“But I only see the positive,” said Madeleine Shaw, the best-selling food blogger and “health coach”, wiping away the tears, when I asked her about some of the downsides of “clean eating”. We were debating the subject at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Friday, along with dietician Renee McGregor, who has seen first-hand the way that clean eating is a trigger for many eating disorder sufferers.
I knew that food was an emotive subject. But it was only when Renee and I were jeered by a crowd of several hundred Madeleine fans, and I, in turn, was reduced to tears, that I realised just how polarised and ugly the whole subject of “clean eating” has now become. One person shouted at me that I had no right, as an “older woman” (I am 42), to criticise a younger one. On Twitter, Renee and I were body-shamed for being “skinnier” women telling “healthy” Madeleine that she was wrong. (For the record, I’ve never been called “skinnier” before, and I suspect it was another synonym for “old”). The implication is that – forget knowledge – you are only allowed a view on nutrition if you are young with model looks.
Devotees of clean eating say that their lives have been miraculously changed by books such as Madeleine’s Get the Glow, Lean in 15 by Joe Wicks, or numerous tomes by the Hemsley sisters. These books gleam with the bright wholesomeness of pomegranate seeds and kale. They assure us that courgettes spiralised into the shape of noodles are just so much better than real pasta. Given the poor diet that many in Britain eat (and the rise of Type 2 diabetes and obesity) how can it possibly be bad if these beautiful young authors encourage some of us to eat more vegetables?
Honestly, I can see the appeal of clean eating. It’s never felt harder to eat in a balanced way. Snacks assail us at every checkout and sugar is now present in nearly 80 per cent of supermarket items (even those that are supposedly savoury). Clean eating isn’t the answer, though. It takes our problematic food supply and adds a raft of fresh problems. I’ve lost count of the number of young women I’ve met who say they tried to use clean eating to “control” their diet, only to find it made them unhappier and unhealthier than before.
For one thing, many of the nutritional claims – gluten=bad! Coconut oil= good! – just don’t stack up. Madeleine’s new book, Ready Steady Glow, promises to contain only recipes that are “sugar-free”, but then includes lots of honey, dates and coconut sugar, which, sad to say, is still sugar. In Cheltenham, Renee MacGregor (who unlike the clean eating gurus is actually a qualified dietician who also has a degree in biochemistry) pointed out that coconut sugar is metabolised by the body the same as any other sugar. It’s just six times more expensive than golden granulated.
More worrying is when clean eating encourages people to cut out entire food groups for no particular reason. Ready Steady Glow tells us to “banish” all bread and pasta because they are not “whole foods” and “full of chemicals”, as if there were no difference between a loaf of wholemeal sourdough and a bag of sliced white. Later in the book, Madeleine suggests that “lettuce makes a great alternative to bread”. Really? When I asked Madeleine about these details in Cheltenham, she denied that she wanted people to cut out bread. Getting upset, she said she actually liked rye bread (and indeed her book does contain a recipe for avocado toast).
Clean eating is based on a flawed understanding of both health and food. There is no such thing as a single ‘perfect’ way of eating
Judging from the audience reaction, some clean eating fans clearly find it cruel to insist too much on the evidence. I was genuinely sorry to puncture Madeleine’s shiny bubble. She seems an innocent soul whose intentions are good. “I often surprise myself by finding new things to spiralise,” she writes.
But for many of those who try clean eating, it is not such a happy experience. Dr Mark Berelowitz works with eating disorder sufferers at the Royal Free hospital, and he has said (quoted here) that 80 to 90 per cent of all his patients are following clean eating diets, cutting out such staples as dairy, gluten, all carbs, and anything else that seems unclean.
Anorexia is a complex mental condition that existed long before the advent of “clean eating”. But clean eating’s insistence on black and white nutritional rules make it a particularly dangerous creed for those who are vulnerable to eating disorders. Renee McGregor, who works with the charity ABC (Anorexia and Bulimia Care) has patients who feel that “the world will collapse” if they eat foods that are not “clean”, because they’ve seen a celebrity blogger saying that these foods are bad.
Clean eating is based on a flawed understanding of both health and food. There is no such thing as a single “perfect” way of eating. Humans are omnivores. Healthy eating is not about cleansing our bodies from all toxins, but finding a way to make our peace with food, in all its complexity. Nigella Lawson put it best when she wrote that, “Food is not dirty, the pleasures of the flesh are essential to life and, however we eat, we are not guaranteed immortality or immunity from loss.”
Eat spiralised courgettes, by all means, if they make you feel good. But don’t think that eating – this wonderful, messy, strange activity – can ever be something clean.
Bee Wilson is the author of First Bite: How We Learn to Eat and This is Not a Diet (due out in January from Fourth Estate)