HEALTH

How the cult of clean eating took hold 

Is clean eating the new religion? Lauren Laverne examines how we got evangelical about avocados

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By Lauren Laverne on

Why is “clean eating” so annoying? I mean technically it’s a good idea. The basic principles are healthy food is good for you, tasty food is nice. Pretty hard to disagree with. And yet...

There is an alchemy to things getting on one’s tits, though, isn’t there? As Shakespeare more or less said “some things are annoying, others become annoying, and some have annoyingness thrust upon them”. Clean eating is in the first category - about ten minutes old, but feels like it’s been working my every last nerve forever.

The offspring of old-school healthy eating and the lifestyle industry, the clean eating phenomenon was born sometime in the past five years - just after the dawn of the age of the avocado, during the short interval between the moment photographing your food became acceptable and the day “juice” began to imply the plural, and it was instantly, acutely irritating. 

Perhaps I took against the movement because it claimed to be new, but reminded me of something I couldn’t place. Instagram posts began to overtake my feed like ivy and I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d seen something similar before. It was in the devotional, ritualistic care taken over the meal. The way the food itself was often one type of substance transformed into another (usually faux ‘bread’ but also things like beetroot ‘chocolate cake’ and courgette ‘spaghetti’).

I recognised the language - with its constant allusions to purity, simplicity and goodness. Then there was the enthusiasm, which bordered on evangelism…it was all ringing childhood bells…church bells. That was it! Clean eating was (is) annoying because it isn’t just about physical health, but moral superiority. To borrow another phrase, it’s religion for atheists. Just like religion, even when you practise and believe in its core principles it’s never long before some humourless zealot comes along to scoop out all the joy (in this case with a specialist pitting tool). 

Clean eating was (is) annoying because it isn’t just about physical health, but moral superiority. To borrow another phrase, it’s religion for atheists

One of the interesting things about secular society is how puritanical it is. Of course I’m not surprised people who don’t believe in God want to be good, or to be seen as good. Those are pretty deep human impulses. What I find fascinating is the way that secular rituals of goodness develop and so often mirror religious ones, and the way they inspire comparable fervour in devotees. Is it our cultural inheritance? Every faith in the world has rules and rituals around food - does a sense of the sacred stay behind, even when the belief in God is gone? Maybe things happened the other way around - societies need rules to regulate the consumption of food and religious practices grew out of that. If that’s the case I guess clean eating just takes moralising about meals back to its roots. 

The name certainly has religious overtones. Cleanliness is next to godliness in several ways - including as a contentious concept sometimes predicated on suspect ideals, a desire to judge others and prejudice against specific groups of people and lifestyles. Plenty would argue - they’d tell you that clean eating is a personal choice, and not a statement about others.

While I’m sure that is the case for some, I have my suspicions about the majority, because it isn’t just about what that person is eating. It’s about who they are. It’s also about what they aren’t eating, and who they aren’t. This is what sociologist Erving Goffman called “disidentification”. Back in 1961 Goffman cited the memorable example of young psychiatrists in American state mental hospitals, who “expressed distance from their administrative medical role by affecting shirts open at the collar…a special kind of status symbol - a disidentifier, telling others not what he is but what he isn’t quite.”

So while people who bore on about clean eating purport to be talking about food and health, in fact they’re making a statement about their lifestyle. They’re using showoff shorthand to indicate affluence, discipline, youth, skill, creativity, huge quantities of leisure time… all of which are perfectly nice to have but unappealing to advertise.

I’m not arguing with the basic principles, which - to recap - are healthy food is good for you, tasty food is nice. Who would? It’s not exactly rocket science, is it? But simple and sensible is never enough for some people. They insist on overcomplicating things, usually when they’re trying to make themselves richer or more important (oh look, we’re back to religion again). That’s definitely annoying.

As Sali Hughes pointed out in this excellent article there are a lot of completely unqualified people making a ton of money out of telling women (and it is mostly women) what (usually what not) to eat. That doesn’t sound very clean to me. 

@laurenlaverne

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