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Is ‘Eating Clean’ Becoming A Dirty Habit?

Photographed by Mike Garten
After weeks of mince pie and champagne depravity, the arrival of January usually signals the start of the ‘New Year New You’ diet manifesto. Some of you will be necking detox juices in a bid to wash away the effects of over indulgence as you read this. If not, chances are you’re disregarding the ‘healthy eating’ escapade with an air of smugness having glugged green smoothies and chomped on raw chia brownies for the past year.

Welcome to the world of clean eating, a 21st century religion where devotees pray at the altar of wellness, supermarkets have turned into health shrines and recipe books are the new bibles. Last year Deliciously Ella was the fastest-selling debut cookbook of all time. Tess Ward’s The Naked Diet and Amelia Freer’s Eat, Nourish, Glow were gushed about by celebs and dominated our social media feeds. From the outset, the mission of these wellness gurus was admirable, with obesity levels at an all time high, we desperately needed a fresh approach to healthy eating. Surely it’s a good thing that 46% of Brits have increased their efforts to monitor the amount of refined sugar they consume? And that this month’s Veganuary are expecting 50,000 participants to help alleviate the world food crisis?

Well, not exactly. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that you can have too much of a good thing and it seems the pursuit of wellness may have just peaked as a backlash is emerging. Enter Deliciously Stella and You Did Not Eat That who have amassed nearly 200k followers thanks to their parody of our obsession with healthy food and our constant need to trade in pictorial evidence. This reaction isn’t unusual believes Psychologist Dr Vivien Diller. "When there is an implication that ‘eating clean’ is more mindful and sophisticated than instinctive eating, some will react negatively. There was a backlash to fast food and we’ll see the same with eating clean."

Well-known industry figures are also speaking out. Chef and food writer Gizzi Erskine recently highlighted that she finds the current health industry depressing. "2015 has been the year of healthy eating but on such an extreme level with a real exclusion diet. As much as it's about psychologically loving your food, you’ve got to nourish your body and soul; I feel that’s a bit of a missing link at the moment." Others are more scathing; Professor of Complementary Medicine Edzard Ernst believes "all products that claim to detox without evidence are rubbish. 'Detox' implies that toxins are eliminated from the body. Unless there is some evidence for this, the claim is fraudulent. Clean, natural, holistic, these terms are good for marketing. Arsenic, strychnin, anthrax are clean and natural but they also kill you." Even self-proclaimed health brands are challenging existing messages. Udo's Choice Nutritionist, Marianna Sulic, explains that it’s a myth you need to detox. "Your body is constantly detoxing, this is the main vital function of your skin, liver, kidneys and major organs."

As much as its about psychologically loving your food, you’ve got to nourish your body and soul; I feel that’s a bit of a missing link at the moment.

Gizzie Erskine

Worryingly, the deeper you delve, the darker our obsession with ‘eating clean’ becomes. The British Dietetic Association have voiced concerns that orthorexia (a fixation on righteous eating) is on the increase, yet we lack the ability to recognise it as a serious eating disorder. People suffering from anorexia are reportedly giving other sufferers tips via the online code ‘ana’. Social media platforms have therefore launched safety centres and warnings if you try to search associated terms. Yet on the contrary, ‘orthorexia’ appears with no warnings; instead more than 70,000 images of ‘clean’ food appear. Dr Diller believes that although this movement has been embraced by both genders, women are more susceptible because in general they are more body conscious and more often do the food shopping for their families. "Most eating disorders are rooted in perfectionism and the desire for control, so it’s easy to see how women may harness this new movement for this purpose. Orthorexia can become as obsessive as bulimia or anorexia."
Also unpalatable is the effect that the clean eating movement is having on the planet. Thanks to its high protein content, quinoa has become a sought after alternative to meat. Yet its popularity has had a devastating impact on the Bolivans and Peruvians. Once a staple part of their diet, they can no longer afford to eat it and their land, which once grew a number of crops, is now a quinoa mono-culture. The popularity of almonds has also raised concerns in drought stricken California, where one gallon of water is used to nuture a single nut, and in Spain, farmers are feeling the effects of plunging olive oils sales thanks to the popularity of coconut oil.

Ultimately the eating clean movement has provided much-needed food for thought. Producing just 1 kilo of lamb or beef generates as much greenhouse gas emissions as a flight from London to New York and the World Health Organisation recently confirmed what vegans have been saying all along: processed meats are detrimental to your health. Yet we’d do well to remember that what is one man’s cure is another man’s poison, and the quicker we learn to respect that, the quicker life will become much more delicious.