The Implications Of Clean Eating Are Not Up For Discussion

It’s been slammed by the media, debunked by science and shunted even by those who earned fame and fortune by propagating its philosophy, but no matter how many fads dethroned and myths dispelled, clean eating is the diet that refuses to die.

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. It started with one or two experts observing the lack of good science, a few journalists and chefs querying its definition, but it didn’t take long for the truth to be exposed, that the attractive and privileged facade of glowing health masked a myriad of disorder. Once allegations of false marketing, fraud and misconduct started to reach public attention, gurus were quick to clean up their image, either distancing themselves from the movement or manipulating statements to lessen the damaging blow.

Those who couldn’t hide their involvement so easily turned instead to offer their own definitions, insisting that ambiguity made clean eating flexible. ‘Clean doesn’t mean extreme restriction to me,’ promoters cried. ‘It means natural, unprocessed food without junk, chemicals and pesticides. It means eating real and cutting the refined crap.’ It was impressionable followers who were at fault for taking clean eating too far and turning it into a ‘loaded’ and ‘complicated’ matter, tethering terror to foods when all influencers wanted to do was help others discover the smug superiority of a flawless diet.

As the scandal dwindled, people started asking whether clean eating was really all that bad. ‘It’s not wrong if I want to eat vegetables instead of pizza’ they argued. ‘It’s not wrong if I choose to limit dairy and refined sugar.’ The conversation got messy, the backlash was met with its own backlash, and people began to justify clean eating as an individualistic, personal diet without obsession or prescriptive restriction but based on supposedly self determined ideals of ‘goodness.’

Despite the prevailing argument that ‘clean’ is ambiguous and open to interpretation however, its core meaning can only have one single and non-negotiable understanding. That some foods are ‘clean,’ and others are ‘dirty.’ Clean eating entails a necessary dichotomy, and though what is ‘clean’ may vary from person to person, what never changes is the fundamental belief that food can be divided and isolated into ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘right and ‘wrong.’ It is a movement founded on rules and forces prescribing that one must limit, control and manipulate one’s body in order to be lighter, purer, healthier, better. In essence, it is the definition of diet culture.

In recent years, the popularity of dieting has declined immensely. Weight Watchers and Slim Fast became tacky and cheap. Trying to be skinny became anti-modern and anti-feminist, and people were fatigued by the constant weight cycle and feelings of failure. But the industry was still there, still seeking profit and still relying on insecurity to survive. It needed people to want to change themselves, it needed people to feel inadequate. And so it rebranded. The notion of ‘wellness’ was co-opted into the diet world, and instead of promoting ‘skinny’ and ‘femininity,’ it fixated on cleanliness and vitality. It made out that the world was polluting us with toxins that we need to cleanse daily. We were tired, depressed, bloated, agitated because we were inundated with crap and chemicals. ‘All natural’ juice fasts and cleanses were suddenly the key to ‘optimal health,’ expensive superfoods were there to curb our hunger and give our weakened immunity a ‘boost,’ and we had to mitigate the damage of what we couldn’t control by eating clean food and and living a clean way.

This birth of clean eating maintained the messages of the now pronounced dead diet industry, perpetuating one-size-fits-all philosophies and an obsession with getting the ‘glow,’ but team clean carefully evaded the word ‘diet’ and replaced it instead with ‘a holistic approach to eating.’ It was still about changing bodies, but in a ‘positive’ and ‘nourishing’ way. The words ‘sustainable’ and ‘lifestyle’ were thrown around amidst 3-day detoxes, carb-free pizzas and 12-week meal plans. The notion of ‘self love’ was attached to a ‘guilt free’ way of life. The language had changed, but the premise was exactly the same.

In the same way dieting was once defended as a tool to help people slim down and feel confident, people now defend clean eating for making nutrition popular. But whilst there’s certainly some reasons to thank the trend, it doesn’t negate the fact that clean eating’s legacy is the rise and prevalence of an entirely new form of disordered eating – orthorexia.

Like every diet before it, clean eating upscales and overvalues the importance of food on a person’s status whilst narrowing the necessity of anything beyond so that we will continuously invest in its message and the products it sells. It is priming people for obsession from the outset. The difference between this and other eating disorders is that it fixates on micronutrients and purity as opposed to calories and size. And so, as we move past the era of Weight Watchers and measuring every morsel of food into the era of clean, it’s becoming more and more common for people to transition from one disorder into another because ultimately the lifestyle is a reinvention of the very same mentality. Aesthetically, it may classify as recovered, but psychologically, the same feelings of guilt, anxiety and inner-turmoil are ever present and destructive in a person’s life.

The moralistic undertones of clean eating are impossible to separate because they’ve been there since the birth of diets and will continue to exist so long as food is continually dichotomised and demonised. As much as advocators of clean eating might insist their values come from a place of good intent or try to evade criticism by formulating their own elusive definitions of the diet, there’s no escaping the fact that the principles of clean eating are entrenched in a system that has restriction, deprivation and reprimand at its core. The term cannot be taken out of its well-established moral context for the purpose of supporting a fanciful wellness agenda.

Clean eating is every diet, every rule, every fad. It’s every detox, every cleanse, every fast. It is every restriction encapsulated in one succinct label. It is a progression of diet culture, not a retaliation. Regardless of what is believed to be ‘clean’ or not, the damage inflicted by attaching moralistic attitudes to food is inescapable and inexcusable. It’s not healthy on any terms, and there’s no defence that will make ‘clean’ okay.

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Maxine Ali