How Clean-Eating Became A Dirty Word

Deliciously Ella and the Hemsley sisters have distanced themselves from the trend.

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.”

Deliciously Ella, who appears in a BBC documentary ‘Horizon: Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth’ alongside Biochemist Dr Yeo.
Deliciously Ella, who appears in a BBC documentary ‘Horizon: Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth’ alongside Biochemist Dr Yeo.

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.

Jasmine (L) and Melissa Hemsley
David M. Benett via Getty Images
Jasmine (L) and Melissa Hemsley

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.”

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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.

Useful websites and helplines:
  • Beat, call 0845 634 7650 or email
  • Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90
  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
1. Stop buying into the 'low-fat' trend
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"I would recommend people move away from the idea that a low-fat diet will give you low body fat," says Lorraine Cunningham, fitness and nutrition expert.

"The idea of having low fat, no fat or reducing saturated fat from our diets has been such a huge trend but it does not result in the body transformation that people are looking for.

"Fat is an essential part of our diets. There are three types - hydrogenated fat, saturated fat and essential fat. The only fat which is not good for us is hydrogenated fat, which we find in convenience foods.

"My philosophy is we need to eat more fat - and what I mean by this is more essential fat - to burn body fat."
2. Introduce a mineral rich supplement to your diet
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"As food is becoming more mineral deficient (due to a lack of it in soil, being stored for periods of time, etc.), I would recommend introducing a mineral rich supplement that is easily absorbed such as bee pollen, kelp (seaweed) or marine phytoplankton," says Julie Silver, qualified nutritional therapist and author of 'Food Awakening'.
3. Reduce the fructose in your diet
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"The less fructose you consume, the better," says Matt Plowman, nutrition adviser at Cardiff Sports Nutrition.

"Sugar alternatives like Agave Nectar rank low on the glycemic index because they have a high content of fructose. And fructose does not readily raise blood sugar (glucose) levels because the body doesn’t metabolise it well.

"But new research suggests that excessive fructose consumption deranges liver function and promotes obesity. Therefore I'd avoid it."
4. Don't diet
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"Often dieting just leads to a cycle of weight loss and weight gain that ultimately leaves us unhappy and disheartened," says registered nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed.

"Instead, work on small personal goals that you can build on week by week - always making sure they are personal to the elements you need to change about your health."
5. Upgrade your carbs
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"Most grains eaten in the UK are white (/refined) and our intake of wholegrains is very low," says dietitian and BDA spokesperson, Lucy Jones.

"Surveys show that 95% of adults don’t eat enough wholegrains and nearly one in three of us get none at all. Despite the bad reputation they often face, carbs can be a fantastic part of our diets, particularly when wholegrain. These can contain up to 75% more nutrients than refined grains; providing fibre, proteins, B vitamins and essential minerals like selenium and copper.

"Evidence is growing that eating wholegrains regularly helps to reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes and Type 2 diabetes by 30%. Risks of certain cancers like bowel cancer are also lower in people who eat wholegrains.

"Upgrade your refined white carbs like bread, pasta and rice for brown and wholegrain versions and be mindful of portion sizes."
6. Eat snacks
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"Don’t go hours upon hours without food or your metabolism will slow down to a snail’s pace," says Ant Nyman, qualified PT, nutritionist and Multipower ambassador.

"Snack on a small handful of raw nuts in between lunch and dinner to keep the furnace burning and give you that essential kick of protein. If I’m out for the day I’ll always make sure to pack a protein bar to keep me going."
7. Eat a rainbow
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"Let 2017 be the year when you see that you can eat healthily and feel great, without spending a fortune on obscure faddish 'health foods' and ingredients," says Dr Michelle Braude, medical doctor, nutritionist and founder of The Food Effect.

"Whether it’s fresh, frozen or canned, try to increase and vary your intake of fruit and vegetables. You’ll feel so much better and your body will benefit from all the added vitamins, nutrients, anti-oxidants and fibre.

"Diets rich in fruit and vegetables have been proven to decrease the risk of heart attacks, stroke and a variety of cancers. Healthy glowing skin is also achieved by eating a colourful, varied diet."
8. Eat mindfully
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"Practice mindfulness," says Azmina Govindji, a dietitian and BDA spokesperson.

"Avoid watching TV while eating as you tend to eat more when you're distracted from your food, eat on a smaller plate, chew your food more and savour the flavour."
9. Swap cereal for protein
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"Ditch the cereal and include protein for breakfast," says Karen Austin, fitness and nutritional expert.

"Protein will help balance your blood sugar levels to keep you fuller for longer preventing energy slumps and cravings mid morning. It will also balance and prevent the spike of the hormone cortisol, to help set the body up for the day to burn fat for fuel instead of sugar."
10. Don’t be too hard on yourself
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"An occasional slip up where our plans go off track is completely normal and it’s important to try not to see this as a disaster and move past it," says Carolyn Pallister, a dietitian and BDA spokesperson.

"Get straight back on track and don’t let this make you lose sight of your overall goals and how far you have come, instead try to learn from it by identifying what happened and make a plan for how to deal with it next time."