The cult of 'eating clean'

CLEAN AND FRESH: Devotees swear by 'clean' eating.
CLEAN AND FRESH: Devotees swear by 'clean' eating.

On the surface it would seem like I'm a shoo-in to be singing the praises of clean eating. As I write this I'm sitting here sipping on a kale, pear, apple, coconut and chia seed smoothie I whipped up in my beloved blender. I plan to have a rocket, chard, carrot, cherry tomato and roast capsicum salad for lunch (with greens I grew in my own garden for extra bragging rights). But still this is one movement I can't really get on board with, simply because while I love fruit and vegies, I also equally love to sometimes treat myself to Nutella (spooned straight from the jar, of course), Vietnamese coffees and scoops upon scoops of ice-cream. You will drag those goodies from my sugar encrusted clutches at roughly quarter past never.

For the uninitiated "clean eating" is simply avoiding all processed and refined foods, and instead eating food in its most natural state. In Australia the patron saint of the lifestyle is Pete Evans with his much derided love of sprouted millet, sorghum, chia and buckwheat bread, alkalised water, organic spirulina, carob and, not to forget, the infamous activated almond.

Now, there's a lot to admire about clean eating in a world where it's hard to look on the grocery shelf and find foods that aren't full of additives, preservatives and ingredients that have a string of numbers in them.  Nutritionist Kristen Beck says of the diet, "Nutritionally speaking, clean eating is great as the focus is on the foods that should make up the vast bulk of our diets - fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes as well as, hopefully, depending on the diet, dairy and wholegrain cereals.  These are the foods that are rich in different nutrients and as a nutritionist, I am thrilled when people eat more of these foods, but am certainly wary when people become fanatical about cutting foods or even worse, whole food groups from their diet." 

And a quick look at the hashtag #eatclean on Tumblr shows this much darker picture of its acolytes and their eating habits. Whole food groups are wiped clean off the plate with nary a scrap of dairy to be seen. Even more worryingly the glut of thinspo-aping flat stomach shots that are tagged makes it seem that for many followers eating clean isn't about being healthy so much as simply being skinny, but with #eatclean it's all wrapped up in the facade of being "healthy". Rather than preaching moderation, there's a very all-or-nothing vibe to the movement that rings major alarm bells for me, especially given that on the Instagram and Tumblr evidence many of its proponents are young women, a group who are already at high risk for developing disordered eating. Food and guilt are an extremely dangerous combination.

"The concept of clean eating certainly can bring about some very obsessive, tending towards distorted, realities of nutrition and health," says Beck. "Of course it's great to have a focus on a healthy diet and exercise, but when that focus becomes obsessive, to the point of interrupting other aspects of your life, such as not being able to eat with others or spending a large part of your day ensuring that the food you are eating is just right, this is indeed disordered eating.  This is also very difficult to address because people who are obsessive about clean eating will always respond along the lines that they are just trying to be as healthy as they can, which is indeed a noble pursuit, but like everything in life, too much can also be problematic.  As outlined in the Tumblr posts, another issue is that many obsessively 'clean eaters' make their health focus as an important part of their psyche and personality, and can even alienate friends, families and colleagues with their obsession."       

Clean eating is also expensive. To do it properly requires a full arsenal of fancy and expensive kitchen equipment that is out reach for many on a budget. A hardcore blender (BPA-free of course) to make your own juices, smoothies, soups and nut butters, a dehydrator to mimic the texture of cooked foods while keeping enzymes intact, a spiraliser for raw pasta, and so on. And that's before you even purchase the ingredients which of course have to be organic and local.

While most of the developed world is in a health crisis due to our consumption of processed foods should we really be making healthy eating only the domain of those who have enough in their bank account to cover it? As Daily Life writer Annie Stevens put it to me, "There needs to be more education about healthy foods and eating, but you shouldn't need a guide book, a credit card and a weird food processor to do it."

Beck agrees that healthy eating doesn't need to break the bank. "Frozen vegetables for example are a great option for later in the week when you haven't been to the shops, yet many health nuts would say that frozen veggies are 'not healthy enough'."  Healthy eating should be inclusive to anyone on any income bracket. If you've been making the effort to do the right thing and suddenly you're told that two litres of water you drank should've been alkalised and that brown rice is out and quinoa is in, you tend to get a little testy at the exclusiveness and faddishness of it all.

Another area where clean eating gets it dreadfully, dreadfully wrong is desserts. Here are a few names of clean eating desserts: Black Bean Fudge Cakes, Chocolate Avocado Mousse, Protein Cookie Balls, Almond Buckwheat Goji Raw Bars. Is your mouth watering yet? No? That's because Mother Nature already provided us with a perfectly healthy, fuss-free dessert - it's called fruit. And for all other occasions just eat the damn brownie already. So long as you're eating healthily 90 per cent of the time do you really think a freshly baked sweet is going to ruin your entire body and future health? I'd argue that the continual denial of treats just leads you to want them more and in larger quantities than if you'd just had a good quality, freshly made version of what you'd actually wanted. When I ask Beck if it's OK to ever just have a dessert made with plain old butter she replies, "Of course it is, and it should be enjoyed." 

So next time you're on Instagram or Tumblr and come across a peanut butter smeared banana sprinkled with coconut smugly masquerading as "dessert" don't let it make you feel guilty for eating in moderation but not abstinence - instead do what overzealous clean eaters can't and simply take it with a grain of salt.

- Daily Life