Clean eating has once again hit the headlines. Last year's "wellness" trend has received a lot of backlash, with doctors, health writers and chefs claiming that the social media sensation has turned toxic and causing a new type of eating disorder, 'Orthorexia'. Orthorexia is a condition where sufferers become fanatical about healthy eating, cutting out a huge array of food types and exhibiting anxious, obsessive behaviour similar to anorexia nervosa. The sudden increase in this condition is certainly being exacerbated by the fetishisation of eating healthily on social media, pedalled by influencers who live seemingly unattainably pure lives under perfect lighting.
Despite promoting an apparently healthy approach to eating, this fad dieting has proved to be almost as toxic as overeating, bringing a different set of obsessive behaviour that comes with its own health problems. If half of us are getting fatter eating too much and the other half getting ill because they have ruled out too many food types, perhaps we need to admit that our old relationship with food no longer works, and that we need a new more realistic way of communicating what a good diet consists of, and one which works in the modern digital age.
One of the issues which compounds a lack of understanding about healthy eating is a gradual shift in what we see as a healthy looking body. Once again there are two sides of the scale.
A recent study conducted by YouGov revealed that only one in 10 British people identified themselves as overweight whereas UN reports say that one in four British adults are actually clinically obese - the highest level across Europe. This would suggest that our perception of what overweight looks like has been altered. With our global bodyweight gradually creeping up we have learnt to see bodies classified as not just overweight but obese as being a healthy weight.
On the other side of the spectrum, according to many of the most popular Instagram lifestyle gurus, a healthy diet means a body with virtually no body fat, rippling with muscles that in reality most people in a 9-5 do not have the time to achieve. There is no middle ground anymore and it is very difficult for a person looking for advice to find a consistent or reliable answer to what a healthy body or diet looks like. In addition, this idealised version of health has contributed to an increase in weight loss surgery inquiries in the last year as confirmed by Jon Whiting from Clinic Compare: "Despite the surge in popularity of online health and wellness influencers, our data shows that more people than ever are struggling to address their weight loss issues without medical help. Already this year we have seen a 70% uplift in the number of people trying to find weight loss surgery in comparison to end of 2016, one of the sharpest increases we have seen over the past two years. Our findings confirm that more people are shying away from confronting their weight concerns until they have no choice but to consider surgery or put themselves at risk of bigger health problems."
The third part of this perfect storm is what I will dub "The Appetite Gap" whereby our actual capacity for food has increased, alongside our diminishing understanding of it. Gluttony, once condemned as one of the seven deadly sins, is now celebrated, not just by programmes like Man v Food, but also by fast food outlets that depict 'super-sizing' and family buckets as something manly to be conquered, rather than a rather gross and unhealthy stuffing, which is it.
What makes it worse is that these foods are laced with ingredients which we come to crave, so not only are we eating more, we are doing it more often, too. Therefore, we are hungrier because the foods we are eating never properly satisfy us. In a new study from York University in Ontario, it revealed that the average man had a normal body mass index (BMI) of 23 in 1910 compared to the male frame in 2000 which has grown to a BMI of 28.2, which is on the cusp of clinical obesity. Food was once a means of nourishing the body and now we view food as a commodity, with entire entertainment series created around food eating competitions like Man v Food.
Fundamentally, there is a gap in perception of the function of food. We need to take a closer look at what we are consuming and for what reasons because our obsession with clean eating and being overweight are both unhealthy extremes. The way forward is to find a middle ground solution, which still plays into our fascination with social media and influencer following. There doesn't seem to be a balanced solution as the choices available to the majority of people are unrealistic. Instead of the ideal body, we need a sustainable lifestyle that can be maintained alongside our ever mounting work schedules. In my opinion the man who has stepped up to the task is Joe Wicks aka The Body Coach. He has taken the average man approach to devise a plan that can be incorporated into most lifestyles. Wicks' mantra defies all the typical myths found in hardcore crash dieting rituals: eat carbs after 6pm, don't spend two hours in the gym and do not cut your calorie intake to an unrealistic goal: "People think that in order to burn fat they need to create a massive calorie deficit , so they eat 1200 calories a day and lose 7lbs in seven days. The more you exercise, the more you can eat. Do a session in the morning and then you can enjoy more food throughout the day and not feel depressed because you're starving hungry and just eating rice cakes." Wicks has transformed his personal training business into a million-selling book series, TV show and social media empire "Lean In 15 is not a diet book, it is a lifestyle book" (Joe Wicks).
The cynical view as to why this hasn't been promoted more obviously and resolutely is because it doesn't make money the same way. The diet industry is full of low-calorie diets which rely on repeat business. They are aware that people lose the weight from crash dieting will not be able to sustain it and thus the cycle begins again. There is no one size fits all marvel cure, if it promises salvation on a plate, it is a fad diet. True wellness will come by providing people with the motivation and support they need to make a lifestyle change that helps them tackle obesity for the long term.