Why do we love 'clean eating' so much?

oatmeal breakfast
© Madeleine Shaw -- A highly stylized breakfast photo, typical of the #EatClean movement, meant to inspire

Despite scientists pointing out its many shortcomings, the #EatClean movement is still hugely popular. Bee Wilson wants to know why.

In her typical fashion, Bee Wilson has presented a stunning analysis of the ‘clean eating’ movement in a lengthy article for The Guardian. Titled “Why we fell for clean eating,” Wilson maintains that the movement has been thoroughly debunked, and yet continues to appeal to millions of people worldwide. It’s a fascinating case of post-truth culture, where the “adherents are impervious, even hostile, to facts and experts.” The big question, though, is why? What is it about clean eating that has spellbound so many people?

Wilson suggests that it comes down to that kernel of truth that exists within the philosophy – that our conventional food system is hurting us. Indeed, one need not look far afield to see people who have become terribly ill from eating what’s considered a ‘normal’ diet these days. What we know about food production, from grotesque animal cruelty to rampant chemical use, is deeply disturbing.

“Clean eating – whether it is called that or not – is perhaps best seen as a dysfunctional response to a still more dysfunctional food supply: a dream of purity in a toxic world. To walk into a modern western supermarket is to be assailed by aisle upon aisle of salty, oily snacks and sugary cereals, of ‘bread’ that has been neither proved nor fermented, of cheap, sweetened drinks and meat from animals kept in inhumane conditions.”

Add to that the constant back-and-forth among media as to what constitutes a healthy diet. Headlines are always changing, one day screaming that milk and meat are killing us, followed by sugar and wheat. Nobody knows what to think anymore, so when someone – a self-professed clean-eating expert – lays out a simple, clear, inspiring plan to follow, it’s alluring.

What bothers Wilson, however, is the way in which the ‘eat clean’ cult packages nutrition as a holistic way of living, almost like a religion. The message is that one must do everything prescribed in order to be successful, and that deviation from the path leads to guilt and condemnation. This creates problems, not least of which is the damaging notion that incremental changes do not matter. That’s not true. Adding just a few more vegetables or cutting out a soda per day can go a long way toward improving one’s health.

“A movement whose premise is that normal food is unhealthy has now muddied the waters of ‘healthy eating’ for everyone else, by planting the idea that a good diet is one founded on absolutes. Whether the term ‘clean’ is used or not, there is a new puritanism about food that has taken root very widely.”

I’ve noticed this mentality within my own circle of friends, where ‘cheat days’ are anticipated for the opportunity to binge on ‘bad’ foods. The post-cheat day period is filled with guilt, complaining about how crappy one feels, and how important it is to ‘get back on track.’ Then there is a return to a strictly regimented diet that would make my gastronomic preferences shrivel up in sadness. I prefer, rather, to enjoy many of the cheat day foods (i.e. red wine, a small piece of dessert, a slice of excellent toast with jam, pasta with greens and cheese) on a regular basis, while mixing in plenty of the good stuff, too.

Another problem with ‘clean eating’ is its exclusivity. It suggests that one must be affluent in order to participate. Ironically, the movement’s most dedicated adherents are those who could already afford to eat better than average: “Behind the shiny covers of the clean-eating books, there is a harsh form of economic exclusion that says that someone who can’t afford wheatgrass or spirulina can never be truly ‘well’.”

Once again, erroneous! It doesn’t take much to eat well, though it may look a whole lot simpler and less exotic than a diet steeped in coconut oil, kale juice, avocados, and cauliflower.

I'd argue, too, that the #EatClean movement is cleverly marketed. It's always beautiful, from the young blond women who sell it to the highly stylized photos of foods, flowers, and rustic table settings that dominate Instagram feeds. Who doesn't want a part of that? It fits perfectly into our consumer culture, where we're taught from a young age that money can absolutely buy happiness, that you'll attain inner purity and outer sparkle by forking out for this cookbook and all its pricey ingredients. Simultaneously, it fulfills many people's ache for community, connection, and a sense of belonging and greater purpose. By joining the #EatClean club, you get all of that.

Is there a solution?

Wilson does not think we can tell people just to “eat normally,” since the idea of normal is so skewed these days; she references the supersized portions and Snickers bars sold by the meter at her local supermarket. What we need is a new view of normal – something that uses ordinary local ingredients that may be unexciting but are affordable and accessible to all, particularly the less-well-to-do swath of the population that arguably needs a health boost more than anyone else. Tied into all this is the need to learn how to cook from scratch.

While the clean eating movement does deserve recognition for emphasizing the important link between diet and health, it will take time for the rhetoric to tone down, for the zealousness to subside, and for health-conscious people to realize they don’t have to fork out a fortune or weed out all culinary pleasures in exchange for feeling good.

Read Bee Wilson's article here.

Why do we love 'clean eating' so much?
Despite scientists pointing out its many shortcomings, the #EatClean movement is still hugely popular. Bee Wilson wants to know why.

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