The Blog

Why 'Clean Eating' Can Clear Off

Ultimately, categorising some foods as 'clean' and automatically implicating others as less so plays into an emotive narrative around food which polarises dietary habits in such a way that promotes rigidity, which for many people is only going to be unsustainable.

Don't get me wrong, there's something about the ritual purity of a serving of sauerkraut alongside your matcha infused kumquat smoothie for breakfast that makes you feel clean inside (- you certainly will later in the day if its the first time you've tried it.) There's something inherently self-improving in eating that raw paleo carpaccio that leaves your stomach empty after around half an hour.

In all seriousness, the intention to look after yourself and improve your health wherever you can is an admirable one. With the ever-increasing rate of 'lifestyle-related illnesses' and a generation that we are told will die before their parents, what we put into our bodies is high on the agenda for many, including our politicians. As someone recovering from a major eating disorder, I also admire anyone with the ability to exercise care for themselves and autonomy over their food choices when I lost all control over these abilities for over a decade.

For a long time we have been bombarded with new fad diets, information about which food causes heart disease this week and which berry wards off cancer the next. 'Clean eating' however, as one of the latest trends in attitudes towards food, causes me particular concern for a number of reasons. I'm unlikely to have the most objective of reactions when I read #eatclean on a menu, but on a base level the association we have between cleanliness and moral purity cannot be denied. Theories in social psychology which suggest that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are grounded in bodily interaction with the environment emphasise the importance of metaphors and the way we talk about things as having meaning. Sherman & Clare in 2009 supported the link between language around physical cleanliness and strong automatic associations with morality and immorality, and there have been fascinating studies into how washing hands reduces guilt (Zhang & Liljenquist, 2006) and unethical behaviour increases the purchasing of cleaning products and the price we are willing to pay for them (Lee & Schwartz, 2010). There is good reason therefore to think there might be implications arising from using the word 'clean' in relation to dietary content rather than food hygiene practices.

In addition to health benefits, the moral integrity we might gain from 'eating clean' could be seen as a positive thing. But like much striving for virtue and self-improvement a prime factor at play here is guilt. The command to 'eat clean' and the labelling of types of foods in this way creates one category of safe, healthy, 'good' food, and suggests that all foods outside of this are in some way less clean - perhaps even 'dirty' or dangerous. Polarising food types in this way of course oversimplifies how human nutrition is based on the balance of a variety of foods over time. The visceral associations we have with words relating to cleanliness and by consequence the implicit moral judgement attached to food types by the term 'clean eating' may generate fear of being at risk of all sorts of harm from foods that have been othered as 'unclean'. If this reinforces a subscription to 'clean eating' then it is a winning tactic for businesses involved in this territory.

When I think of my experience of anorexia and judging foods as good and bad or safe and unsafe, 'clean' and 'unclean' doesn't seem too far away from these polarised judgements I made about food - judgements which also became the foundation of how I viewed myself as a person. Linking what we eat with how we evaluate ourselves is a dangerous game. Without saying that we have little control over what we eat, I do know from experience just how easy it is to lose control of making wise choices about food. The reasons can be plenty - emotional dysregulation and comforting, lack of education, poverty, disability, lack of motivation, mental health problem, metabolic disease and more. We are also living in an age of consumerism which especially values our bodies as commodities. Constantly we are being sold products promising youth, sexual success and gratification and more than ever, items we literally consume by putting into our bodies as part of our diet. Yet a confusing dichotomy exists between products sold to us on the basis of promoting our health and conversely those providing gastronomic delight that has no consideration for calories, fat and highly processed foodstuffs.

A recent campaign from just one major retailer, Tesco, exposes us to images of mouthwatering foods which prompt physiological responses over which we have no control and do not actively choose to be subject to. We are told to "love every mouthful". Yes, we can enjoy food - it's often a wonderful way of socialising and certainly is often delicious - but the implication that we should be loving every mouthful elevates the role of food to that of consistently providing pleasure, togetherness end even happiness, when in reality it is OK for eating to be functional and not always something we love. For people with eating disorders this can be especially alienating, but in a more general sense it's important that we don't use food as a prominent source of our happiness - to primarily meet emotional rather than physical needs. I thought that the primary function of food was to nourish us and to provide energy.

The way we treat our bodies and the foods we put into them is a vast topic of paramount importance to our public health going into the future. There are perhaps a few things that we can take from the notion of 'clean eating' that can help in making sense of all the information and mixed messages we have pushed upon us and the way we use food as a society today. Ultimately, categorising some foods as 'clean' and automatically implicating others as less so plays into an emotive narrative around food which polarises dietary habits in such a way that promotes rigidity, which for many people is only going to be unsustainable. Furthermore this is against a backdrop where eating disorders are on the rise, binge eating disorder (BED) has been classified as a psychiatric diagnosis and concerns are growing about those who are excessively worried about eating the 'correct' foods to a degree that it interferes with their quality of life and functioning (an as-yet unrecognised condition termed orthorexia).

I'm left thinking what alternatives there could be to the tactics of marketing and dieting companies that promote healthy eating and the selling of their products in way which may well leave people feeling guilty for what are actually balanced diets. We can't currently separate the state of our diets from how our bodies have become commodities or from the marketisation of health and beauty, and this won't change any time soon. Neither will the 'Three Meals and Three Snacks' diet be selling out in a bookshop near you any time soon. What we could do instead of thinking about 'eating clean' however is to try and 'eat kind' and eat with awareness. Instead of being preyed on by myriad companies and products, we need to turn to our own awareness about what our bodies need, to consider how we use food and what kind of role in plays our lives. Being kind doesn't come with rigidity and classificatory systems of good and bad which don't adapt to the ebb and flow of our lives. Rather, eating with kindness might allow us a chance to nourish our bodies based on compassion for ourselves, rather than the fear of failing, being dirty or unhealthy.

Such a positive approach to eating is long overdue.