The way the health and fitness industry talks about food, weight and eating is messy and confusing. The common thread is the ebb and flow of diets, risky health claims and trend-driven foods, all underpinned by a persistent disdain for fat bodies.
In the past five years, the word diet has been ditched for the word wellness; putting a bright, skinny and privileged new face on the diet industry. When a fad wears thin, you give it a new name or a new ambassador.
Being the digital, DIY age, bloggers have taken up that mantle to espouse the virtues of oils, teas, exotic fruit and pretty plates. Clean eating is one of the many iterations of the diet industry’s ways to manage our palates and pockets.
Unfortunately, if you’re not paying close attention or have never dealt with disordered eating, the language and framing around this lifestyle seems harmless and healthy.
But it isn’t, is it? Sure, it sounds well meaning, like the right thing to do with GMOs lurking and the villain du jour, sugar, making you fat and ill. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to consume food in its most natural state as possible, as per clean eating’s premise.
There’s nothing inherently bad about wanting to know what exactly is in your food and how it made its way to your table. The issue arises when we set stringent rules that we then impose on our bodies, to define boundaries that are moralistic.
There is a problem when we become upset and feel deserving of punishment if we go outside those boundaries. And it becomes dangerous and unhealthy when we routinely paralyse ourselves with set after set of unachievable rules.
Disordered eating and its gym-crazy cousin, orthorexia, existed long before the arrival of “clean eating”. But clean eating’s persistence on black and white nutritional rules make it a particularly dangerous creed for those who are vulnerable to eating disorders.
This version of wellness helps to rationalise and legitimise an unhealthy relationship with food using the respectable veneer of health-consciousness.
The emotionally manipulative language of clean eating is not a coincidence. Cannily shunning old-fashioned diet terminology doesn’t change the flavour of the dollops of judgemental and restrictive undertones of clean eating.
It goes one step further, though, by eliciting an emotional response. Words like “toxins” and “vitality” and “natural” and “clean” press and hold symbolic buttons that ensure the response is instinctive rather than rational.
The notion of cleanliness and purity is important to humans, symbolically. Food is particularly symbolic and intimate.
We willingly put it inside our bodies. It literally becomes us. Symbolism and meaning are constant accompaniments to the ritual of meals. So it makes sense that our disgust reflex, which is related to believing something is contaminated, responds strongly to food we perceive to be “unclean”.
Disgust is an innate survival tool. It helps us to avoid food that’s gone bad or is probably teeming with pathogens. It demarcates our boundaries and beliefs, ever vigilant for contaminants, real or imagined.
The word disgust, which comes from the Latin gustus, or taste, literally means to reject the taste of something.
We tend to distort “impurity” and “contamination” into something more powerful: morality. The size or shape of a body is not an indication of personality, political leaning or personal hygiene.
Advocating for a lifestyle so inflexible and moralising while rolling it out as self-care is dangerous and irresponsible. We have an obsession with diets. With fad diets, if we’re honest.
There is no magic formula. Thinking that eating A and B and cutting out C will change your life, body or relationship with food is unsustainable. Clean eating is based on a flawed understanding of health and food. There is no such thing as one “perfect” way of eating.