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Clean eating warfare: how did eating get so ugly?

HealthFrancesca MasperoComment
Image credit: Anna Wolf

Image credit: Anna Wolf

Over the past three years, I’ve watched as tensions have risen in the wellness industry, particularly surrounding clean eating. In a strange turn of events, what seemed to be a positive move towards mainstream healthier eating has become a heated debate on mental health and the negative impact of social media influencers and bloggers. 

I’ve wanted to write about the current state of clean eating and the healthy eating movement for a long time now, but I’ve shied away from it because it is a such loaded topic. But I can’t shake the feeling that more awareness is needed on how it’s shaping food trends, diet culture and even health outcomes. So, here’s my two cents.

How ‘clean' became cool; and cursed

If you haven’t been following the food fight, here's brief run down. Health becomes trendy and aspirational following the rise of wellness bloggers and brands like Goop. Social media, particularly Instagram, erupts with healthy eating accounts and health advice from self-proclaimed experts. Almost overnight health enthusiasts and personal trainers become nutritional authorities. 'Clean eating’ is hailed as the diet-free lifestyle solution to achieve ultimate health and weight loss. The traditional media catch on and big-time health bloggers land book deals. All is well.

But then the bubble bursts. Orthorexia (an unhealthy obsession with clean eating), although not yet formally recognised as a diagnosable illness, is declared 'a thing’ by people concerned about people's increasingly distorted relationship with food. Cue a backlash against clean eating from die-hard foodies, body positivity activists, recovered orthorexics and the mainstream health establishment. 

Health bloggers, cook book authors and healthy eating influencers are being accused of damaging the minds of the young with ideas of food purity, perfection and capitalising not their insecurities. Influencers, big and small, see the smoke and distance themselves from the clean eating movement by ridding the word "clean” from their websites and Insta handles. And the critics calling them out are shouted down as backward, defending a broken food and health system, and scuppering the good intentions of health advocates. 

The upshot of waging war on clean eating 

Things have taken a nasty turn. People on both sides of the fence are dropping names and pointing fingers. I recently read an article in The Guardian by one of my favourite food writers, Bee Wilson, and was equally alarmed by the nastiness of health influencers’ fans and disappointed by the discrediting of qualified nutritional therapists that sit outside of conventional medicine. The way that documentary producers, podcasters, writers and influencers are targeting each other just seems cruel and unproductive. It’s beginning to feel a lot like a smear campaign from both sides. Which is sad really, because caught in the crossfire are the everyday people that just want to make better food and health choices.

We’ve reached a stalemate between those that believe that their efforts to promote health should been seen as a positive movement that has popularised health consciousness, and those that think this movement has turned rotten and is actually undermining mental health and perpetuating diet culture.

Who’s responsible for this mess?

One point of debate is the lack of responsibility among health influencers. So often blogs are started as a personal journey to discover wellness. But at what point do we need to begin taking responsibility for the potential impact that we might be having on those that follow us? From day dot or is there a level of influence that we must reach? 

Clean eating critics were quick to name the alleged culprits behind the craze. One of the most heavily criticised is the reluctant 'Queen of Clean' Ella Mills (nee Woodward) of Deliciously Ella fame. Ella began blogging for personal health reasons years ago, well before wellness became coo,l and later was one of the first to wise up to the issues around clean eating by eradicating the phrase from her brand and positioning herself with a more balanced approach. Having amassed 1.1million followers on Instagram, Ella is an easy target for commentators. She has come under heavy fire from critics for supposedly fanning the flames of eating disorders and planting seeds of insecurity in the minds of vulnerable young people. 

The influence of people like Ella Mills, Madeleine Shaw, Melissa and Jasmine Hemsley or Amelia Freer might be huge but blaming individuals is pointless when the clean eating movement has so many influencers and devoted followers. Besides, clean eating evolved from several corners of the globe, including California and Australia (home to one of the biggest scandals).

Getting smart is a start

Influencers now interrupt their picture-perfect Instagram feeds with more candid behind the scenes snippets via Insta Stories or Facebook Live. Even the likes of Weight Watchers are adapting their (essentially still weight-driven) programme to be more inclusive of 'health at every size' language. But is this enough, or is it just smoke and mirrors? 

I think it is every health influencer’s responsibility to educate themselves on the broader issues at hand, including diet culture, intuitive eating, fat shaming, thin privilege and the health at every size movement. At the end of the day, being naive is not good enough when our words have so much impact. Semantics matters.

Including references isn’t a perfect remedy to the lack of transparency or the moralising of food but it’s an improvement. Unfortunately, there are plenty of poorly conducted or highly context-specific studies out there that can be used to mislead the public into thinking an argument is well researched and credible. Still, I think we’d all do well (myself included) to curtail misinformation by referencing any dietary or health claims. We need a more transparent environment where high standards are demanded and advice, personal experience and opinion are signposted clearly. 

Consumers, readers and followers also have a certain level responsibility. We all contribute to culture and shape our communities. Sure, the internet is host to all kinds of creepy behaviour that we can't be certain of, not forgetting misleading marketing and careless use of language. But it is up to the reader to determine the reliability of what they read so at least do your due diligence by checking for references and qualifications (anyone can call themselves a nutritionist by the way, but Nutritional Therapist, Registered Nutritionist or Dietician are protected terms). 

We need to keep asking questions

Nutrition is a developing science so there are bound to be contradictions, confusion and debate. While I don’t think that all the finger pointing is helpful, I’m not against critics having their say. Of course we need to keep asking questions of what we are saying, promoting and who we are influencing. There are some serious issues with clean eating. It might be well intentioned but it perpetuates diet culture (even if you call it a lifestyle), promotes a puritanical approach food, as well as judgment, restriction, fear and elitism. 

But no one individual is to blame. In fact, I think we could all pick up some of the slack here - by including mental health in our definition of wellness, changing the way we talk about bodies and weight, making food choices based on our own needs, and not judging others for making different choices. 

I’ll end with a brilliant quote from Bee Wilson: 

"The real question is how to fight this kind of diet absolutism without bouncing back to a mindless celebration of the modern food environment that is demonstrably making so many people sick… Our food system is in desperate need of reform. There’s a danger that, in fighting the nonsense of clean eating, we end up looking like apologists for a commercial food supply that is failing in its basic task of nourishing us."

This was a big one so thank you for reading to the end! I would LOVE to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment or share with someone that might find it interesting.