The cult of clean eating

<i></i>

On the surface it would seem like I’m a shoo-in to be singing the praises of clean eating. As I write this I’m sitting here sipping on a kale, pear, apple, coconut and chia seed smoothie I whipped up in my beloved blender. I plan to have a rocket, chard, carrot, cherry tomato and roast capsicum salad for lunch (with greens I grew in my own garden for extra bragging rights). But still this is one movement I can’t really get on board with, simply because while I love fruit and vegies, I also equally love to sometimes treat myself to Nutella (spooned straight from the jar, of course), Vietnamese coffees and scoops upon scoops of ice-cream. You will drag those goodies from my sugar encrusted clutches at roughly quarter past never.

For the uninitiated “clean eating” is simply avoiding all processed and refined foods, and instead eating food in its most natural state. In Australia the patron saint of the lifestyle is Pete Evans with his much derided love of sprouted millet, sorghum, chia and buckwheat bread, alkalised water, organic spirulina, carob and, not to forget, the infamous activated almond. Now, there’s a lot to admire about clean eating in a world where it’s hard to look on the grocery shelf and find foods that aren’t full of additives, preservatives and ingredients that have a string of numbers in them.  Nutritionist Kristen Beck from Beck Health & Nutrition says of the diet, “Nutritionally speaking, clean eating is great as the focus is on the foods that should make up the vast bulk of our diets – fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes as well as, hopefully, depending on the diet, dairy and wholegrain cereals.  These are the foods that are rich in different nutrients and as a nutritionist, I am thrilled when people eat more of these foods, but am certainly wary when people become fanatical about cutting foods or even worse, whole food groups from their diet.” 

And a quick look at the hashtag #eatclean on Tumblr shows this much darker picture of its acolytes and their eating habits. Whole food groups are wiped clean off the plate with nary a scrap of dairy to be seen. Even more worryingly the glut of thinspo-aping flat stomach shots that are tagged makes it seem that for many followers eating clean isn’t about being healthy so much as simply being skinny, but with #eatclean it’s all wrapped up in the facade of being “healthy”. Rather than preaching moderation, there’s a very all-or-nothing vibe to the movement that rings major alarm bells for me, especially given that on the Instagram and Tumblr evidence many of its proponents are young women, a group who are already at high risk for developing disordered eating. Food and guilt are an extremely dangerous combination.

“The concept of clean eating certainly can bring about some very obsessive, tending towards distorted, realities of nutrition and health,” says Beck. “Of course it's great to have a focus on a healthy diet and exercise, but when that focus becomes obsessive, to the point of interrupting other aspects of your life, such as not being able to eat with others or spending a large part of your day ensuring that the food you are eating is just right, this is indeed disordered eating.  This is also very difficult to address because people who are obsessive about clean eating will always respond along the lines that they are just trying to be as healthy as they can, which is indeed a noble pursuit, but like everything in life, too much can also be problematic.  As outlined in the Tumblr posts, another issue is that many obsessively ‘clean eaters’ make their health focus as an important part of their psyche and personality, and can even alienate friends, families and colleagues with their obsession.”       

Clean eating is also expensive. To do it properly requires a full arsenal of fancy and expensive kitchen equipment that is out reach for many on a budget. A hardcore blender (BPA-free of course) to make your own juices, smoothies, soups and nut butters, a dehydrator to mimic the texture of cooked foods while keeping enzymes intact, a spiraliser for raw pasta, and so on. And that’s before you even purchase the ingredients which of course have to be organic and local.

While Australia and indeed most of the developed world is in a health crisis due to our consumption of processed foods should we really be making healthy eating only the domain of those who have enough in their bank account to cover it? As Daily Life writer Annie Stevens put it to me, “There needs to be more education about healthy foods and eating, but you shouldn't need a guide book, a credit card and a weird food processor to do it.” Beck agrees that healthy eating doesn’t need to break the bank. “Frozen vegetables for example are a great option for later in the week when you haven't been to the shops, yet many health nuts would say that frozen veggies are ‘not healthy enough’.”  Healthy eating should be inclusive to anyone on any income bracket and I think that’s part of what spurred the mockery towards Evans’ Day on a Plate column. If you’ve been making the effort to do the right thing and suddenly you’re told that two litres of water you drank should’ve been alkalised and that brown rice is out and quinoa is in, you tend to get a little testy at the exclusiveness and faddishness of it all.

Another area where clean eating gets it dreadfully, dreadfully wrong is desserts. Here are a few names of clean eating desserts: Black Bean Fudge Cakes, Chocolate Avocado Mousse, Protein Cookie Balls, Almond Buckwheat Goji Raw Bars. Is your mouth watering yet? No? That’s because Mother Nature already provided us with a perfectly healthy, fuss-free dessert – it’s called fruit. And for all other occasions just eat the damn brownie already. So long as you’re eating healthily 90 per cent of the time do you really think a freshly baked sweet is going to ruin your entire body and future health? I’d argue that the continual denial of treats just leads you to want them more and in larger quantities than if you’d just had a good quality, freshly made version of what you’d actually wanted. When I ask Beck if it’s okay to ever just have a dessert made with plain old butter she replies, “Of course it is, and it should be enjoyed.” 

So next time you’re on Instagram or Tumblr and come across a peanut butter smeared banana sprinkled with coconut smugly masquerading as “dessert” don’t let it make you feel guilty for eating in moderation but not abstinence – instead do what overzealous clean eaters can’t and simply take it with a grain of salt.

19 comments

  • Hey, peanut butter on banana is great. Mind you, I'd call it "can't be arsed to cook" rather than dessert. I don't have a lot of patience for everything-must-be-just-so eating plans.

    Commenter
    Chatty
    Date and time
    April 08, 2013, 9:55AM
    • I've had a choc-avocado mousse and it was delicious. Aside from that, I agree with the sentiment of the article.

      Commenter
      Spex
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 08, 2013, 10:36AM
      • We don't need dairy or grains to survive. Humans aren't designed to digest the milk of other species, even though some people can do this without problems. Same with grains. And if others have trouble digesting these food groups (like me), surely it makes sense to cut them out so that you can get your health benefits from other clean food groups? Besides, you can get plenty of calcium from green leafy things.

        I get tired of "experts" telling me I'm missing out on nutrients because I don't consume dairy or grains. I'm sorry, but I'm not going to put my body in a state of constant inflammation and maybe even end up in hospital all because some random "expert" who doesn't know me tells me I'm wrong. I know what's good for me and by cutting out those two groups, I've never felt better or fitter in my life.

        I don't care what other people do and I'd like the same courtesy back. I can only feed myself with what I know to be good for me.

        Commenter
        Audra Blue
        Location
        Brisbane
        Date and time
        April 08, 2013, 10:45AM
        • I don't think Nicole is referring to people with intolerances. I think she is making more of a comment about people who are able to eat all foods taking diets to unnecessary extremes?

          Commenter
          Brigitte
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          April 08, 2013, 2:05PM
        • Finished your little whinge? Now go and have a glass of milk and some grains!

          Commenter
          Homer J
          Date and time
          April 08, 2013, 3:34PM
      • Eat what makes you feel good, eat what makes you happy. If you want to try a new way of approaching food, go for it. If you want to invest in a bag of goji berries & organic chia seeds... what business is it of anyone else's?...Its your body, your journey - do what you want with it.

        Commenter
        Jac
        Location
        Manly
        Date and time
        April 08, 2013, 11:59AM
        • Amen Jac. Horse meat and everything.

          Commenter
          Testify
          Date and time
          April 08, 2013, 3:22PM
      • You have just described to a TEE a woman I tried to befriend last year. She seemed lonely, socially isolated and in need of a little social time outside of being a single parent. Lovely lass. Buuuuuuut. She was a complete clean eating obsessive / food faddist / fat shamer.

        I gave up after a dinner out late last year resulted in her having to order a special meal of dry pan fried white fish (no oil or butter - apparently grilled is NOT healthy - insert my raised brow) and steamed beans (with no dressing) as there was NOTHING on the menu to fit into her paleo diet at the time. It sucked ALL of the joy out of a meal out with friends. She fat shamed me (who ironically at the time was smaller than her - a healthy size 12) at the same dinner. It just made the entire concept of a shared meal with a mate feel so, so joylous.

        It's definitely disordered eating.

        Me? 80% of time I eat impeccably (green smoothies, grilled salmon, brown rice, salads, vegetables galore, nuts, seeds etc etc) and 20% I indulge. Add in a walk with the dog and the odd pilates DVD and lo and behold I'm actually slightly slimmer than the above lass. i wonder if there was a binge end to her cycle of eating?

        Commenter
        Ms A
        Location
        The office
        Date and time
        April 08, 2013, 12:02PM
        • Nice to know what you think of me!

          Commenter
          B
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          April 08, 2013, 2:09PM
      • Not consuming dairy and consuming minimal (if any) meat is actually the healthiest option. The latest research out of Harvard says this. Dairy may contain calcium, unfortunately humans cannot absorb it from dairy so you're better getting it elsewhere.
        Also try reading 'Unhappy Meal' - you can find it online. It's slightly outdated but you'll understand the sentiment.

        Commenter
        melbreader
        Date and time
        April 08, 2013, 12:24PM

        More comments

        Comments are now closed