How The Clean Eating Fad Is Taking A Toll On Young Women

Why you should eat the varied diet you enjoy and let the fairy tales of "clean eating" and "wellness" fade into the mist.

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One must stay vigilant living in the age of Trump, Mac n’ Cheetos, Scientology, and Goop. All day, every day, we are bombarded with messages designed to dupe us into tolerating foods devoid of nutrition and facts devoid of truth. So how do we keep our bodies and our minds right? Many of us don’t understand our deepest desires, much less the ways marketing shapes and fuels them. Although a part of us knows that something that seems too good to be true probably is, another part of us will throw skepticism out the window in exchange for any shiny new promise of perfection. Moderation is, we all know, humanity’s enduring struggle. We prefer to operate in the extremes of good and evil—all or nothing. Instead of letting useful principles act as helpful guides, we try to pin them down and make them cast-in-stone prescriptions. This has long been true when it comes to the pursuit of health, and even more specifically, our behaviors surrounding diet and weight loss. Take “clean eating,” for example. It’s a clear response to the floundering health of our fast-food nation. The movement’s guiding principle was honorable: Eat more food that looks mostly like it did when it came out of the ground. But for many of its adherents, the #eatclean movement picked up some unhealthy baggage along the way.

What is clean eating?

According to The Guardian, the earliest iteration of the clean eating movement emerged in 2007, when Canadian fitness model Tosca Reno published The Eat-Clean Diet, a book that promoted the avoidance of processed foods, especially white flour and sugar. She also focused on the importance of vegetables and reasonable portions. All of this was wrapped up in a nice little package with her other insights on embracing a holistic lifestyle. A couple of years later, former cardiologist Alejandro Junger published Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body’s Natural Ability to Heal Itself. Junger had already been praised by Gwyneth Paltrow on Goop, and his call to action was much closer to the clean eating mandates of today. It involved a strict elimination diet centered around liquid meals and eschewed adult beverages, dairy and eggs, sugar, caffeine, nightshade-family vegetables like tomatoes and eggplants, red meat, and more. Flash forward to today, and the #eatclean movement still resembles its parents. The particular tenets vary depending on the individual who’s preaching, but many advocates of clean eating stress the importance of nixing processed foods and avoiding gluten, dairy, and refined sugars. Sometimes clean eating is vegan, sometimes it’s raw vegan, sometimes it’s omnivorous—but it’s always touted as the wholesome, pure way to eat, regardless of its disciples’ other food-related views. The face of clean eating is disproportionately young, attractive, female, white, and affluent enough to be able to regularly afford chia seeds, kale, and coconut sugar. Ultimately, all this renders the clean eating movement highly exclusive, like a sorority or an ashram geared toward entrepreneurs and those with the money to back their pitches.

How did clean eating become unhealthy?

When you start to view food through the lenses of morality, judgment, and restriction, you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Dr. Max Pemberton, writing for Daily Mail, points out that, “as every dietitian will tell you, sensible eating is about balance in your diet, not exclusion.” Yet the gospel of clean eating relies on the notion that some foods are clean (aka good) and others are not clean (i.e., they’re dirty or bad). Meaning, if you want to be good, you must eliminate entire food groups from your diet. “The central tenet, the very nugget at the core of its belief system, is flawed. The very notion of ‘clean’ eating suggests that some food is dirty or bad—and this simply isn’t the case,” Pemberton writes. “It’s an inherently disordered way of viewing the world. There are healthy and unhealthy quantities of different types of food, but food in itself is just food.”

Are the tenets of clean eating bunk?

Clean eating goes along nicely with the booming wellness movement, which frequently relies on pseudoscience and a public that’s prone to mistrusting mainstream medicine. Part of this equation involves creating panic around certain so-called toxins and under-recognized sensitivities that either do not exist or are greatly misunderstood. Take, for example, a popular boogeyman of today: gluten. Many of us believe we’re supposed to avoid it, but we don’t know why. Some wellness gurus would have us believe that gluten is poisoning our guts. Science, on the other hand, says that unless you have a medical condition that makes you unable to process gluten, avoiding it is pointless and potentially harmful because of the way it unnecessarily limits the variety of your diet. So what is an expert’s take on a gluten-free diet for someone who is actually able to process gluten? “We don’t think it’s all that healthy a diet,” Peter H.R. Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University and author of Gluten Exposed: The Science Behind the Hype and How to Navigate to a Healthy, Symptom-Free Life, told Bloomberg. “The things that make things tasty are salt, sugar, fat, and gluten. …Take one thing out and they usually add more of the other.” Many experts believe that any kind of elimination of an entire food group is bad news for the following reason.

Food dogmatism can be a vehicle for disordered eating.

Most of us are suckers for the promise of a perfect yet attainable diet, physique, and lifestyle, and Instagram celebs are perhaps the most notorious peddlers of this promise. Their flawless images are calorie-free eye candy for countless young women who have already been primed by cultural messaging to let others tell them how they should be and what it means to be beautiful. This also just seems to be part of our nature, as Pemberton points out. “Humans far prefer drama, and this is why the endless cycle of excess and restriction, sin and absolution, is so appealing.” But in a culture that’s already prone to disordered eating, it’s easy for the restrictions of clean eating to reinforce a destructive obsession with “healthy” eating. This is called orthorexia, or literally “fixation on righteous eating.” Ruby Tandoh, writing for Vice, shares of her own experience trying to escape her disordered eating habits only to be drawn in by the guilt-based guidance of eating for wellness: “When I found ‘wellness’, I thought I’d found a way out of the storm. What I was looking for was someone to say that there were things that weren’t just OK to eat, but that they would actually be good for me.” “At the same time, I wasn’t ready to float untethered from my world of food neuroses. Wellness was alluring precisely because of the restriction it promised. There’s nothing left to be fearful of when the bad food is labeled ‘bad food’, and when what’s left is a miracle cure.”

Clean eating gone wrong is a reminder that we need to pay more attention to mental health issues.

Despite what all the headlines are saying, it’s not telling the whole truth to say that clean eating is causing eating disorders, though it’s certainly worth being mindful of what professionals who treat patients with eating disorders are observing. Pemberton says, “Every person I see in my eating disorder clinic is ‘clean eating.'” And dietitian Renee McGregor, who works with both Olympic athletes and patients with eating disorders, tells The Guardian that in the past year and a half, “every single client with an eating disorder who walks into my clinic doors is either following or wants to follow a ‘clean’ way of eating.” “Long before ‘clean eating’ came on the scene, doctors like me would see some patients with eating disorders who would describe an obsession with trying to eat healthily. The difference now is that the whole clean eating movement gives them a veneer of respectability,” Pemberton writes. “This means they can easily justify their behaviour not just to themselves, but also their families.” The result is that people are not seeking the help they need until much later, partly because their behavior has been normalized. Shame and strict rules shouldn’t be driving your diet. Pleasure and nutrition are not mutually exclusive—in fact, they may reinforce each other. This doesn’t mean you should be eating whatever you want, whenever you want, in however large a quantity as you want. It just means that eating should be something you actually enjoy, not a shame-inducing or marginalizing experience.

Anna Cherry
Anna Cherry is the staff writer for Multiply. She's lived in a few different places, written in more, and is now back in the state of her birth (Missouri).