The clean eating myth

Rachel Rees Middleton 5 November 2016

Chia seeds. Almond milk. Courgetti. Even if you haven’t eaten any of these things yourself (and let’s be honest, you’re not quite sure how to pronounce “chia”), you’re likely to know someone who has. Thanks to the popularity of wellness blogs and Instagram accounts such as Naturally Ella, My New Roots and Oh She Glows, the clean eating movement has swept the globe.

Clean eating is about choosing foods which are as unprocessed as possible and avoiding foods containing processed sugar or white flour. Whilst this sounds good in theory, in reality it can become a trap, particularly when combined with perfectionistic tendencies – something I imagine many Cantabs are familiar with. When we start something, we want to do it well, and this means that things like clean eating can be taken to extremes. We’re so driven to perform everything ‘perfectly’ that this can translate into our eating habits too. Suddenly, instead of being a fun activity, food becomes a challenge. You insist that you just want to feel healthier and have more energy, but all too soon, eating ‘clean’ is all you can think about. Devotees insist that clean eating is not a restrictive diet – it’s a “lifestyle” –  but I beg to differ.

Before you go to sleep, you’ll have planned your meals for the next day. And the minute someone hands you an unexpected cookie, or a piece of cake (which you couldn’t decline, because it’s your friend’s birthday), the guilty feelings start and you immediately begin to plan what you’ll eat over the next few days to ‘make up for it’. When you come home from lectures, you’ll make a list of all the things you have eaten, mentally calculating the amount of sugar in that banana you had for breakfast and wondering if it was okay to have peanut butter and avocado today when they both contain high levels of fat. Even healthy foods can become a problem. Dried fruit? Packed full of sugar. Nuts? Far too fatty. Your diet slowly becomes more and more restricted until you’re stuck with vegetables and little else.

Clean eating promotes a healthy lifestyle, but it can lead to an unhealthy, obsessive relationship with food. It implies that foods which don’t fit the definition of ‘clean’ are impure and dirty, to be avoided at all costs. It prescribes a list of dos and don’ts, putting foods into categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, so that eating something ‘unclean’ fills you with self-loathing. Food consumes your thoughts, so much so that it becomes impossible for you to go even an hour without thinking about what you’re going to eat next. What starts off as desire to be healthy leads to a dark hole of self-punishment and mental suffering as you battle every day to be ‘good’ and not give in to temptation. 

Put simply, it can trigger an obsession with food. And that’s not right, in any form. Food should be something fun to eat, something to share with friends; not a battleground. Feel free to add some salad to your plate at lunchtime – your rowing coach will thank you for it – but don’t feel guilty for that pre-bed mug of hot chocolate. After all, it’s just food.