How clean eating became dirty
The hottest food trend of the millenium seems to be going stale. So just what is clean eating in 2017, and should we still be doing it? Our reporter asks the experts
A bloke walks into a funeral - the bit after, at a hotel. It's a particulary sad funeral, as the person who died was young. People are having drinks and coffee and there's a buffet, which the bloke scans, looking increasingly distressed. He tells another mourner that he can't eat anything - the little sandwiches, the bits of quiche, the pastries - because the food is not macrobiotic. He leaves.
This is an example of someone's social skills being overridden by a preoccupation with food. You might think, 'what a prat', but his distress was genuine. How does this happen, when food becomes more of a thing for us than people?
Increasingly, we are all clean eaters of one kind of another. For personal health reasons, for ethical reasons, for environmental reasons, we have embraced what is broadly termed 'clean eating' with zest, with avocado, almonds, courgetti, kimchi, kale, cacao, quinoa, coconut oil, linseed, lentils, tofu, tempeh - what used to be the diet of the outsider (hippies, Californians, puritans) is now available in supermarkets. And shops and restaurants, and most of all, online, thanks to Instagram.
Thanks to food writers and restaurateurs like Stephen and David Flynn of the Happy Pear, food Instagrammers like Rosanna Davison and Rozanna Purcell, and a host of clean eateries popping up in our cities, the idea that you are what you eat has never been so mainstream.
The blog and cookery books of Ella Woodward - Deliciously Ella - came about when she developed a debilitating illness that affected her autonomic nervous system. By radically changing her food, cutting out refined sugar, processed food, gluten, and going fully plant based, she claims to have made a full recovery and became a clean-eating queen in the process.
"I love the way I eat now," she writes in her first book. "It's become an incredible new way of life and I'm honestly happier than I've ever been." Having gone vegan myself a few years ago, I totally relate. Healthy food makes you happy.
Unless it becomes an obsession. Then it doesn't make you happy at all, but makes you anxious, isolated, neurotic, annoying, and very possibly unhealthy, mentally, physically, or both.
When you turn down restaurant outings, because "there's nothing on the menu I can eat"; when you turn up to a dinner party with your own dinner in a tupperware box; when you only ever arrive after the meal is finished.
When you think sugar and flour are actual poisons. When you equate shop biscuits with crack cocaine. When your green juicing and daily enemas become more important than your partner. When your food starts to interfere with your friendships and relationships.
When you start to pass it on to your kids.
Even Deliciously Ella herself has distanced herself from the term 'clean eating'. Speaking recently to a Sunday newspaper, she said, "My problem with the word 'clean' is that it has become too complicated. It has become too loaded. When I first read the term, it meant natural, unprocessed. Now it means diet. It means fad."
Such is the unrestricted rise of restricted eating - where in keeping with the dominant trend, facts are frequently replaced with unverified opinion - the movement is the subject of a BBC Horizons documentary, Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth, to be broadcast on Thursday. Along with Ella Woodward, Cambridge biochemist Dr Giles Yeo will look at current fads - from eliminating grains from your diet to more serious claims of cancer curing.
"I'm not sure I'm an advocate of clean eating," says psychotherapist Marie Campion, founder of the Marino Therapy Centre for eating distress. "It makes us eat with our minds rather than with our bodies. People are over-informed, and the mind and body become disconnected."
Confirming a "huge increase" of individuals presenting at her Dublin clinic with orthorexia symptoms linked to their desire to eat clean, Campion suggests we need to clean our minds, rather than our bodies. "When we deprive the body, we create obsessions," she says. "It is unhealthy to be obsessed with health."
Orthorexia, a term coined in 1997 by American doctor Steven Bratman, is a condition recognised by BodyWhys, the eating disorder association of Ireland; it is not yet recognised by the DSM 5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but its symptoms can develop when a desire to eat healthily distorts into unhealthy eating behaviours.
Basically, when you are scared to eat anything that isn't vegan; Paleo; organic; raw; sugar-free; gluten-free; grain-free; locally sourced; insert requirement here. When you lose perspective.
"We need to be balanced," says Campion. "The body does not have a calculator, and we are undermining our body's innate intelligence. We need to trust our bodies, to have common sense, and to monitor our language around food, especially with children.
"There should never be 'bad' foods or 'good' foods. When it comes to food, we get caught up in trends and fashions - the body then responds to the mind, and forms habits. So we think we are bloated from gluten, but really we might be bloated from stress. I would like to promote balance and looking after the body with wholesome food.
"Of course some people do need to eliminate certain foods, if they have allergies, which can be determined by blood tests, or sensitivities, which are harder to define, but a lot of orthorexic eating is as a result of low self-esteem and control issues," she says.
"The reality is that people are depriving themselves of pleasure. What I'd like to emphasise is that full recovery from distressed eating is possible. Recover first, and then decide what kind of food you want to eat."
There are two areas which set off alarm bells for dietitian Sarah Keogh, an affiliate of the Irish Nutrition and Dietics Institute. Those who create their own list of 'bad' foods and are genuinely terrified to eat from this 'bad' group, and those who cut out entire food groups and are misinformed about how to balance lost nutrients.
"Sensible vegans know this, and take supplements, but lots of newer vegans are less well informed," says Keogh. And the results of missing nutrients don't show up immediately, which means that health issues like weakened bones can take years to come to light.
She urges people to check with qualified dietitians before making major dietary changes, and reminds us that while anyone can call themselves a nutritionist, a dietitian is a protected title, like doctor. In other words, the advice given is medical, and not necessarily reflecting current food trends.
Biochemist and dietitian Kevina Cardiff, also an affiliate of the Irish Nutrition and Dietics Institute, is equally wary of foodie extremes.
"We are now in the realm of cutting out entire food groups - but no one nutrient is responsible for our health. It's about balance. You should never eliminate an entire food group without taking proper advice, from medically trained professionals. It's getting dangerous now, because we are taking advice from those unqualified to give it. Our human physiology won't change just because someone has had a new idea about food."
Health & Living