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Why chef Anthony Warner thinks 'clean eating' is bad news

Anthony Warner

Clean crazy

“Clean eating” was the movement that first alerted Anthony Warner to the bizarre and sometimes dangerous world “where lies are told about food every day”. The following edited extract is from a chapter debunking clean eating in his book The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating.

A guide to fighting the unstoppable multiheaded health Hydra

And so we come to clean eating, the chapter that in many ways is the heart of this book. It is where my story started, sitting listening to the illogical ramblings of one of clean eating’s high priestesses at a food industry conference.

Until I encountered her, despite being someone who prides himself on knowing a bit about food trends, I was completely unaware of this new culinary beast, poised though it was to catapult into the mainstream. For clean eating is a new type of creature, distinct from the clear origins and written manifestos of the diet trends we have discussed so far. “A lifestyle, not a diet”, we are told, proud of its holistic approach, its lack of hard rules and its selective embracing of occasional fragments of science that suit its needs. It is the health trend of the modern era, ill-defined yet hugely influential, the very expression of new media’s undirected and uncontrollable power.

For sensible voices such as medical doctors, dietitians and pseudoscience debunkers, this makes engaging with clean eating as hard as nailing gluten-free jelly to a wall. It is little more than a loose conglomeration of social media savvy, self-appointed gurus, each with a different interpretation, each with a different doctrine, all hiding diets of restriction behind veils of holistic wellness. It is an ever-growing multiheaded monster without an easily located heart, seemingly impossible to fight, and yet so strongly entwined within our modern media it is in danger of slowly strangling out sensible voices forever.

Read more: How to look after your liver: Scrap detoxing, raw food and juice-cleansing

It is hard to fight, but perhaps not impossible. It does have some weaknesses, and it does leave clues that can help us reveal its true nature to the world. But it is a tough beast to slay, especially because of its sweet and innocent face. The naysayers are often damned by those who believe that the beast has been sent to save us from ourselves. Many seemingly intelligent commentators seem unable to see what lies behind its mask of kale and false promises.

As with the criticism of many alternative practices, criticism of clean eating is seen as a restriction of people’s free choice, and that sort of restriction is always seen as bad.

Are you what you eat?

The phrase “you are what you eat” is a commonly held wisdom within the bullshit-nutrition community. Of course we are not what we eat. Having evolved as omnivores, our bodies have a remarkable adaptability to a variety of different diets and we can consume a wide spectrum of different foods with very little impact on our body composition. Vegans are quite clearly made of meat, and contain a remarkably similar mix of proteins, carbohydrates and fats to the rest of us.

The phrase originates from the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, yet over the years it has been paraphrased and twisted from its original meaning. Brillat-Savarin originally said, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”, and most likely never intended the literal connotations ascribed to it by modern health gurus. He was really referring to how the food we eat reflects our character and how our culinary choices project our values to the world. Strangely perhaps, given it has become the mantra of the “food as health” community, this insight underlies some of the reasons for the proliferation of misunderstandings and lies in the world of food.

When it comes to clean eating, creating an association with cleanliness and purity in food is likely to imbue the eater with feelings of a similar nature. To break the rules is to eat something dirty and to become dirty yourself, creating feelings of disgust. It is perhaps this powerful association that has given the clean-eating movement its greatest power to evolve and grow. Tapping into these feelings and creating a strict morality around food choices gives followers the impetus to stick to the rules, to follow the diet and to feel virtue and superiority over those who do not.

And this I feel is clean eating’s Achilles’ heel. Followers are signalling their purity, their morality and their goodness. By implication, those who do not follow are the opposite. The word “clean” is the key to the movement’s power, yet it is an outward signal of its true pernicious nature. For clean eating has evolved to sell lies and justifications for disordered eating patterns. It has created a moralising culture of restriction and shame. 

The big dirty secret

As clean eating has grown in power, the weight-loss goals that lie at its heart have all but disappeared from show. But make no mistake, it is aspirations of thinness, not wellness, that drive its success.

The new breed of clean-eating bloggers talk about a “lifestyle not a diet” and rarely if ever mention weight loss, but that is what is underlying an outward concern for our holistic well-being. Clean eating hides a desire for thinness and sculpted, self-conscious beauty, all to be achieved seemingly without effort.

The young women who have come to encapsulate this trend parade an endless stream of pictures on their Instagram accounts, signalling their purity, their morality and their enviable ability for control. But most of all, they show their thinness. All of them will post as many pictures of themselves as they do of their food, carefully crafted Instagram shots designed to show us their ability to control their bodies, their ability to be effortlessly skinny. It is a distinctly retrograde world where women signal their glamour, health and domesticity and strive to display the moral purity of their lives.

The problem is, the sort of aspirational thinness they present is hard to achieve. To follow the simple rules of [Canadian fitness model] Tosca Reno’s original clean-eating plan would be unlikely to accomplish the sort of fast, dramatic results demanded of an image- and weight-obsessed society. And so, what sells itself as a happy, healthy lifestyle has evolved into an old-fashioned diet of restriction. The new stars of clean eating advocate that followers cut out whole food groups, forcing the same powerful dirty/clean associations onto any number of perfectly healthy foods.

Gluten is rejected by most, outwardly because of pseudoscientific assertions that it damages the gut of non-coeliacs, but in reality because it forces followers to cut out many staple foods. Many call for a rejection of grains, potatoes and other sources of carbohydrates, stealing from the likes of paleo with vague anti-modernistic notions of our bodies not being able to tolerate modern industrial-produced foods. Some class all dairy products as unclean, claiming that they cause acidity and draw calcium from the bones [one of the beliefs behind the discredited Alkaline Ash Diet]. Some reject meat, fish and other sources of protein for similar alkaline-based reasons. Most advocate detox in some way, forcing followers into highly restricted fasts based on false notions of toxicity.

What is there left to eat, when you are not allowed bread, potatoes or cereals, fish or meat, any dairy? The most important part of anyone’s diet is variety, which is the exact opposite of this narrow prescription, devoid even of most sources of protein and carbohydrate. Of course, these dietary restrictions are sure to result in weight loss, because a diet where whole food groups are removed is very likely to result in lower calorie intake. The power of clean eating comes from imbuing forbidden foods with a sense of dirt and impurity, resulting in them being rejected all the more vociferously.

And this is why clean eating is such a repugnant and potentially damaging trend. When people try to hide the weight-loss goals that lie at its heart, they need to justify the arbitrary rejection of certain foods by other means, and this is where the pseudoscience comes in. With sweeping certainty, the principles of various bullshit-peddling diets are incorporated to justify the need for control. Clean eating is the pseudoscience magpie, stealing items from all corners to create a vague doctrine. But underlying it all is restriction and control. And powering those restrictions are notions of impurity and disgust. For someone who has spent his life immersed in the world of food, celebrating everything that it has to offer, a movement that attaches notions of toxicity, dirt and impurity to life’s greatest and simplest pleasure is an affront to everything that I stand for.

I spoke to Judy Swift, associate professor of behavioural nutrition at Nottingham University, who is not short of an opinion on such things. On the power of these arbitrary rules, she told me that:

“The nature of controlling and creating rules gives us a sense of civilisation. Food rules separate us from the animals, leading us to often use food symbolically. We are told that we can manipulate food, that we are not constrained by the environment. This is why food rules are so often used by religions to prove spirituality. Clean eating is the same, it is about proving how morally tough and self-controlled you are.” 

The cult of the obscure

Perhaps to cover its restrictive heart, clean eating is also defined by its hunt for the obscure. It embraces many unusual, expensive ingredients, eulogising with great certainty about the health-giving properties of many a poorly understood micronutrient contained within chia seeds, quinoa, spirulina, miso, bone broth, goji berries, coconut water, wheatgrass or baobab.

Driven by misunderstandings of science (particularly concerning antioxidants) these ingredients are imbued with magical properties, the cleanest of the clean. The more obscure, expensive and harder to obtain the better. Organic is considered essential by most, others insisting on biodynamic. For those who include meat, it must be grass-fed. Fish must be wild. Milk should be sourced raw, lest the pasteurisation process destroy its naturalness.

Clean eating seems deliberately designed to be expensive, exclusive and difficult to achieve. Judy Swift explains that:

“Much like with any fashion, these things are driven by status signalling. They are saying ‘I have the resources to do this’, both financial and cognitive, keen to give off signals, driven by an insecurity about their social position. Being seen to know about and consume an obscure ingredient gives off a certain message.”

Similarly, Britt Marie Hermes, our reformed naturopath, told me that within the world she used to inhabit, one of the great appeals was that “you feel privileged, like you hold a secret knowledge, and that creates delusions of grandeur. It is a distorted reality.”

This embracing of obscurity helps to create a feeling of community within the world of clean eating. Followers are shown a new path, with special information being imparted to them. Those who do not follow the path are seen as unclean. There are worrying parallels with religious bigotry. For followers of clean eating, theirs is a secret world, and the internet gurus and celebrity followers form the priesthood of their religion. Although their belief requires them to reject conventional science, to disregard advice from the medical doctors, dietitians, health bodies and governments, they are happy to do this. I spoke to [Harvard psychologist] Steven Pinker about the conditions required for people to make this seemingly illogical step. He told me:

“One is people’s tribal affiliation. If they think that the ‘authorities’ are just a self-contained, self-serving priesthood, or worse, a conspiracy of capitalist profiteers, rather than a disinterested source of objective truths, then they’ll dismiss their advice and go with the advice of a priesthood they’re most sympathetic to.”

Clean eating is a tribe in the most modern sense of the word. A loose collaboration of people connected by internet affiliations, modern communication methods and a shared set of beliefs. A tribe that is conditioned to accept dangerous pseudoscience to help spread its message of dietary restriction. A tribe that is happy to use the language of eating disorder to sell a false promise of effortless thinness. In a world battling with an epidemic of obesity, clean eating’s association with health provides it with a veil of responsibility, yet its message can be one of great harm.

When Kate Moss claimed that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”, it was clear how harmful this statement was, but at least it came with a level of honest self-awareness. Clean eating, with its arbitrary restrictions, moralistic language and pretence of holistic wellness, is as or more harmful, yet more likely to sneak into people’s lives, to overtake and control those genuinely wanting to improve their health. For those vulnerable to obsession and disorder, clean eating can be a vicious and overwhelming beast.      

Extracted from The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth about Healthy Eating by Anthony Warner (Oneworld, $26.99).

This was published in the November 2017 issue of North & South.