The Clean Eating backlash

Over the past few months I have noticed a sudden surge in news articles and media stories demonising Clean Eating. At first it was just the Daily Mail, and I took as much notice as I would of any other health related article, or any article at all, in that tripe bucket. Similarly, when The Independent shrieked that ‘Clean eating is ugly, malevolent and damaging’, I scarcely raised an eyebrow on the basis that The Windy’s fact-based journalism differs little from the Daily  Heil, other than its readers tend to be ‘-istas’ rather than ‘-ists’.

but soon it became difficult to ignore. All the papers pitched, scenting blood in the water. The Grauniad published article after article on ‘how Clean Eating turned Toxic’ (although given that they emplyed Hemsley and Hemsley as columnists for so long, perhaps they were panicking to get their plausible deiability in quick); the Sun, The Spectator and Huffpo all pitched and The Telegraph engaged that renowned health expert Nigella Lawson to explain how Clean Eating is just a mask for eating disorders. The BBC did a Horizon documentary “Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth”. It started with the voiceover line “Imagine if the food you eat could clean your body and make you well…”
Wait, what?
Is that what Clean Eating is about? My kale smoothie is going to scrub my fingernails and decalcify the pericardium?
Then, one day, the final straw: I was driving along to a work appointment and heard Martha Kearney on the World at One telling me how Clean Eating was a dangerous fad that was causing the deaths of young women.
Dear Reader, I very nearly caused the deaths of some passersby at that moment, who may or may not have been young women, as I stared in disbelief at my car radio.

I am quite used to the media debunking and demonising this or that ‘superfood’ and this or that diet, usually a few months after proclaiming it as the latest panacea, slimming aid and, inevitably in the Daily Mail, cure for cancer. Chia seeds, Acai berries, 5:2, blah blah blah. they set up ’em up and they knock ’em back down again, ready for the next one (to be serialised or have a recipe special in the Sunday supplement). But Clean Eating? Really? Ugly, Toxic and killing off young women?

what is it, exactly, that is bringing about these deaths?

Orthorexia Nervosa.
I confess I had never heard of Orthorexia Nervosa, so I looked it up. It means an eating disorder or unhealthy obsession with eating healthily.
Actually there turns out to be a reason I had never heard the term before. It was made up, by a Californian doctor (the same one who keeps popping up in all the articles in the papers), to sound like Anorexia Nervosa, so people would assume it was a recognised condition. It is not, in fact, recognised by the American Psychiatric Association, nor is it listed as diagnosable condition. It was invented by Dr Bratman for an article in a Yoga magazine
Oh, good. Like proper science n’ stuff…
So, young women are dying of a condition that cannot be clinically diagnosed, as referenced in a yoga magazine, caused by an eating regime no one can agree on the principles of?
But essentially eating healthily is inherently unhealthy?

So what is the message we should be getting if healthy food is going to kill us? Eat shit and die?

One of the main reasons clean eating is dangerous for us, the articles claim, because it is based on the elimination of whole food groups. Clean eating precludes all dairy and gluten. Clean Eating relies on low fat products (!! really? FFS) Clean eating is meat free. Clean eating eliminates all carbs… Wait, I’m beginning to see why it is so bad: so no carbs, no fats, and no dairy or meats so no protein either… That leaves… Well, nothing. Spiral used nothing on a Hemsley and Hemsley plate.  Which is, in fact what the other bunch of rent-an-experts quoted are saying: doctors and owners of private ‘recovery clinics’ reporting they have teenage girls patients who eat very little and get dangerously thin. Oh, is that because of Clean Eating? I thought that was down to the fashion industry and their use of super-skinny models. Or was that last year’s scapegoat?

The logic here seems to be that some people who have eating disorders are labelling their starvation diets as ‘clean eating’. That clean eating is open to interpretation and some people interpret it in a really extreme and dangerous way. Which is rather like saying that some people have a radical approach to Islam that manifests itself in extreme and dangerous ways, ergo Islam itself is dangerous.

This ‘masking’ claim of Nigella’s: the premise there is that women (and yes, it did specify women) were now able to turn away foods they felt were fattening, such as bread, without being shamed for it, using the excuse that they were eating clean.  Just think about that for a moment. Women feel they need n excuse not to eat foods they don’t want, for fear of being shamed… And we’re going to point at the ‘excuse’ they us as being the problem in that picture?

My other main problem with all this hysteria and hogwash is that it seems to have little if anything to do with Clean eating as I understand it or as I see pretty much everyone I know who practices it appears to understand it. All the backlash articles I have read seem to gather together the most extreme fringe whack job woo merchants and cynical marketing vehicles (ignoring their own part in promoting same) and present those as being the definition.

What, then, is Clean Eating as defined by Team Rhomboid?
It is indeed a vague and nebulous term and I’m sure one that covers all manners of cuisine, but revolves around some simple basic principles: use fresh single ingredients where possible, minimise processed foods, avoid refined sugar. It means eating like a grown up. Making sensible food choices. We know that vegetables are better for us than bags of crisps, that whole grain is better for us than plastic sliced white, and that an apple is a better choice than a Mars bar.

I know an awful lot of people, both in person and online, who refer to themselves as eating clean. Mainly because, since I started my fitness and health journey a few years ago, I also started hanging out with, in gyms and forums and Facebook groups, a lot of people who do a lot of exercise: runners, bodybuilders, Crossfitters, dancers, obstacle racers, swimmers, triathletes, even cyclists. The majority of them tend to be quite serious and quite sensible about their nutrition and how it impacts on their fitness. Some of them are high carb vegans, others are   Ketogenic Paleo carnivores. Some are eating to add bulk, other to cut bodyfat. Some for endurance, others for a few minutes a year on a competition stage. Eating to meet their goals. What is common to almost all when talking about their diets is that they will describe it as eating Clean.

And there is nothing smug or self-righteous about it (I am still amazed that Nigella would have the gall to accuse anyone else of being smug). It is simple statement of fact. Eating clean to provide the body with clean fuel. There is no badge of pride and precious few Deliciously Ella recipes being bandied about. There is a lot of talk of pizza and the longing for a cheat meal. There is a lot of banter about being ashamed of eating a whole box of Krispy Kreme. But not, as the Graun would doubtless spin it, out of any deep seated Orthorexia. It is humour among people who understand that indulging in junk food every once in a while is fun and not going to cause any harm, but that the food we put in our bodies on a daily basis should be as nutrient-dense, healthful, and, yes, clean as we can manage.



  1. River James

    In the past 18 months, the once seemingly serene and utopian world of wellness has witnessed a major backlash against the trend that propelled it to peak popularity – the ‘ clean eating ’ movement.

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