Can We Stop Condemning 'Clean Eating'?

18/07/2016 15:26 | Updated 18 July 2016

This week saw yet another vitriolic attempt to dismantle the wellness phenomenon. 'Clean Eating's Dirty Secrets' is a 35-minute investigation into whether clean eating, a term coined by the media to describe a 'clean' diet consisting of whole and unprocessed foods, is 'the lifestyle change we all need' or 'another fad diet with potentially dangerous consequences'. Five minutes in, it becomes clear that the programme is intent on portraying the latter.

Hosted by YouTuber Grace Victory, the documentary begins with an unfavourable examination of clean eating bloggers such as Deliciously Ella and Natasha Corrett, who have launched successful careers offering nutritional advice and 'clean' recipes to their thousands of followers on social media. They are scoffed at by Victory for promoting highly restrictive plant-based diets without substantial scientific evidence of the benefits. Amongst Corrett and Ella, other bloggers such as Madeleine Shaw, The Hemsley sisters and Tess Ward are named and shamed. They are criticised for offering advice without 'proper' nutritional training. Emmy Gilmour, clinical director at The Recover Clinic in London, explains that a nutritionist qualification that can be attained online in a matter of hours differs substantially from that of a dietician, a qualification that can take up to three years to complete. She believes that the ease at which people can springboard careers in nutrition after only a few months of studying is 'dangerous'.

In one scene, we see Victory sign up online to become a raw food nutritionist; it is an online course that she obtains within the trajectory of the show, exemplifying that it takes only hours to complete. The vilifying 'anyone can be a nutritionist' message is heard pretty loud and clear.

What Victory misleadingly fails to acknowledge in the show is that a lot of bloggers are very forthcoming in the details of their nutritional training. Madeleine Shaw, for example, clearly states on her website that that she is not a dietician and rather than 'writing endless blogs about the dos and don'ts of eating' - which Gilmour would argue only a dietician is qualified to do - aims to 'show people what to cook and how simple, delicious and nutritious food could be.'

Likewise, The Hemsley Sisters, who have been violently accused by Great British Bake Off star Ruby Tandoh for promoting a 'highly contentious and largely unsubstantial' diet without proper 'facts' and 'figures', admit that they don't have a 'typical 'Cordon Bleu' education or any fancy knife skills to speak of' but refer to themselves as 'home cooks with an interest in food that makes us feel our best'. Nowhere on their website do they describe themselves as nutritionists, dieticians or nutritional therapists, making Tandoh's comments seem cruel and melodramatic.

Another inaccuracy in the programme is the implication that clean eating strictly means plant-based i.e. vegan. However, out of the bloggers featured, only a select few actually advocate a 100% plant-based diet. Madeleine Shaw, The Hemsley Sister and Tess Ward are all proud meat-eaters and regularly write about the importance of incorporating organic and sustainably sourced animal products into their diets.

After deciding to trial a vegan diet, we see Victory clearing the contents of her entire fridge. She begrudgingly discards all products containing meat, gluten, dairy and refined sugar which, unsurprisingly, leaves her fridge practically empty. This gross exaggeration suggests that once you eliminate all of these foods, you are left with barely anything to eat. The vegan diet subsequently seems insubstantial, dull and difficult. If you follow any of the bloggers named in the programme, you will know this is not the case.

One of the few 100% plant-based bloggers mentioned is Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella, for whom this way of eating has become a means of healing herself from Postural Tachycardia Syndrome. However, even Ella recognises the danger of taking someone else's dietary advice too literally. On her website, she writes that 'we are all different. We have different bodies, different medical histories, different genes, different lifestyles and different tastes and this is an incredibly important thing to remember.' She then goes on to say that while she does believe that 'everyone is better off physically and mentally living on a diet full of fruit, veg, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes and healthy grains and less refined sugar and processed/refined food', she advises not to 'take anyone else's way of eating too literally, because you're not identical to them and only you really know what your body wants and needs.' This balanced, non-dictational approach is certainly not the impression that you get in the programme.

During the show we see Victory shopping in Planet Organic, one of London's most expensive health food supermarkets. Unsurprisingly, the scene largely consists of her scoffing at obscure products like sprouted chia seed powder and their extravagant prices. Picking up a packet of kale crackers she remarks, "they look tasty but they're £5, I'm not a millionaire" and concludes that clean eating is "very middle class." Thus, the world of wellness seems highly exclusive i.e. you cannot eat 'clean' unless you shop in bespoke health shops and have enough disposable income to binge on £5 kale chips. FYI, a bag of curly kale costs £1 in Tesco and making your own kale chips requires no more than a sprinkling of salt and 10 minutes in the oven.

The programme takes a darker turn when Grace meets a recovering anorexic, now living on a raw vegan diet. The two discuss how the clean eating movement can easily be taken too far and lead to a variety of different eating disorders including the newly surfaced term Orthorexia, used to define an "unhealthy obsession with healthy food".

Also featured on the programme is Australian blogger Belle Gibson, who famously claimed that diet & lifestyle cured her of terminal brain cancer. She went on to publish a hugely successful book entitled The Whole Pantry in addition to creating an app. In 2015, Gibson admitted to fabricating her entire medical history and unsurprisingly, her clean-eating empire quickly collapsed. She is currently facing legal action.

At the end of the documentary, Victory is walking through the streets of Portugal telling the camera that the 'raw vegan' diet we never see her attempt 'might have to go out the window'. After sitting through a 35-minute exposé of £6 loaves of bread, fraudulent bloggers and eating disorders, you don't blame her.

Unfortunately, this entire documentary is riddled with manipulative misrepresentations.

As someone maintains a fairly healthy diet, 70% of which is plant-based, I can confidently say that you don't need to be a 'millionaire' to eat well, you don't have to replicate Deliciously Ella's diet to enjoy her recipes nor do you have to have a history of disordered eating to be interested in wellness. The documentary paints a highly distorted view of healthy eating, one that is largely reflected by the British media in general.

One thing I do agree with entirely is that the term 'clean' eating is itself harmful. Referring to something as 'clean' automatically implies a 'dirty' opposite. When applied to nutrition, this translates into viewing certain foods in positive and negative terms i.e. spinach=good, chips=bad. It's this kind of mentality that can perpetuate disordered eating habits. Sadly, this was not properly explained in the documentary and therefore one is encouraged to view wellness in a fundamentally negative light.

One can only hope that the British public won't be deterred from making a nutritious green smoothie once in a while due to bad editing and lazy research.