Clean-eating has never been so popular. There are 27 million posts on Instagram using the #cleaneating hashtag (and counting) and Google searches have reached a record high this January.
Our appetite for clean-eating has been fuelled by a host of (mainly female) food-bloggers-turned-celebrities who have a string of cookbooks and spin-off products under their belts.
But now the likes of Ella Mills (aka Deliciously Ella) and Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley (of Hemsley + Hemsley fame) are starting to distance themselves from ‘clean-eating’. Problematic, huh?
The definition, they argue, has morphed over the past few years into a ‘fad diet’ that advocates a restrictive eating plan.
Deliciously Ella, who appears in a BBC documentary ‘Horizon: Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth’ alongside Biochemist Dr Yeo, says: “My problem with the word clean is that it has become too complicated. It has become too loaded.
“When I first read the term, it meant natural, unprocessed. Now it doesn’t mean that at all. It means diet. It means fad.”
Meanwhile, the Hemsley sisters are also keen to step away from the movement and said recently that they’ve never used the term “clean-eating”.
“When we first heard it, we thought it meant without pesticides, or foods without junk in it, no preservatives. That’s all it means to us. Most people’s idea of clean eating now is salad with no sauce, or green juice. We have never really engaged with that,” Jasmine Hemsley said at the pair’s Good To Go pop-up in Selfridges, London, according to Evening Standard.
But despite the high search volume on Google and the shelf-load of new cookbooks released this year, the backlash began a long time ago.
The British Dietetic Association (BDA), has long been critical of the movement. Advocating a balanced and healthy approach to eating based on nutritional research, the BDA has criticised the elimination of certain foods groups and the “demonisation” of gluten and dairy.
Dimple Thakrar, dietitian at Fresh Nutrition and spokesperson for the BDA said the main issue with clean-eating is the lack of clarity around its meaning.
“There is no clear definition of clean-eating and is therefore open to misinterpretation and can be taken to the extreme. Routinely ‘clean-eating’ asks that major food groups are eliminated from the diet without medical need or supervision i.e. gluten and or dairy.”
Furthermore, Thakrar says that steep claims about health are often unfounded.
“It is not evidence-based nutrition and is often advocated by unqualified people and can therefore be potentially dangerous,” they said.
“It is one thing to say this diet worked for me but another to advocate it for others, without fully understanding the long term implications. The majority of their recipes claim to be wheat/gluten free and hence encourage this as a healthy way of eating, demonising wheat and gluten.
“In fact they are a valuable source of energy and many vitamins e.g. B vitamins and unless medically stipulated should be part of a healthy balanced diet.”
At worst clean-eating has been associated with orthorexia, an eating disorder involving an obsession with healthy eating and belief that some foods are harmful.
A spokesperson for eating disorder charity Beat told HuffPost UK that orthorexia, which has yet to be officially recognised as an eating disorder, is about far more than an interest in certain foods.
“In the past few years, our cultural obsession with food has changed somewhat to include a much greater obsession with the quality and healthiness of our food,” they said.
“But when healthy eating becomes obsessive it may prompt people to go beyond taking care and moving into fixation; it extends to the person having a specific attitude to food, preparing food in a certain way, deeming certain foods harmful and avoiding them, and placing more importance on the quality of foods consumed than key areas of their lives such as their career and relationships.”
Former ‘Great British Bake Off’ star Ruby Tandoh wrote in an article for Vice last year about her own eating disorder and the potential dangers of messages spouted by the clean-eating crowd.
“Wellness doesn’t cause eating disorders. But when we advocate, and even insist upon, a diet so restrictive, moralizing, and inflexible, and market that diet to young women, and then dress it up as self-care: Just how responsible is that?” she wrote.
“When I subscribed to wellness, it gave me the means to rationalize my food insecurities, while glossing over my fear of food with the respectable veneer of health-consciousness. My illness was hidden in plain sight, and what’s more—it became some thing to be proud of.”
In a blog last year, Deliciously Ella stated that she didn’t “subscribe” to the idea of clean-eating.
“I think it’s a really negative way to look at food, and I feel it’s a real shame that the concept of clean has becoming synonymous with healthy for some people: for me the two have nothing to do with each other,” she said.
“I don’t think we should ever categorize what we eat into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – that’s never going to make anyone happy. All food is good as long as you enjoy it and you feel well.”
Experts are keen to stress that there are positives to be found in some of the clean-eating messages.
Dr Stacey Lockyer from the British Nutrition Foundation said: “Cooking from scratch can make it easier to achieve a healthy, balanced diet and is often cheaper that buying convenience foods. In addition, increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in the diet is a positive as many of us are not currently meeting the recommendation to eat at least five portions of fruit and veg per day,”
Amelia Freer, author of ‘Eat Nourish Glow’, said that while clean-eating started “well-intentioned” it has become both “a blessing and a curse”.
“What may have started out as sensible, healthy advice, also has the potential to morph into a far less beneficial, sometimes even dangerous, message,” she wrote in a blog post.
“It’s important to remember that no food trend should justify eliminating vital nutrition from our diets. Nor should it become the catalyst to ignore the physical cues to eat. We must eat well to survive and prevent disease. Food, after all, cannot be ‘clean’ or ‘unclean’. It is just food. And good food is not only important for physical health, but also for our emotional and social health too.”
As ever, the best approach to practise a balanced and healthy lifestyle and diet.
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