The cruel consequences of #cleaneating

Nobody really wants to admit that they are influenced by the social media hashtags of #eatclean and #fitspo, or that they internalise ludicrous claims in the tabloids about the latest superfood or the recent discovery of yet another enemy to public health.

But the truth is that this these fitness fads infiltrate every aspect of our lives, no matter how much we attempt to immunise ourselves from their impact. Bestselling books about detoxes and juice cleanses will line the shelves in Waterstones and plague Amazon’s list of bestsellers. Self-proclaimed food bloggers will appear in magazines and newspapers, illustrating their ‘delicious’ sugar- gluten- wheat- dairy- carb- free creations and encouraging that we all dash to our nearest Whole Foods and spend a bomb on chia seeds and cacao powder. Diets and detoxes will be discussed at length in coffee shops and restaurants, posters advertising magic pills promising to melt away fat and build a stronger, leaner you will be plastered on every surface in sight, from buses to billboards to ballet club notice boards. The propaganda – because that is, ultimately, what it is – will be everywhere, and evading it will be as mean a feat as outrunning a cheetah.

The problem is that these claims are unfounded, unproven and untrue. The vast majority of food and health bloggers are neither nutritionists nor doctors, and have a limited and biased perception of our diets and unrealistic opinions on what they should contain. The lifestyles they promote are generally unachievable for a normal person with a job or a family or a mortgage or a dissertation or a life. They are time-consuming, outrageously expensive and completely incompatible with life in the twenty first century, where the population is as stretched and stressed as it is without being shunned for not downing a green smoothie every morning or faffing about making quinoa porridge. But worst of all, these health trends – clean eating, in particular – are unhealthy, both physically and mentally. The effect they are having on our society, on impressionable teenagers and young adults fearing #fomo and parents wondering what the hell is the best thing to feed their kids, is extraordinarily harmful.

Never before has a fitness trend or food fad been able to flourish and expand to such an influential extent, because never before has social media played such a fundamental part in our lives. Countless numbers of accounts are devoted to extreme exercise regimes and cleansing clean diets, but the barbarity of clean eating is evident in its very name. Clean suggests that anything else (and in the eyes of the unqualified food bloggers this includes anything containing sugar, wheat, gluten, dairy, taste, flavour, happiness…) is dirty, and this is a dangerous claim to make. Food is food. It is sustenance, it is fuel, it is energy. It is essential for humans to be able to live and breathe and walk and work and sleep. It can be sociable and enjoyable and exciting and adventurous. It can represent culture and ancestry and family roots, it can convey pride and hope and celebration, and it can mean love and compassion and care. Food is not clean or dirty. Calories are not morals. Eating a cheeseburger makes you no dirtier than eating a medjool date, nor does it have any impact whatsoever on your standing as a human being.

Yet this is the image that is being portrayed and dangerously interpreted by millions of people all over the world. We are starting to judge the quality of our characters not by the kindness or the compassion or the care that we show others, but by the cleanliness of our diets. By whether we ate a bowl of Kellogg’s, bursting with sugar, salt and other ‘malicious’ additives, or a portioned serving of homemade quinoa granola drenched in coconut milk and sprinkled with goja berries. And to judge ourselves based on what we eat and on the content of our diet, to criticise ourselves for indulgence or enjoyment or treats, for experiencing extreme guilt for ‘slipping up’ and eating that takeaway or chocolate cake or ice cream; aren’t they the very basics of an eating disorder? And if they are – which, * spoiler alert *, they are – why are we promoting a lifestyle based on a disease? Why are we, albeit implicitly, advocating a lifestyle that is founded upon a psychiatric illness with the highest mortality rate of them all? Why are we allowing these fads to grow and manipulate and brainwash the most vulnerable of those amongst us?

Clean eating is not clean at all. It is restrictive and flawed and a lifestyle based on deprivation and guilt and self-shaming. It is indoctrinating its followers and allowing them to determine their worth based on the content of their diets. It is facilitating the development of disordered thoughts, beliefs and behaviours, unhealthy obsessions and strict rules around the issue of food. It is hurting our society and thousands are suffering in silence, masking their troubles beneath a façade of healthy living and photos of smashed avocado on rye. Clean eating is nothing more than a euphemism for an eating disorder, and for the sake of our society and the coming generations, it is a fad that must be obliterated.