Weight a sec, is that healthy?


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. 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.

Related stories

Kegel exercises aren’t solely for people with vaginas

Often people think that kegels are targeted solely at women who want to increase the tightness of their vagina, whereas in fact the exercises are for everyone who wants to engage in better sex

Who wants to live forever?

Longevity enthusiasts believe immortality is a worthwhile goal. But refugees from the past could create problems for future generations

Terms of social engagement

Someone’s watching you. Sometimes they’re invisible, other times not. What does their behaviour mean?

Beware the psychopath boss

Their behaviour causes stress, burnout, thoughts of suicide, high absenteeism rates and physical illness

Beware the toxic narcissist

Their grandiosity masks insecurity and any perceived threat to their image leads to abuse in relationships

A dark spiral skewers sleep

Depression is a mood disorder that has physical effects, including disruption of a good night’s rest

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Joe Biden’s debate guests run the only Zimbabwean restaurant in...

A Zimbabwean restaurant feeding people in need formed an unlikely addition to Joe Biden’s election campaign

The high road is in harm reduction

While the restriction of movement curtailed the health services for people who use drugs in some parts of the world, it propelled other countries into finding innovative ways to continue services, a new report reveals

Khaya Sithole: Tsakani Maluleke’s example – and challenge

Shattering the glass ceiling is not enough, the new auditor general must make ‘live’ audits the norm here in SA

State’s wage freeze sparks apoplexy

Public sector unions have cried foul over the government’s plan to freeze wages for three years and have vowed to fight back.

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday