WELLBEING: What the hell is #CleanEating?

Content warning: detailed discussion of food/health/diet and eating disorders

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Cleanliness is close to godliness, the Victorians used to say. It’s compelling logic: if the reward for having a bath was Zeus-worthy glory, I’d be pretty eager to stay squeaky-clean. No surprise that this kind of thinking has withstood the test of time. Whilst today external purity is merely the basis of decorum and hygiene, there are circles in which your internal purity can get you deified.

Welcome to the world of “#cleaneats”, where a “pure” dietary intake is the modern-day holy grail. For about a decade, celebrities and bloggers have celebrated “clean” foods as the key to wellness. In a world preoccupied with physical health, it’s little surprise that this trend has taken off. A quick Google search gives you 59,500,000 results for clean eating – a number which can only be increasing. Over on Instagram, meanwhile, more than 33,000,000 posts bear the hashtag “clean eating”. Even the BBC is jumping on the bandwagon, with a specially-dedicated recipe section using “whole foods in their most natural state”.

Before we go any further down this rabbit hole, let me just say: I have nothing against trying to be healthy, or being mindful about what you eat. So-called “clean eating” is, at its simplest, about consuming less “processed” foods and cooking for yourself with fresh, sustainably-sourced ingredients. There’s not much that’s scary or dangerous about that. Yet this trend has a dark side – one bound up with the connotations of “cleanliness”. As the Victorian idiom suggests, being “clean” isn’t merely about health. It’s also about god-like perfection.

Some “clean eating” bloggers recommend highly restrictive diets, with permitted foods labelled “good” and forbidden foods labelled “bad”

Nowhere is this more clear than on Instagram. Amongst the pictures of overnight oats and courgetti, you find the “progress pics” – images of physical transformation, usually focused on weight loss and/or muscle growth. Whatever “clean eating” used to be, it seems to have become something more image-focused, more bound up with diet culture – and thus potentially more sinister. To be sure, a number of bloggers associated with “clean eating” culture have explicitly opposed this development. Ella Mills, of “Deliciously Ella”-fame, and the Hemsley sisters, for instance, have sought to distance themselves from this cooptation of “clean eating”. Mills writes on her blog: “it’s not about diet or deprivation, there’s no one size fits all”. Likewise, Melissa Hemsley has claimed she and her sister are “not interested in making anyone feel fearful of food, scared of food, confused about food”. Clearly, there is growing concern even amongst its proponents that “clean eating” is no longer merely about natural foods and well-being.

This is definitely my experience. When I think about eating “clean”, it’s usually in response to an emotional need for control in my life. It’s about wanting to attain that god-like perfection the Victorians promised, to be something more than a flawed human with imperfect desires and habits. And I don’t think it’s just me who thinks this way. See, body purification rituals have been practised by basically all religions ever. These rituals are built on the premise that the human body – or soul – is impure, and must be cleansed in order to be worthy of serving the god(s) in question. Now, “clean eating” is not a religious ritual – but the same principles are there. You have the desire to cleanse the body of something impure (in this case, of toxins that would, by the way, usually be cleansed by the liver and kidneys anyway), in the service of a higher purpose (ethical consumption, health, “body goals”). For a lot of people, this “ritual” won’t be harmful; performed occasionally, it might not do any good but it won’t do any bad, either. Yet for the extremely “devout” few, who strive for that god-like perfection with fervour, it could be extremely damaging.

So, here’s some food for thought: what’s really going on when you look at those pictures of pretty people laughing at salad, and feel the urge to eat “clean”? Is it really about health? If it is, double-check the people you’re taking health advice from are registered dietitians and/or qualified nutritionists. And if it’s not about health, is it about wanting to be that happy, that good-looking, that “pure”? With orthorexia on the rise, it seems more important than ever that we start critically questioning our relationship with food, our bodies, and “health”. Sometimes our strive for perfect wellness can do more harm than good.

For more information about and support with eating disorders, check out Beat, Mind, and the NHS