Review: Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth

Image credit: Don LaVange via flickr.com

The latest episode of Horizon boasts a rather provocative title: ‘Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth’. The clean eating trend has come under fire frequently of late, the lightest of complaints being that it’s unnecessary paranoia, and the more serious, that it encourages eating disorders and is based on pseudo-science.

Dr. Giles Yeo examines three separate elements of the clean eating movement (gluten-free, alkaline eating, and avoiding animal protein) by taking to task their most vocal proponents (all Americans). Meanwhile, back in Britain, he cooks up a meal for Ella Mills of the Deliciously Ella sensation, arguably the woman who drove most of the hype.

No doubt the most harrowing and disturbing section of the programme is the interviews with Robert Young, who claims that disease and sickness in the body is caused by an imbalance in pH levels. He spreads his ideas (based, by the way, on those of Béchamp, a professional rival of Louis Pasteurs and firm disbeliever in germs) through his book series The Ph Miracle (which has no medical backing) and, more disturbingly, outs his ideas to practise at his ‘PH Miracle Ranch’, a treatment centre promising cures for cancer through juices, colonics, and massages. We are treated to the horrific story of 27 year old British officer, Naima Houder-Mohammed, whose family raised over $77,000 through their savings and fundraising to finance her treatment for breast cancer there. Three months later, she returned to England to die, after being given 33 sodium bicarbonate IV drips over the course of 31 days.

You don’t have to be a scientist to be shocked and enraged at Robert Young’s methods, and I greeted with satisfaction the news that he’s facing a three year prison sentence for operating without a medical licence. He seems to view himself as a visionary, and is positive that a term in prison won’t be able to keep his message from spreading: he even concludes resentfully that ‘this is the risk you run when you cure cancer’.

But is Robert Young representative of the clean-eating movement as a whole? The documentary certainly seems to imply something along these lines, equating Young’s ideaology with that of writers like Ella Mills. Mills adopted a ‘clean’ diet in an attempt to treat the symptoms caused by Postural Tachycardia Syndrome. Crucially, however, Ella doesn’t claim to be a doctor or a scientist. She adopted her current diet simply because everything she read kept coming back to the same idea: that ‘more natural food, less processed food, more vegetables, is a powerful thing’.

There was something unpleasant about Horizon’s presentation of Ella, especially in the suggestion that her Instagram photos of what she’s eating are somehow fake, giving the impression that what she eats is healthier/ nicer-looking than what it actually is. When Yeo tries to argue with Ella that her followers don’t understand that she’s a brand, that she’s in danger of misrepresenting to people that that’s how she actually eats and lives, she is quick to disagree. “But I do!... That is what I eat. That is my breakfast, but I made it a little prettier because I’m showing a picture of it.”

It’s true that the rise of social media has resulted in a plethora of perfect-looking meals to be found online, but I’m still cautious to label this as a bad thing. For several years, the trend in cookery books has been focused on creating products which are beautiful and pleasant to read even if you never use the recipes. When I compare these with the monstrous photography in healthy eating cookbooks of the 1980s, I wonder how anyone was ever inspired to eat a vegetable: it all looks so unappealing. Ella says she posts pictures of her meals ‘for inspiration’, and if she’s inspiring people to eat more vegetables by making them look appetising, is this really a bad thing?

Robert Young is clearly an extremist. Extremism can plague even the most noble of causes, and I’m wary about the implication that Robert Young’s extremism should mean a cautious avoidance of the whole clean-eating movement. Most people who are involved with clean-eating aren’t insisting that you can cure cancer through vegetables: most of them have been inspired by the healthy, tasty recipes by the likes of Ella Mills to start eating more vegetables and pursue healthier, unprocessed diets. At the end of the day, I don’t think clean-eating is doing as much harm as certain critics would like to imply. There will always be those trying to con and exploit the vulnerable, but avoiding a whole movement because of these people is no more sensible than, for example, avoiding gluten if you’re not a coeliac.

Dr. Yeo began his programme by saying that whereas once upon a time healthy food was championed in diets that would help you to lose weight, the trend now is moving towards diets which make you feel better. Although presented as a dangerous idea, I see this in a more affirming light. If clean-eating sometimes goes too far by applying morality to what we eat, I think we must admit that it has also gone to lengths to show us the beauty and goodness implicit in natural, healthy food. People are learning to appreciate that healthy food makes us feel good, and is not just to be tolerated for the sake of going down a dress size, and I can’t see this message as anything other than overwhelmingly positive.

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