Beat the diet post-truths
Clear up the confusion about what you should be eating.
When the new wave of healthy eating experts first appeared in magazines, books and on Instagram, health-conscious women everywhere were seduced. A way of eating that promised glowing skin and über-vitality was sure to appeal, even to those with lots of nutrition knowhow.
But some of the original proponents of ‘clean eating’ – as the approach has come to be known – have since distanced themselves from the trend and a backlash is in full swing, with critics claiming that the wellness influencers’ advice has no scientific backbone. So what’s the issue? Is the clean-eating ethos really that wonky?
The big problem, says nutritionist Rob Hobson, is that ‘clean eating’ is a vague term meaning different things to different people. ‘Originally, clean eating was simply about choosing whole, natural foods, avoiding chemicals and preparing meals from scratch,’ he says.
‘Nobody can argue that’s not a good approach to your diet. But then the term got hijacked by wellness bloggers and writers, and clean eating started to mean lots of other things; usually cutting out major food groups, such as dairy and gluten, and sometimes meat and all grains, without necessarily replacing the important nutrients these foods contain,’ adds Hobson. ‘But there isn’t a single definition. So that immediately makes it confusing.’
The glamour factor
‘The people making the clean claims have helped raise its appeal,’ says nutritionist Fiona Hunter. ‘They’re usually young, gorgeous women, or good-looking, toned men, who talk about the way these diet changes have transformed their wellbeing,’ she says. ‘It’s natural to want to believe some diet changes could be all you need to make a huge difference.’
Food psychologist Dr Christy Fergusson thinks our inbuilt tribal mentality may also play a role. ‘One of the reasons phrases such as “clean eating” have such appeal is that they allow us to feel unified and part of a collective group. Labelling yourself as “paleo”, “vegan” or “a clean eater” is a way to signify what you stand for,’ she says.
New research* has shown a quarter of us are affected by those around us when it comes to eating. ‘And nowadays, those influencing our eating behaviours are not just friends and family members, but also those we follow on online,’ says Fergusson.
A general mistrust of experts is also at play, believes Hobson. ‘There’s so much information out there now, people are less willing to listen to professionals with training in nutrition. It’s more appealing to believe a glamorous blogger, who suggests a diet revamp will magically transform your life.’
Out of balance
While a wealth of evidence does support the link between good health and a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, oily fish and wholegrains, and low in sugar and processed foods, Hunter argues there’s no science to suggest going further than this – by including specific ‘superfoods’ or cutting out grains and dairy, for example – is beneficial. Hobson agrees. ‘Some have genuine sensitivities to gluten and lactose, and for those people, of course avoiding these foods is important. But for the rest of us, it’s unnecessary. Yet somehow it’s become seen as “healthy” and virtuous to avoid gluten and dairy. I believe this is driven by the food industry, as a way to market gluten-free and lactose-free products to a wider audience, including those who don’t need them.’
But considering the majority of Britons are overweight and there’s a rising tide of weight-related health problems, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, does it really matter if we’re following healthy eating trends? Even if the science is lacking and some elements are over-the-top, packing your diet with greens and avoiding sugar can only be positive. ‘The trouble with the more extreme, faddy diets is they aren’t sustainable,’ says Hunter. ‘Generally, people will follow them for a few weeks and then become discouraged and give up. You need to be able to follow a long-term, consistent healthy eating plan, and for most of us that means moderation, without cutting out major food groups.’
Plus, a diet that relies on exotic foods, such as cacao and coconut oil, can be expensive. ‘For certain people – often those most drawn to healthy eating trends – it can encourage an obsession with food, and even orthorexia: anxiety-driven preoccupation with only eating certain foods,’ says Hobson.
The experts’ advice? ‘I favour “intuitive eating”: rather than labelling individual foods as “good” or “bad”, look at your diet and try to tune into what your body wants, understanding when you feel full and when — and what — you need to eat,’ says Hobson. ‘Healthy eating should be simple, based on foods that are as natural as possible.’ If there’s a health concern you want to address, see a nutritionist or dietician for advice. By all means use the recipe books and blogs for inspiration, but there’s no need to swallow the ethos whole.
‘The trouble with more extreme diets is they aren’t sustainable’