Clean eating: the good, the bad & the ‘dirty’?

pexels-photo-988865.jpegClean eating is something which has come under fire over the last year or so in wellness circles, and has more recently drawn attention from the wider public, originally picked up by Tatler (who published a report on the ‘trend’ sweeping society schools) and also reported in this Daily Mail article on clean eating in boarding schools.

Diet culture needs tackling. Where ‘clean eating’ feeds this – it’s a problem. Individuals need to be educated and supported. Perhaps the lesson here is all viral fads are unlikely to ever be holistic (when things go viral they’re not joined by the scientific papers and research are they?!) and so are potentially always dangerous because a fad, even if it sounds saintly and perfect and #wellness, is still a fad and the lifestyle that follows from it is unlikely to be as tailored, balanced and healthy as it needs to be if it comes from a buzzword, be it ‘clean eating’ or ‘Atkins’. – B, @legallygymliving

pexels-photo-461428.jpegClean eating: what is it?

The way I and many other fitness and nutrition enthusiasts understand it is the idea that certain foods are, for want of a better word, ‘cleaner’ than others… i.e. not processed, as close as possible to their natural state… Essentially from nature. I heard phrases when I first got into clean eating like: ‘if it didn’t die or grow in the ground, avoid it’.

And what’s the harm, right? We all need to be encouraged away from eating so much processed, junk and massively added sugar-laden food don’t we?

Well… to an extent. I personally believe the ‘movement’ started with these good intentions – to encourage eating whole, natural, unprocessed foods as much as possible, to try and ‘re-set’ what people regard as go-to foods to a healthier place. For example, James Duigan’s Clean, Lean cookbooks (he founded Bodyism and coached celebs like Elle McPherson).

But increasingly there’s been a backlash against the movement as it grew – let’s talk about why.

Clean eating: the backlash

Semantically, the opposite of clean is dirty, right? So the backlash can be summarised in a nutshell like this.

People begin dividing foods into ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’. It spirals out of control. Orthorexia rises (an eating disorder where people become obsessed with only eating ‘clean’), presumably triggered by the cultural prevalence of a movement that seems healthy but encourages binary thinking about food as GOOD vs BAD. Instead of being a balanced, encouraging tagline, the term essentially seems to encourage an either/or mindset and this catches on beyond the pockets of health bloggers and fitness professionals via instagram, and grows and grows into a clean eating frenzy – so we’re basically back to demonising certain foods on a fairly wide scale, because they’re not clean, and worrying about whether we can eat stuff – is it ‘clean and lean’ or is it ‘dirty’ or ‘bad for me’. It’s like the 80s and 90s fad diets all over again, but dressed up as balance and health. pexels-photo-236147.jpeg

This is pretty much how and why the backlash happened.

And I agree it needs to be discussed – it’s dangerous, particularly for impressionable young girls, boys and even adults who glean all their nutritional information from the media – to become brainwashed and let this kind of mindset spiral out of control.

Influencers like Alice Liveing realised the movement was having unintentional negative consequences, and distanced themselves – Alice famously changed her instagram username from @cleaneatingalice to @aliveliveing partially for this reason.

A nutritionist’s take

Read the Daily Mail article for Rhiannon Lambert’s (a Harley Street nutritionist) comments on this, as I think it’s key to read what actual nutritionists are saying about these issues!

pexels-photo-296879.jpegMy two cents: clean eating, orthorexia, & foodie language words have power, but also have (& need) context!

I am not a nutritionist, so I’m not qualified, I can’t advise, this is just my personal view! I am a nutrition and fitness enthusiast and I followed the clean eating trend as it rose, and fell. I see both sides of the coin. It didn’t trigger orthorexia in me, despite being an ex-eating-disorder sufferer (of bulimia and body dysmorphia). It has clearly triggered an increase in orthorexia, or at least been problematic for ED suffers and this really needs to be addressed.

I think we need to be so careful about how we talk about food and ensure we’re not promoting things that can make it easier for eating disorders to be triggered. But remember – they are eating disorders and it’s a mental and physical health issue. Describing food as clean isn’t a single cause, and the movement was initially, I believe, well-intentioned and an attempt to educate.

It’s hard to know what language to use because there’s no getting away from the fact that some foods ARE nutritionally more beneficial than others. The problem is, a description of food can’t be taken in isolation (and neither can a meal or a snack!) We need to look at the whole picture.

Yes, labelling foods as just clean or dirty is damaging in isolation.

You can have cake, burgers, pizza, nachos etc. in MODERATION and still be healthy (and lose fat if that’s your goal).

Just like you can eat a caloric surplus of ‘clean’ foods – nuts, rice, sweet potato, chicken, broccoli and gain weight.

Ultimately, it’s about the wider culture, and your wider nutritional intake, self-image, body confidence, the whole shebang. We can’t lie to ourselves and say pizza or chocolate are as great for our bodies gram for gram as broccoli, mixed veggies, potato and lean protein! I appreciate ‘dirty’ is a loaded word but we do need to be aware of the additives in our food.

So I think it’s all about context, balance, and trying to avoid saying ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ around food as much as possible, but sometimes I do say ‘clean’ and I think providing the context is there, it’s totally OKAY. The problem is the way people are educated about their diet in general, the way certain body types are idolised or vilified, the tearing apart of celeb bodies in the media (constant comments particularly with women in the gossip mags!) and the fact it’s ASSUMED all women WANT to lose weight… to name a few!

Diet culture needs tackling. Where ‘clean eating’ feeds this – it’s a problem. Individuals need to be educated and supported. Perhaps the lesson here is all viral fads are unlikely to ever be holistic (when things go viral they’re not joined by the scientific papers and research are they?!) and so are potentially always dangerous because fad, even if it sounds saintly and perfect and #wellness, is still a fad and the lifestyle that follows from it is unlikely to be as tailored, balanced and healthy as it needs to be if it comes from a buzzword, be it ‘clean eating’ or ‘Atkins’.

Where describing foods as clean can be helpful and is done in context, I think that’s fine.

What are your thoughts around these issues? It’s such a complicated topic! Let me know in the comments.

Ooh, and I also published a post a while ago you might like to read if you’re interested in this area (see ‘An Apology’ here)  in which I dealt with how I now feel about past bits of my fitness and health ‘journey’ (cringe), where I did promote clean eating and various things that at the time I loved but now don’t feel comfortable about…

B xoxox

Are you affected by anything in this post?

If you suffer with an eating disorder, think you do, or are struggling with your relationship with food or your body, please contact your GP and a nutritionist (and ideally therapist).

Some of the organisations below may help:

Beat, an eating disorders charity. (They have a helpline too!)

NHS UK Eating Disorders Page

Rhiannon Lambert BSc, MSc, ANtr – an ED specialist nutritionist

Laura Phelan – an ED Recovery specialist

Mind, a mental health charity.

An apology

DEE7D881-3233-469C-BE55-FA38D47677C7Something has been on my mind over the last few months, and exams and various things have meant it’s taken me FOREVER to get around writing this.

But over the last year or so, I’ve MASSIVELY re-educated myself about nutrition, about self-care, about the science of health and looking after ourselves. I’m so excited that Instagram is starting to have healthier advice from qualified professionals seep out there – from @thefoodmedic, a junior doctor to @rhitrition, a Harley Street nutritionist, and from there it’s trickling down to influencers and professional bloggers, and also out to the wider world – including your at-home-normal-girl-online (like me!) who just takes an interest but doesn’t work in the field.

This dawning realisation of how qualified advice is key, and of how to truly look after 12801480_10154017394389571_243980647230974058_nmyself made me realise something: even when I thought I’d recovered from eating disorders I was still obsessive, counting calories and macros made me miserable, I tried crazy tips and tricks I’d find online…  I was exhibiting damaging behaviours, but because I have always documented my journey on Instagram, I was sharing them. 

I am not an “influencer”. I’m just a girl online. I’m not a nutritionist. I’ve never pretended to be able to give advice in any official sense, but the problem with sharing our lives on social in the health and wellness sphere is inevitably there will be people who give something you’ve tried a whirl.

Social gives you a channel that if what you say reaches even one person, it can have an effect.

So I am writing this to say I’m sorry.

Obviously everything I’ve ever written is just my opinion and so I can’t be responsible for anyone copying or trying anything, I know that, but I still want to write this to make clear that moving forward I want to distance myself even more from the obsessive ‘weight loss’ and ‘clean eating’ online movements… clearly each and every one of us takes responsibility for our own health (unless you hire qualified practitioners who then presumably assume responsibility for any good or ill effects of you implementing their official advice), and I’m not under any ego-centric illusion that me essentially sharing my health and fitness ‘diary’ has changed lives…

12809559_10154022763194571_8624223923645781642_nBUT I am sorry for sharing things about my journey, my experience, any informal advice or tips when they were wrong (as I now believe them to be – obviously at the time I was excited by them, and believed in them! And there are evidently people who still do). I think posts of mine even a year ago mention macro counting. I’m sure that for certain people this works fine, but it’s not something I’d now want to promote personally at all.

It has never been my intention to mislead, but in genuinely believing stuff that was wrong myself, what I intended doesn’t matter – maybe I contributed to promoting unhealthy habits in the past entirely mistakenly. Trying to convince myself that obsessing about macros made me feel great might have made someone else do the same, possibly, and I’m sorry for that.

I’m sorry for sharing so much on #cleaneating in the past. (I think this movement started off as well-intentioned – to encourage increased consumption of whole foods, vegetables, and reduction of over-processed, super sugary products… but the way it caught on has led to the rise of orthorexia in recent years (see the book ReNourish, by Rhiannon Lambert, and also there are various documentaries you can watch on this) and it is tricky, to be fair, to find vocabulary to express these ideas without them being loaded and causing problems!).

I’m sorry for not finding the right path sooner, and for falling prey to pseudoscience and myths in the hope they’d be quick fixes.

I’m sorry that society hasn’t yet fully embraced sensible healthy living and still encourages diet culture.

Of course I’m still sharing my journey but I’m trying to cite sources, to seek scientific verification before I try things out for myself let alone talk about them in public online, and to constantly emphasise that we can’t take information we find on Instagram as correct without fact-checking from credible sources – and that includes not just blindly believing hobby bloggers like me!

We have all probably accidentally pushed material around in the public sphere that with hindsight we realise actually wasn’t the right thing. I don’t think there are many people out there who do this deliberately (maybe with the exception of skinny/detox/diet teas and body wrap products!) But I think we can all try to be more responsible about how we use social media and ground what we say in sources that aren’t dubious in origin!

I hope this helps, and let’s all do our best to join the revolution of evidence-based health and nutrition and counteract diet culture!

(And in the event that anyone comes out of this post feeling a bit blue about social media, have a little read of this where I’ve shared my musings on the dangers but also the AMAZING BENEFITS of social!)

B xxxxx

PS. You might also like to have a mosey of this post on boosting body confidence

PPS. all images here are of recipes which you can find on this site, or on my Instagram!

PPPS. As if I haven’t said it enough, I think we should ALWAYS SEEK ADVICE FROM QUALIFIED MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS about diet, nutrition and fitness. The internet might be great for inspiration, but your health is the most important thing and you need qualified individuals to help you make sure you’re making safe and sensible choices for your body. 

Bloggers, randoms like me, instagrammers (who aren’t nutritionists and doctors, and even when they are, they can’t give tailored advice without seeing you in clinic!) and internet forums aren’t sources of info you should copy unquestioningly, or even at all. Use them to investigate, but always always always verify. Have I emphasised this enough yet hehe?!!!