In recent times, it seems that what we eat has gradually become synonymous with morality. The Hemsley sisters and Deliciously Ella cheerfully sell us the idea that if we cut out this or that, we too can be glowing, smooth skinned and full of peace. To ‘eat clean’ has become synonymous with self care, in spite of the heavy marketing (which should make anyone sceptical) and lack of science.
I could just ignore it, but it bothers me. It bothers me because I often see people on social media transition from full blown eating disorder to ‘clean eating’, under the guise of ‘recovery’. It makes me uncomfortable to see vulnerable people unwittingly exchange one form of restriction and control for another. I’d describe myself as fairly cynical, I can see the marketing, the parallels with anorexia. I know it doesn’t fit my personal definition of recovery. Yet when the ‘eat clean’ message pops up, I still doubt myself and feel intensely guilty that I am actively choosing not to make my diet ‘healthier’. Maybe I should cut out sugar. Maybe I should make sure my diet is 50% veg. Perhaps I am being irresponsible or relaxing my rules too much. Maybe I am kidding myself that eating cake is good for my recovery. I need some sort of excuse. I still want everything to be as ‘pure’ as possible. This is how ‘eat clean’ dangerously taps into an ‘eating disorder’ mindset. It’s dangerous because we can continue to cut out a huge range of foods, but rather than recognise that we’re still stuck in our eating disorder, we now base our restriction on pseudo-health claims, and that makes it harder for the people around us to challenge.
So why does this happen? My theory is that people with certain characteristics are most vulnerable to being drawn in by extreme diets. It’s asceticism. Usually, it appeals to those with a tendency to assume excessive responsibility for things, who feel safer with clear cut rules. Those of us who like to take things to the extreme, who are not satisfied with ‘good enough’. ‘Conscientious’ was repeatedly written on my school reports, and it wasn’t a compliment. I was always a bit too careful, too thoughtful, set the bar a bit too high. ‘Clean eating’ appeals to this mentality – so much is cut out that what’s left is easy to navigate. You know without a doubt that you’re following the rules. And it carries with it a nice side of of self denial, ‘purity’. You’re not just following a diet, you’re being responsible. Never mind that it tires your body, empties your wallet and stifles your social life. It calms your mind, so it must be ok.
Here’s the truth. Restraint and denial, whether they come in the form of anorexia or the form of ‘clean eating’, do not make someone morally superior. It’s a clever trick. So clever, that even though I know this, I still get dragged in far more frequently than I’d like. Logically, choosing an avocado over a chocolate bar says nothing real about who you are, what you are good at, or personal qualities such as kindness or authenticity. And clean eating is a social nightmare. It’s a bit smug, it’s a bit dull, and it makes you frustrating to cook for. As far as I’m aware, unless you have coeliac disease, cutting out gluten is likely to do nothing for you apart from deprive you of energy and nutrients. If you ‘feel better’, it’s likely to be all in your head. Sorry.
So before you jump on the ‘clean eating’ bandwagon, have a critical think about what you’re actually buying into. If you have an eating disorder, or are recovered from one, think about the parallels and consider whether you’re keeping yourself trapped or inadvertently setting yourself up for a relapse. And if you want SCIENTIFIC advice about how to look after your health, pop over to the BDA website. And then eat a lovely bar of chocolate without shame or self recrimination. It really is ok.