I Have A Problem With The Term ‘Clean Eating’

Have we reached peak chia seed? Confession: I’ve never eaten a chia pudding. I’ve never bought kale (though I have eaten it.) I’m sporadically into spirulizing, but I not think that a twirly whirly courgette is replacement for a shop-bought cupcake for the rest of my life. In short, I do not adhere to a ‘clean’ diet. But that’s not what I have a problem with. Your bone broth is my tankard of rosé; each to their own. What I do have a problem with is the phrase, ‘clean eating’.

Am I unclean because I chomp on cheese pastries? Dirty because I chow down on chocolate? Grubby for hoofing my favourite Roast Beef Monster Munch? Perhaps not the healthiest diet, sure – though this is semi-balanced by my vegetable intake – but indubitably nothing to do with my cleanliness. Nothing to do with how much I wash, or my moral fibre and more to do with the fact that I do not have enough man hours to make all of my food from scratch (sorrynotsorry, but something has to give and more often than not, that is my oven. How do you think this blog gets written, pal?) Yet ‘clean eating’ is a term that insinuates just that. The connotations of a ‘clean’ diet can often feel smug and elitist – another way for those of us living in an increasingly complicated, modern world to feel bad about ourselves. The implications that you are ‘dirty’ because you eat processed food is as problematic as it is nonsensical.

Plenty of people lead a selective diet because of allergies and intolerances, but there is no doubt that faddy diets are in vogue. These faddy diets have become a yard stick for people to either bolster or beat themselves with. Look how clean and wholly and pure I am, is the subtext. Clean/dirty eating has become the Madonna-whore of the gastronomic world. Good: clean. Bad: dirty. Eating has become sexualised, with ‘dirty’ food for slatterns and ‘clean’ good for those without notches.

I canvassed opinion when writing this, because I was really intrigued to find out if I was the only one so incensed by the pop-cultural phenomenon. A dietician friend of mine has an incredible healthy diet, but she still loathes the expression; she believes in eating well, not eating clean. She wash;t the only one. “I hate it because I’m really bored with the idea that you’re ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’ if you treat yourself” said my housemate. “Have a goddamn treat once in a while, in an otherwise healthy diet, and don’t feel like you’re disgusting for doing so. Food is evocative, emotional and spontaneous – not the product of ‘clean’ weekly menu plans.” For my housemate – an incredibly healthy eater, I might add – it is less the phrase that irks her and more about the didactic lack of adventure and fear of restaurant menus, that this movement inspires.

My colleague at Style, Jasmine Gardner, had an interesting, opposing point of view: “To me ‘clean eating’ is a harmless antidote to the recent obsession with ‘dirty dining’. Indulging in fried chicken, burgers and ribs at ‘good fast food’ joints such as Meat Liquor and Wishbone took off as a very middle-class ‘up yours’ to governmental 5-a-day-type anti-obesity measures. But then we reached peak meat and all started to feel a bit greased-out. There are only so many mornings you want to wake up smelling like a kebab shop. So, along came clean eating and now you can’t move for the hot girl snapping a selfie while eating courgetti (someone should start a Tumblr). It’s tasty food that looks and tastes amazing and is much like the trend for fitspo over thinspo. It’s not a diet, just a way to treat your body better. It is true that we must be careful about the messages young people receive through social media, so the best clean eating Instagram feeds with ideas for balanced and healthy meals should offer a much-needed introduction to real ingredients and cooking. For young people living in a ready-meal world on the brink of an obesity crisis, clean eating is more about educating them on the 100 possible ways to cook the mighty aubergine than making them feel guilty about eating a Snickers.”

I can’t argue with that – those are salient, positive points. And the term is definitely a reaction of sorts, as much as it is a genuine eating movement (perpetuated by Deliciously Ella and Hemsley + Hemsley, neither of whom I would or could fault.) But something about it still grates with me. We live in a label-obsessed world. No-wonder we are all multi-hyphenates; you can’t be a mere writer, painter and healthy eater, for example. No, you would be an Author/Artist/Food Pioneer, or some shit. The more we ascribe labels to diets, the more we encourage young girls to choose the character they wish to play. Are they clean, or dirty? Good, or bad? In truth, they should be none of it. Nothing is clean-cut; not the person you are, nor the food you eat. Given that obesity is now more of a global issue than anorexia, it would be disingenuous for me to claim that they should scoff cake and pastries with abandon; the more vegetables a kid eats, the better. But if a little girl wants a piece of cake, she shouldn’t worry that she is somehow a dirty slut. That may sound dramatic – but to me, it feels a little like where clean eating may end up.

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