Is ‘clean eating’ just another diet fad collecting ‘likes’ on social media?
For three years, Karen*, a teacher in her 40s, was a clean food devotee who shared photos of nearly everything she ate on social media and made judgments about the “dirty food” other people were eating.
“‘Don’t put that nasty crap into your body!’” I’d post on my Facebook page,” she remembers. “‘Think about that jiggling cellulite on your arse, and your arteries clogging up. Kick that junk food to the curb! Do yourself a favour and ditch the dirty food for a wholesome, clean smoothie. You’ll glow with health and feel amazing!’”
Every day began with a smoothie made from veges, almond milk, superfood spices (turmeric and matcha) and protein powders. “It was gross, but I’d feel so virtuous scarfing that in the morning, and take great delight in sharing my recipes with my followers. That smoothie contained my self-esteem.”
Lunch and dinners featured “clean” proteins – free-range meats with locally-grown, spray-free organic seasonal veges. Snacks were nutrient-rich “superfoods” such as activated almonds while sweet foods – even fruit – were banned. “I thought sugar was the devil and a guarantee of cancer.”
In Karen’s mind, and to many devotees of the clean eating movement, dairy food was a “killer”, and grains would lead to diabetes or heart disease.
In the space of about six months she went from happy diner to obsessed nibbler. It was a miserable journey, but at the time she thought she was taking the best possible care of herself. “I truly believed the paleo way of clean eating was protecting me from illness and cancer, and getting fat,” says Karen.
“Every single food that passed my lips had to meet the hellishly strict criteria I had adopted, which meant I never stopped analysing and thinking about food. It had taken over my life.” It seems like everyone’s an expert on nutrition. Online, thousands of wellness “warriors” avidly promote everything from going gluten- and dairy-free to raw eating, detoxing with potatoes and eating only bananas. A Google search on clean eating in New Zealand turns up 4.67 million hits.
Scientific proof for many of these food fads can be shonky, or misconstrued. Becoming gluten-free, for example, is fine for people with coeliac disease and for those with gluten intolerance, says Elaine Rush, professor of nutrition at AUT. “Often when people say they cut out things like white bread and they feel much better, it’s because they were eating far too much of that, and not enough of the other things.
“It’s what we’re not eating that’s causing all the [digestive] problems.”
Some food sensitivities can be attributed to getting older as our bodies lose resilience. “Age is a sod.”
Good health comes from eating wholesome foods, not too much and mainly plants, says Rush. “Eat food, real food, but look at what’s available in your environment and what also costs the right price.”
Eating a good variety of foods most of the time, exercising in moderation and relishing what you eat are paramount, she says.
“Food should be a pleasure – we shouldn’t obsess about every little thing we put in our mouths.”
While the cult of clean eating appears to be losing traction – in part due to the exposure of high-profile wellness personalities such as Australian Belle Gibson, who claimed food cured her of cancer when she never had the disease – it still remains popular, and potentially dangerous.
Defining clean eating is not easy, says dietitian Angela Berrill, who has noticed a move away from the extremes of this style of restricted eating.
The crossover between clean eating and expert recommendations for healthy eating are confusing, as both sing the praises of eating more whole foods and reducing processed foods.
“There are some elements of clean eating that are reflective of what we recommend as part of a healthy, balanced diet, especially if someone has previously eaten a diet that was based on highly-processed foods, with high carbohydrates, saturated fats and sugars,” says Berrill.
“Clean eating is one of these things that depends on the individual. It can vary greatly, depending on who you talk to, but the common elements are generally focusing on a whole food diet and eliminating processed foods.
“The degree of processed food is open for interpretation. For some people it might mean they’re