Why Clean Eating Is A Class Issue

Photo: Daniel Castro
They say you can read the history of a person’s diet by analysing a strand of their hair; if that's the case, one swab of mine would reveal a long love affair with bleached white flour and granulated sugar. It wasn't until I got older that I understood the significance of growing up in Dudley, by which I mean the snobbery you encounter when you move Down South.

Dudley, for those who don’t know, is a large town in the West Midlands – Birmingham's slightly less attractive younger sibling, if you will. One in five children in the wider area live in poverty, people don't care what fennel is and the only non-beige food they served at the old man's pub where I worked was a few slices of raw onion to complement your cheese cob.

(FYI Southerners, a 'cob' is what you lot incorrectly describe as a bread roll.)

Myself, my two brothers and my friends grew up eating the same things as everyone around us. We dined on spag bol, pasta bakes, ham sandwiches (on white bread), sugary cereals (with full-fat milk) and pink Angel Delight: the food of kings. We never noticed a 'class divide' between what we and the other half of the world ate, until the other half of the world decided to tell us we were wrong. We never noticed our guts leaking, our bellies full of wheat, our oily skin or our lethargy until we were 'diagnosed' with these crippling ailments and told to live more 'consciously'. But our food couldn't be all bad, could it?"

Professor Judy Swift certainly doesn’t think so. A researcher in behaviour and nutrition at the University of Nottingham, Judy says that, of all the things to blame for public health crises, food is one of the most complicated issues. “We’ve been promoting nutrition rather than promoting food,” she comments. “We should be celebrating all the wonderful things that food does for our bodies and our lives.”

If you’re an unskilled single mother with four mouths to feed, you're not going to give too much thought to how your grains are milled.

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Given the huge complexities of an individual’s daily diet, Judy views food choices as a “cultural issue”. “It’s social, psychological and it’s everyday life,” she tells me.

“How can you expect people to be planning long-term health initiatives when they have highly stressful, short-term problems and are more concerned about how they’re going to last day-to-day?” Judy asks. It’s a fair question. The so-called “worried well” middle classes have no problem heeding the advice of the government’s campaign to cull the levels of sugar in our diets. Nor do they struggle to source their five-a-day, make weekly trips to the gym, eat enough fibre or resist the temptation of a daily visit to McDonald's.

But what if you’re an unskilled single mother with four mouths to feed, rent to pay, a full-time job and a broken boiler? I’d hazard a guess that your priority might be keeping your house warm and providing enough calories to get your kids through the schoolday. Likelihood is, you’re not going to give too much thought to how your grains are milled.

“We do know that a poorer diet costs less”, Judy says, arguing that in some instances, purchasing processed food could even be the "sensible" option when it comes to budget management, as it's likely to go further.

“But lentils are cheap!” you cry. Inexpensive as they may be, the prospect of introducing your already fussy children to a lovely, nutritious bowl of dark-green lentil mush – and the fear of having to throw food away – is more stressful than most of us realise. Even science says so. “We develop food neophobias,” Judy explains. “We’re more likely to try new things if we’ve been exposed to them in the past. For example, if you eat a lot of cabbage, you’re likely to try kale because it’s similar.“ In other words, if potato Smiles and spaghetti hoops are all you've ever known, you’re unlikely to take much notice of Instagram’s Buddha bowls.

It’s not just social media’s health obsession that makes the vulnerable feel even more worthless – statistics suggest the 'fat-shaming' approach simply isn’t working. “Even with the huge amount of obesity research in the past 30 years,” Judy begins, “it’s astonishing how little we’ve actually achieved."

If potato Smiles and spaghetti hoops are all you've ever known, you’re unlikely to take much notice of Instagram’s Buddha bowls.

“There has been a huge increase in obesity and people are still getting heavier, generally speaking. This tells us it’s worth reframing how we look at the issue.”

Judy points to the “Lipstick Effect" to highlight the particular injustice of our blame-focused, fat-shaming culture. This phenomenon can be traced back to 1930s America during the Great Depression, when sales of lipsticks rose dramatically, despite the country being poorer than ever. “People couldn’t afford houses or cars, but they could afford to buy something small to make them feel better about themselves – like lipstick,” Judy explains. The same may well apply to food products. Everyone does what they can to make family life that little bit more comfortable – some muster up a flat deposit, others can just about stretch to branded cereal.

Abbey Dunham, researcher at food trends forecasting company, thefoodpeople, sees this sort of pattern often. Abbey and her colleagues scour the globe for upcoming food trends and examine the changes in our eating habits.

“Millennials and Gen Z are very health-focused," she says. "The middle classes tend to buy into health trends much more as they are educated and this drives their choices.”

“[Obesity] happens to people of lower socio-economic backgrounds, due to a whole host of things like education, living standards and finance," she continues. “These are not the people buying into the healthy food trends much anyway. The group that health foods are aimed at are not the group that need it the most.”

There is, however, one particular group of people who are wonderfully cynical about fad-diet culture and, despite what some bloggers may have you believe, they’re probably far healthier than most of us.

“The older people are, the less concerned they are about health claims in food,” Abbey says. It’s an interesting observation, especially as this demographic is at greater risk of developing health problems. The post-war generation have seen it all before, realised it usually doesn’t work and are quite content to stick to what they know. Which, by the way, is already working pretty well.

As a middle-class Londoner, when I’m disgustingly hungover and I need a can of Coke, that extra 20p isn’t going to put me off. The sugar tax is yet another way of making the lives of the most vulnerable a little bit shittier.

“Their diets are pretty healthy,” Abbey notes, “they eat meat, potatoes, vegetables – quite plain, not luxurious foods.” The pre-Nutribullet generation are, on the whole, quite capable of sustaining a simple, balanced diet by following one tried-and-tested 'wellness programme': A little bit of what you fancy does you good.

As Insta-celebs order us to “quit sugar” and the government starts chopping up our chocolate bars, I ask you this: Who is really affected by such restrictions? I don’t know about you, but as a middle-class Londoner, when I’m disgustingly hungover and I need a can of Coke, that extra 20p isn’t going to put me off. As far as Judy Swift is concerned, the sugar tax is yet another way of making the lives of the most vulnerable a little bit shittier.

“It perpetuates privilege,” Judy says. “It starts to become a tax to stop poor people engaging in bad behaviour, but not the rich people.” You only need look at the Smart Swaps programme to realise the extent to which the government has misunderstood the average working person’s lifestyle. According to the heavily publicised Change4Life campaign, everyone has a stash of piri-piri seasoning and pomegranate seeds lying around the house. It’s great (read: time-consuming and expensive) on homemade popcorn, apparently.

If you really are worried about your diet for health reasons, go and see your doctor. If not, take a leaf out of my book and be thankful for your years as one of the lucky ones. Who knows, there might come a time when you’re struggling to put food on the table and believe me, if that happens, a handful of bleached, dried nuts will NOT qualify as a ‘treat’.
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