The other day, I was stacking shelves where I work and was shocked at the conversation I overheard between two young girls popping in for a post-workout snack which went something like this: “I want to buy something healthy – what about these gluten-free dairy-free brownies? Or the vegan wheat-free flapjacks?” “Oh but look at the price” “Oh yeah *groan* it’s so hard to eat healthy – it’s all so expensive”. The girls left the shop with only a small pot of melon slices each – apparently it was the only ‘healthy’ food on offer that they could afford. I was left rather confused and disgusted, having been confronted with the inescapable force of the food trend that everyday shows itself to be more and more problematic, that being the ‘clean’ eating phenomenon that seems to have stealthily taken over attitudes towards food in recent years.
The link between poor mental health and ‘clean’ eating is undeniable, particularly when in is exacerbated by the pressure and strains of social media. The subject has been well documented by health organizations, the eating disorder charity Beat recording a rise in the number of calls to its hotline over the past few years linked to anxiety overly restrictive food rules. Documentaries such as the BBC’S Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets and Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth have exposed the fragility of many of the claims being made and the impact they have on those exposed to them. Eating disorders are serious mental conditions that can have devastating consequences – anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – and affect all age groups, ethnicities and genders. Recently, the phenomena of orthorexia, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy”, has come to popular attention, though it cannot currently be clinically diagnosed. Social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook alongside other sharing platforms like Youtube act like a petri dish, facilitating the growth of myriad restrictive and absolutist diet trends that often overlap and contradict one another, flying in the face of well-researched evidence on what a truly healthy diet for body and mind might actually look like.
To make matters worse, food becomes a moral issue with a hugely negative impact on the mental health of vulnerable young people. What one eats comes to be placed in to two categories, namely foods that are ‘good’ and those that are ‘bad’. This black and white thinking generates a lot of anxiety for people who feel that they are failing if they do not meet these exacting standards. As mentioned earlier, the emergence of orthorexia nervosa points to a serious problem with our attitude towards food, orthorexia also translated as a “fixation on riteous eating”. This could not be more telling, food not only being a way to fuel our bodies on a daily basis but a means to improve our moral character, to become a “righteous” individual by proxy. Eating the ‘wrong’ food triggers self-loathing and acute anxiety, the message behind the moralism being that we are intrinsically unworthy and it is only through eating the ‘right’ way that we can somehow vindicate ourselves.
It is ironic, then, this obsession with restrictive diets often proves to be unhealthy, not only mentally but physically. Much of the ‘clean’ eating movement is based on pseudoscience concocted by individuals financially invested in this lucrative lie. Restrictive food rules are dressed up as science and packaged seductively, be it in a beautiful and slim food vlogger, an expensive new cookbook or a new range of pricey products in the supermarket. Often, these companies make dubious claims about what their products can do, some saying that they reverse disease, aid weight loss or garuntee an overall ‘healthy glow’. Many, if not most, of these corporations rely on a kernel of truth which they exaggerate and capitalize upon. A significant number of these ‘clean’ celebrities do not have the appropriate medical qualifications to be touting such advice, taking advantage on the vulnerability and ignorance of their customers to turn a profit. In a piece featured in The Guardian, Bee Wilson insightfully points out how
clean eating confirms how vulnerable and lost millions of us feel about diet – which really means how lost we feel about our own bodies. We are so unmoored that we will put our faith in any master who promises us that we, too, can become pure and good.
The promise of wellness is, however, a mirage.
Crucially, this trend is also having a sinister effect on society as a whole, particularly in regards to class and elitism, food offering yet another way to divide and segregate. These so-called ‘health’ foods are marketed at inordinately high prices in full awareness that their affluent target market are willing to pay extra to opt into the ‘clean’ eating club. Food is an accessory, a statement of class, completely inaccessible to those who cannot afford to participate. Only the wealthy can afford to pay £3.99 for Deliciously Ella’s Original Granola when Tesco’s own is under half the price, or £2 for Rude Health’s organic oat milk when cows milk costs just £1.50 for more than triple the amount.
The clean, healthy eating movement is essentially a vanity project for the middle class, food being just one more way to distinguish the haves from the have-nots.
This movement is the perfect money-spinner, as where diets or eating trends used to be temporary, this trend is permanent and necessitates a complete and sustained lifestyle overhaul. Despite what the advertising industry would like you to believe, it is entirely possible to lead a healthy lifestyle without emptying your savings account.
Similarly, this same movement is contributing to the divorce of food from its social and historical context; once deeply embedded in a collective culture, certain foods turn into trivialized fads in the western world. Matcha green tea -an integral part of the ancient Japanese tea ceremony – has been adopted and can now be consumed as a latte, ice-cream or even a ‘chocolate matcha butter cup’. Quinoa, once an obscure crop from South America to many in the west has become as basic a grain as pasta. Foods that are integral to a culture heritage are taken and commercialized as the next ‘it’ food, only to be dropped and forgotten to make way for the next trend. Food is often imbued with cultural significance so the idea that a middle-class young food vlogger in Shoreditch has just ‘discovered’ the versatility and health benefits of sorghum when it has been growing in Africa for centuries and is the fifth most popular crop in the world is not only arrogant but demeaning too.
The myths of the ‘clean’ eating movement – essentially ‘fake news’ – could be debunked with proper education about the reality of what constitutes a healthy diet. No, eating only alkaline foods will not reverse cancer. No, you do not need to blow your next paycheck on the most expensive products in the supermarket to be well. No, cutting out gluten when you are not coeliac or even intolerant will not necessarily make you feel ‘energised’, neither will it make you a better person. With proper education, many of the ‘truths’ of the industry would be exposed as lies. Yet this would not solve the other equally if not more important issue of the sense of moral superiority associated with ‘clean’ eating.
Until we stop feeling the need to make ourselves feel better at the expense of others and by appealing to the standards set by the advertising industry, this distinctly unhealthy trend and accompanying mindset is here to stay.