In the current pandemic, ‘clean eating’ involves spraying your Tesco delivery with Dettol.
This phrase, however, does not ordinarily mean disinfecting groceries. When I first encountered the concept of clean eating in 2012, it was a nutritional lifestyle that existed predominantly within the fitness community. This diet was comprised of foods that were fresh, whole, unprocessed and unrefined. The mantra of the bodybuilding world was ‘eat clean, train dirty;’ and observing these principles was the standard way to reduce body fat. Day after day, I ate my sad looking turkey and greens from a sweating Tupperware tub, trusting in the magical powers of clean eating to grant me the lean physique of a successful bikini competitor.
Since then, there has been a noticeable shift in diet culture towards ‘wellness.’ Contemporary advocates of clean eating base their meals around foods that provide optimum health. Nowadays, the term ‘clean’ is liberally applied and also encompasses food that is organic, local, grass-fed, free from diary or gluten, ‘super,’ and raw. These eating trends are now mainstream and items such as almond butter and apple cider vinegar have become familiar cupboard staples.
In 2020, plant-based diets are still in vogue, but their offerings are more glamorous than the dry Linda McCartney sausages of my teenage vegetarian phase. Now supermarkets stock exotic products such as sustainable seaweed puffs, coconut flour tortilla chips and spirulina chia pudding.
This eating trend has been perpetuated by a boom of social media bloggers. Despite most of them lacking nutritional qualifications, these foodstagrammers have armies of followers. Their focus is not usually on the health benefits of clean food, however, but rather on its aesthetic appeal. Clean eating has become part of an aspirational lifestyle portrayed by lean, wealthy young adults who swear by their Mason jar rainbow smoothies.
If taken to extremes, clean eating can develop into a condition known as orthorexia nervosa. Orthorexia was first defined in 1977 by Dr Steven Bratman as a pathological obsession with healthy food. While not currently recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, the condition does bear similarities to other clinical eating disorders. Like anorexia nervosa for instance, orthorexia involves strict dietary control and fear-driven ritualistic compulsions.
Unlike anorexics, however, people with orthorexia fixate on the quality and purity of their food. This includes avoiding products that contain artificial preservatives, trans fats and pesticides. Echoing the principles of clean eating, this diet is limited to foods that support physical health. Yet, while clean eating is universally praised, orthorexia is deemed to be harmful and obsessive.
Ironically, such a strict ‘healthy’ eating regime can in fact lead to illness. Since many foods are omitted from an individual’s diet, there is often insufficient intake of the vitamins and minerals required for optimum health.
When part of a more balanced diet, healthy food is good for our physical wellbeing. Yet the language that surrounds our nutritional choices such as ‘organic,’ ‘detox’ and ‘natural’ infers that eating clean will also elevate us to a superior level of virtue. In this way, health food evangelists assert that those who conform to the values of clean eating will not only become physically well, but also morally pure.
This judgment and morality are an everyday part of our eating lexicon. ‘Clean’ food items are even branded with virtuous names. These include Halo Top Ice Cream, Innocent Smoothies, Perfect Snacks and Right Rice. The ‘guilt free’ slogan of these products echoes the idea that we are ‘good’ when we eat clean; and conversely ‘bad’ if we are tempted by ‘dirtier’ foods.
Using the language of morality to define our nutritional choices thereby demonizes food items, or whole food groups. Calorie-laden, low nutritional value foods are often described as ‘junk’ or ‘cheat’ foods, terms which suggest decadence and depravity. In the 1980s, Lyons marketed their products by associating ‘forbidden’ types of food with pleasure, coining the ubiquitous phrase ‘naughty but nice.’ Their successful advertising campaign endorsed the concept that highly palatable foods such as cream cakes are bad for the soul.
When we consume foods that have been designated as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ this morality becomes transferred to ourselves. Restricting our diet to good, clean products can therefore provide us with a sense of achievement and virtue. Within modern culture, praise and respect are awarded to those who eat healthily since they are perceived to possess superior levels of willpower and self-control.
This external commendation, however, only serves to reinforce the mind-set that clean is better. As a result, we are left constantly questioning whether our food choices are ‘good enough.’ Eating foods that we have labelled as ‘bad’ can lead to feelings of guilt and shame; and even physically damaging behaviours such as restriction or purging.
The fetishization of clean eating and its more extreme manifestation as orthorexia can therefore challenge our mental wellbeing. Ultimately, using the phrase ‘clean’ to describe certain types of food grants power to these items and their promise of health and self-worth. In order to disable this power, we need to remind ourselves that the moral lexicon surrounding food is merely a linguistic construct that is culturally promoted and self-imposed.
We may feel virtuous if we eat cauliflower instead of bread, but this is just an idea: food does not possess intrinsic moral value. Health is about balance: eat the kale AND the cake.