely unknown. But around the early 2000’s, two concepts which borrowed diet culture from other arenas, began to emerge. And here, at its very origins, began the problem: it was never clearly defined. Even back in the very early days the two versions, which spread like wildfire across America, were of ‘real food’ and of ‘detox’. Two principles of eating, which having existed in their own right for many years, began to merge themselves with a concept of cleanliness and swept their way across social platforms such as Instagram. Since then, ‘clean eating’ has taken on a variety of different meanings for different people; from raw vegan, to food exclusions, to simple home cooking and an absence of pre-prepared foods.

Confusing? Very. Yet all of these hugely variable approaches share one thing in common – clean. Not clean because they doused their food in antiseptic, but clean because they have decided to self-ascribe a judgement to what they eat.

When we call food ‘clean’ we are calling all other forms of eating ‘dirty’. Nigella Lawson was categoric in stating her ‘disgust’ at clean eating in 2015 when she termed it a ‘judgemental form of body facism’.

The problem with calling your food clean, is that by simple definition is has an opposable reaction. If you take other dieting principles for example, say Atkins or Paleo, if you do not follow their prescription you simply eat in a non-atkins or a non-paleo way. Emotively, it doesn’t mean anything. However, when we call food ‘clean’ we are implying that all other forms of eating are ‘dirty’. We begin to fuel and perpetuate a narrative which says, for example, that dessert is ‘naughty’ and that by skipping it we’re somehow being ‘good’. We put food into neat little boxes of judgement and criticism which alarmingly decide not only how we feel about ourselves and our worth, but how we perceive others too. So, by one simple movement and phrase we eat in negative, critical and judgemental ways. By assigning emotions and judgements to food, we ascribe them to ourselves. Nigella Lawson was categoric in stating her ‘disgust’ at clean eating in 2015 when she termed it a ‘judgemental form of body facism’.

Clean eating is therefore different from diets, because it perpetuates itself as a belief system; a ‘lifestyle’. It is a concept based on deeply ambiguous terms, like ‘whole’, ‘unprocessed’ and ‘unrefined’, propagating the idea that we are otherwise eating in an impure way. It takes a wholly negative and critical view of the foods we eat and simultaneously fails to look at the wider functions of food: socialising, enjoyment, and culture.

Speaking as a dietitian myself (a person who promotes nutrition and wellbeing through food) I truly believe that not all the food you eat needs to be of the highest nutritional value. Truly. And that in doing so, you are not being dirty, or bad. Because being either of those things would be synonymous with guilt. Guilt, by definition, means ‘the fact of having committed a specified or implied offence or crime’, so why on earth are we associating guilt with food choice?

Cleaning Eating which, to date, has 36,832,702 Instagram tags has an unprecedented popularity. Why? I can’t speak for every person who buys into it. But in generalist terms, to eat dirty implies a degree of harm –  that our current way of eating is harmful to us, and therefore must be changed…it must become pure. Clean eating becomes a noxious combination that sells us a way of eating which is ‘good’ for us, and is free from this endlessly perpetuated notion of food-related guilt. Perhaps those near 37-million-people are looking for the antidote to a perceived otherwise toxic world? An antidote they can do something about; one they can control.

So, here lies a very deep problem. Control. The control of food and the association of this with the development and perpetuation of disordered eating; the rules and restrictions from clean eating can transcend so readily into debilitating eating disorders; so-called ‘Orthorexia Nervosa’ is on the rise, although it is not medically recognised in the same way as ‘Anorexia Nervosa’ or ‘Bulimia Nervosa’. It is the harmful obsession with ‘proper’ or ‘healthful eating’. Whilst in no way exclusive, as eating disorders are highly complex in their development, these ideals can form the trigger to other vulnerabilities a person may experience. Then, without intention, it spirals into something much more dangerous, and at times, deadly. Imagine trying to recover in a world which told you the foods your body so desperately needed to regain health were dirty?

I could spend all day myth-busting some of the claims of clean eating. I won’t, and anyway, Dr Giles Yeo did a fantastic version of that on Horizon’s Clean Eating The Dirty Truth back in 2017, if you get chance, please watch this. Some claims of the ‘clean’ movement are bound in science, whilst others, are absolutely refutable and laudable. In some ways our improvement and familiarity of scientific terminology enables those words to be used abundantly and frequently incorrectly, adding what sounds like credibility to a claim and fuelling a culture of pseudo-science.

What I do find challenging though is that to many, disputing or challenging clean eating means to encourage and promote obesity or unhealthful ways of eating. In the wake of the new ‘Cancer Research UK’ figures for obesity amongst Millennials, we equally need to acknowledge that we have, as a nation, got an obesity problem. Eating more balanced, nutritious and home-cooked meals away from convenience foods forms an important part of this nutritional promotion. However what I don’t feel we need, is to tackle that in a judgemental and unfounded way.

I can’t say that I have the answer to what that might be, these issues are extremely complex, but what I can say, is that I for one, will never ascribe to #cleaneating.

Clare Kent

Clare Kent View all Clare's articles

Clare enjoys reflecting and pondering life's many questions, as well as loving outdoor adventures and is passionate about all things food and wellness related.

2 thoughts on “Why I’ll Never Ascribe to Clean Eating

  1. Hi Clare,

    Love your writing and your message here. I think the only thing I would potentially want to add is that there is profit in the industry and that although most people involved in clean eating have entirely good intentions, there have been some horrible examples where people have taken advantage of vulnerable people for profit. Obviously this applies to most food/health trends, but the one that sticks out for me is the alkaline diet guy!

    Have you read the angry chef’s book – bad science and the truth about healthy eating? I’ve only just started but have followed his blog on and off and really enjoy his stuff.


  2. This is incredibly helpful and well written. I’d suggest that it’s not necessarily guilt (us feeling bad about something and wanting to change something as a result) but shame that makes #cleaneating potentially disasterous.

    Moderation is my word of choice. And making a conscious effort to move away from language such as “good” or “bad” foods.

    Thank you for sharing.

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