The Vagenda

Fuck Clean Eating

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The Times, May 23 2015

A couple of weeks ago, a few girlfriends and I were musing over where to have pre-cinema dinner. Never being one to miss the opportunity for chips, and being on a reasonably tight budget, I suggested a cheeky Nandos. I wasn’t expecting an overly-enthusiastic response, but I was a little perturbed (grammatically and morally) when I was told one of our group was ‘eating really clean’ at the moment, so we had to go elsewhere.

In the end, after much faffing around, we went to a well-known Italian chain and had a pretty decent meal (despite the absence of chips – harrumph). My clean eating friend, after much scouring of the menu, ordered a salad and a glass of water.

Now, this isn’t a rant about someone’s choice to eat greens – diet is, to a certain extent, a personal choice (albeit sometimes determined by finance, health and other factors). But nevertheless the term ‘clean eating’ (a phrase that’s been much jumped on by the media in recent weeks)  leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Because if the food I am consuming is not ‘clean’, it is therefore ‘dirty’, ‘filthy’, or at the very least, slightly grubby.

It’s not just the implication that ‘non-clean’ food is ‘dirty’ which grates, but the sense of shame and guilt that this narrative bestows upon those of us who like the odd bit of cheese/chocolate/whatever might be your chosen vegan alternative. The term ‘clean eating’ gives off a judgmental air, suggesting that every ‘non-clean’ food isn’t quite good enough. As if people, and women particularly, don’t have enough to contend with without feeling guilty for consuming a post-work bag of mini-cheddars.

If you’ve successfully managed to avoid the hype, you might be asking yourslef what in the name of arse ‘clean eating’ actually means. The website defines it as ‘not a diet…(but) a happy and healthy lifestyle’. Buzzfeed, having recently published its second ‘clean eating challenge’, summarises it as ‘low-carb. and gluten-free with an emphasis on lean protein’. The Mirror declares it as a way to ‘shift those stubborn extra pounds…in time for summer’. In fact, a cursory search reveals no end of definitions – ‘clean eating’ has entered the lexicon and become A Thing, without having been clearly defined. It is becoming a blanket term for unrealistic dietary expectations that might possibly but probably won’t cure your IBS. Many clean eating regimes are so restrictive that proponents are consuming as little as they would be on any other weight loss diet yet, we are reminded constantly, this is about “health”. For proof that clean eating has become more than a lifestyle fetish, you need only look as far as the Times a couple of weekends ago, featuring as it did Deliciously Ella and other clean eating proponents as part of a glamorous photoshoot. You can try arguing that clean eating isn’t about adhering to rigid female beauty standards, but who would believe you while looking at those pictures? As with many diets geared towards women, it’s about restriction.

Looking at the aforementioned ‘clean eating challenge’, which bears more than a passing resemblance to a flight manual, a participant is recommended to have 31 utensils at their disposal, including three different types of skillet, a food processor and a slow cooker. It also recommends eight different types of plastic storage container. I have a great deal of respect for those who have the space to store this equipment, let alone know the reasons for the existence of three different types of skillets, but this surely cannot be serious. Three types of skillet? Really?

It’s no secret that home cooking works out generally cheaper than buying ready-made meals and budget supermarkets have made access to decent fruit and veg readily available – yes, I know I’m supposed to be shopping locally and organically, and one day I will, but in the meantime, supermarkets will have to do. That being said, I was surprised that the ‘clean-eating challenge’ would require me to spend £230 per fortnight on this plan in order to feed just myself. My young teacher’s salary just about covers rent and living costs but comes nowhere near close to being able to afford this! This requirement for adherents to spend extortionate amounts lest they eat ‘unclean’ food smacks of classism and snobbery. The ones that can afford are the ‘clean’. Those who cannot are condemned and ‘impure’.

A quick search of ‘clean eating’ meal plans reveals the average calorific amount to be 1,300-1,600 per day. The NHS recommends that women consume around 2,000 calories per day, although this depends to a certain extent on age, metabolism and physical activity. For a movement/trend/fad claiming to be (amongst other things) a ‘lifestyle’, recommending so few calories cannot be sustainable, let alone physically or mentally healthy. ‘Clean eating’ is nothing new – it is calorie counting repackaged.

Established diet plans use religious tropes as part of their jargon. Slimming World, for instance, refers to limited foods as ‘syns’. The mere association of a word so similar to ‘sin’ with certain foods links them to the need for guilt and repentance. ‘Clean eating’ is no different. Buzzfeed empathises with the weak in the most patronising of tones – ‘we understand some of you might cheat,’ it chides before allowing followers the odd glass of white wine. The Mirror preaches stricter lessons, telling readers to ‘avoid dirty, processed foods’, and, in its Decalogue-like list to post on a fridge door (I am not joking here) instructs us to ‘know thy enemies’. These include additives and foods high in sugar. ‘Clean eating’ is creating a quasi-religious narrative based on exalting the pure and shaming the non-believers.

I fail to see anything inherently wrong with eating a decent amount of healthy food, despite my need for chips as part of Friday lunch (they just get me through the last few hours…) However, a food trend which dichotomises the good and the bad, requires prep. time and money that a lot of people haven’t got, and lacks clear demarcation as to what it actually is all about, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Or not. Salt is unclean after all.

- Kim

15 thoughts on “Fuck Clean Eating

  1. For me this is another example of the media jumping on the bandwagon and manipulating something that is generally supposed to be helping.
    As someone who follows a strict diet (I dont like the words diet, clean eating or detox) but I do follow this way of eating and restricted palette. After being treated for five years of my childhood with daily antibiotics for a genetic kidney condition, antibiotics caused long term damage to my digestive system. The damage caused by eating food I was allergic too led to internal bleeding and not being able to consume any food I enjoyed whatsoever, bye dairy, gluten foods, mushrooms amongst others. The result is a diet such as a clean eating one, before that I could not stand, I was in pain 24 hours and constant doctors appointments but this way of eating not to sound melodramatic saved me. Yes it can be expensive but of course you can do this without three skillets and shop at a supermarket, I have to on a restricted budget. It is worrying that people will take these ideas over to strive for unrealistic body images and that stigma will be placed on clean eating when for some people it is essential and believe me not a choice I took lightly at all. Great article finally discussing this.

  2. I eat dirty food and my liver cleans it and detoxs my “system” (I don’t have a body, I have a system) for me. I love my liver.

  3. FYI to your friend, Nandos do salads too.

    Yep, clean eating is just another diet, what gets me is the food that is meant to be like another food ‘cleaned up’, you know like ‘clean cheesecake’ etc. Look either have the real cheesecake or have a chicken salad, stop filling my instagram with fake, clean food.

  4. This also reminds me of when people say they’ve been ‘naughty’ for eating a donut or something. Naughty? Are we five years old?

  5. John Rentoul doesn’t appear to be in this particular building, but ‘a cheeky _________’ needs to go on the Banned List.

  6. I’ve been avoiding sugar, refined grains and processed foods for a while now, so I guess you could say that I eat ‘clean’. And I do see where you’re coming from with this. My friends think it’s a cardinal sin for me to offer them a raw sweet potato brownie instead of whacking out the Dairy Milk like a normal person, and I accept that I could be seen as a complete hippy. But I feel like a normal person, only healthier, with more energy, stronger nails and clearer skin. I take a couple of hours on an evening or at the weekend to prep stuff for the week ahead, and I use my freezer to get the most out of my groceries. The way I cook now doesn’t waste any food and I’m using a whole lot less plastic and unnecessary packaging. I actually find it to be a really quick, sustainable and cheap way to eat – it just requires you taking ten minutes to plan your meals for the week ahead, which I don’t think is an unreasonable thing to do.
    The internet is full of fad diets and ridiculous advice, there’s no denying that. But the way I see it, ‘eating clean’ is another way of saying ‘everything in moderation’ and treating treats as just that – treats.

  7. 3 types of Skillett! Reminds me of the episode of Frasier where Niles sends his crêpe pans to be re-seasoned. Clean Eating is a load of bollocks. Thanks for the article.

  8. Drives me bananas, a combination of a large family and a low income has meant that I cook much as my Grandmother did- lots of lovely cheap and filling veg, a bit of meat and a pud only if you eat ALL your veg. The idea that a slice of chocolate cake is a sin not a treat is just designed to make us spend a fortune on stuff we don’t need. I do wonder if we have lost our collective tiny minds…

  9. “Clean eating’ is creating a quasi-religious narrative based on exalting the pure and shaming the non-believers.” – I love this so much. It’s just the latest, newest b.s. of extreme dieting to try to make the dieter feel morally/spiritually superior. Anyone can eat what they want, don’t get me wrong, but I LOATHE this ever evolving need to make our food choices ever more exclusive and glorified above all of the other inferior chip eating plebs. Even if I did decide to do a clean eating diet, I would not call it such, because I know it would annoy people I care about or make them feel diminished somehow. Do not ever inflict YOUR choices on the outside world, it is beyond selfish and obnoxious.

  10. I got into Deliciously Ella when I was looking, ironically, for recipes that work with my IBS, and I love that there’s an alternative to cookbooks and whatnot that I can actually use, but you’ve definitely summed up what’s weird about the whole thing – it’s become a media-and-image driven fad aimed at making women feel bad so they spend their money.

    I hope that it becomes more of a ‘look after yourself’ thing than a ‘look this way’ thing… although I’m not all that optimistic it will!

  11. Such a well written article! I opened it because I’ve recently started trying to eat more ‘good food’ but mainly for ethical reasons (I’ll still stuff my face with cake if the ingredients are well sourced). However, I’ve found myself in group-meal situations where I’m too embarrassed to stick to my guns for fear of coming off as the snobby, body-conscious person you so adeptly write about here. I wonder what we need to do to open up the discourse of healthy eating (or any diet that makes you feel good, really) so we can be more confident in ourselves in the face of stigma and counter-stigma. Thoughts?

  12. WORD!! I LOVE this discourse. Thanks for being an intouch and outspoken proponent of all things dogmatic.