MH grills the #cleaneating stars of Instagram to sort the scientific from the spurious
As I turn the crank handle of my brand new spiralizer, wholesome strings of organic courgette tumble pleasingly and lustrously onto my plate. It is the familiar tableau of a million Instagram posts. In her recipe, Ella Mills – AKA Deliciously Ella – whose cookbook I’m using for guidance, assures me that I’ll find my meal to be reminiscent of a creamy bowl of spaghetti carbonara, only with “all the unhealthy, fatty dairy, refined flour and meat” replaced by “magical avocados”.
Gone is the glutenous pasta; so too the unctuous cream and the “processed” pancetta slices. This is clean eating at its socially shareable best. Though it might taste, well, a little bland all told, page after glossy page assures me that it’s guaranteed to make you at least feel great. A sauce of liquified brazil nuts, mint leaves, olive oil and, yes, avocado completes the dish and, hey presto, my #raw #vegan #clean dinner is served.
In 2015, with wellness queen Deliciously Ella’s first book sitting pretty at the top of Amazon charts, sales of white bread fell by £100 million as impressionable consumers turned their backs on refined carbs and gluten in droves. Wellness staple avocados, meanwhile, continue to smash records as rapidly as they themselves are smashed onto rye sourdough, with sales up 30% in the past year to £146 million.
Powered by Mills and other bloggersturned-cookbook-authors, whose currency is in large part valued by the popularity of their Instagram profiles, wellness is dominating the health conversation. More pertinently, it is dominating lifestyles, turning everything from the nutritional choices you make to the gym clothes you wear into a new status symbol. The very word ‘wellness’ has become a bastardised, cryptic catch-all – a feeling to be acquired and a devotional allegiance to be declared. In pursuit of wellness, acolytes spend big, buying immersion blenders, signing up to £25-a-session boutique classes or guzzling green juices. And they do it all with a kind of quasi-religious fervour strangely absent when body goals were as modest as, say, losing a bit of weight, or packing on some muscle.
Not everyone is so zealous in his or her belief, however. Many experts question the scientific basis for the ‘clean’ ideal that underpins the wellness phenomenon. More still wonder quite what has happened when society flocks toward a group of young, photogenic, mainly female, self-taught and ultimately unqualified entrepreneurs for crucial guidance on health issues. For all the guileless smiles and woolly pontificating, there is a welling voice of resentment that wellness might be sick to its core.
MAKING THE CUT
Aside from the book deals, magazine shoots and Hefe filters, perhaps the wellness blogger’s most significant contribution to our current relationship with food is vernacular. It is not uncommon to see an edible product either packaged or pre-prepared
routinely dismissed as ‘fake’ or labeled ‘Frankenfood’. To some, anything that hasn’t been plucked from a tree or dug out of the ground – whether we’re talking Wham bars or artisan pastries – is deemed ‘unnatural’. And while once upon a time the food you ate might have been regarded as being either good for you or bad for you, nowadays sustenance has taken on a moral quality: it is either #clean or, god forbid, #dirty.
This is not, many contend, an especially helpful advancement. “‘Clean eating’ is a broad term that ultimately means little,” says Rick Miller, a clinical nutritionist for the British Dietetic Association. “To some it can mean cutting out perceived ‘toxins’ such as gluten and dairy; while to others it’s about going as far as restricting themselves to raw food.” Putting aside for one moment the merits of such approaches to your physical health, Miller warns that this ambiguity, coupled with a culture of restrictive eating, can have a profoundly detrimental impact on our mental health. Orthorexia – the morbid obsession with eating healthily – is on the rise. “At one end of the scale, labels like ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ can lead to an anxiety around food. At the other end it can turn into a full-blown eating disorder. Clean eating is obsessed with the notion that there exists an idealistic food pyramid, and if your choices fall outside of that, somehow you’re not clean, not worthy.”
Part of the problem is context – or a lack thereof. On social media, people are presented with images removed from their environment, without knowledge of the poster’s background, yet feel confident commenting in ways that reinforce their insular worldview. “Take someone who is training hard,” says Miller. “If he is ‘eating clean’ – that’s to say cutting out carbs or grains or gluten – then he may well be suffering from fatigue because he’s not getting the calories and nutrients he needs. But within the wellness community, no one is going to comment on his Instagram posts and say, ‘ You’re not eating enough potatoes, mate.’ More likely he’ll be quizzed on his intake of ‘toxins’ or ‘heavy metals’ and encouraged to cut more foods from an already nutrient- deficient diet.”
This sort of dubious diagnosis by committee is prevalent in the world of wellness. The social-media-appointed queen of clean eating herself, Deliciously Ella, shot to fame after using dietary changes to treat a rare and debilitating autoimmune disease known as postural tachycardia syndrome, which left her exhausted and struggling to get out of bed. Having found conventional medicine to be of little benefit, Mills cut sugar, gluten, dairy, meat, plus anything processed or refined from her diet. Within two years, as she tells it, she was able to manage the symptoms of her illness without drugs, and all because of a bit of home research and a cleanedup diet. Whether intended or not, the implicit message is inescapable: listening to medical professionals is not necessarily as important as listening to your body. And if you still can’t work out what that’s telling you, well, just listen to a wellness guru and stop eating bread.
“Food now has a moral quality. It is clean or, god forbid, dirty”
FACES OF CHANGE
The consistent advice from registered dietitians is that unless you suffer from a diagnosed medical condition like coeliac disease, nutritionally speaking it is unwise to cut gluten from your diet. But with so many wellness advocates being hailed as – if not necessarily claiming to be – ‘nutrition experts’, who should you trust? “The problem with the word ‘nutritionist’ is that it’s not a protected title,” explains Miller. “Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist and potentially make a lot of money from it.” Indeed, the Institute of Integrative Nutrition in the US (which boasts famous alumni including Madeleine Shaw and, so rumours have it, one Pippa Middleton) offers online ‘qualifications’ for the princely sum of around £4000.
It is not an idea that excites Miller. “To become a dietitian or a registered nutritional therapist takes three to four years and a bachelor’s of science degree,” he says. “But I’ve seen online nutrition courses that can be completed in a day. Many ‘schools’ encourage their students to practise while they learn, but seeing patients when you don’t really know what you’re doing is very dangerous.”
The problem is that dietitians aren’t sexy. As a rule, they don’t employ hashtags. And nutritional advice from someone registered with The Health and Care Professions Council is likely to be pretty dull. You might well be told to reduce your portion sizes, vary your intake, and to do some regular exercise – eventually you’ll start to see results. The problem is eventually sounds like a long time. The message from wellness gurus, however, is much more attractively filtered: overhaul your diet, and you’ll immediately look and feel healthier, happier and cleaner.
According to Vicky Orchard, a senior editor at Kyle Books – publishers of titles including Bowls of Goodness and The Meat Free Monday Cookbook – when it comes to wellness, an established social media profile is more important than nutritional qualifications or the ability to cook. “All publishers are on social media looking for the next person who’s got that platform,” she says. Indeed, you need only see a beatific selfie posted by Madeleine Shaw or Clean Eating Alice to see why they’re a publisher’s dream. When you look like that, goes the reductive logic, who cares whether or not you can boil an egg?
Where there’s consumer demand, of course, there’s money to be made. Market analysts Statista value the wellness industry in the UK at over £25 billion –
which is a lot of kale smoothies. Venture down the aisles of your local (preferably upmarket) supermarket and the scale of the wellness business is manifest. ‘No added sugar!’ screams your peanut butter; ‘gluten free!’ claim the packaged sushi bento boxes. And, naturally, products bearing the names of health and wellness bloggers are ubiquitous.
The latest name to expand into this lucrative line of personal brand extension is Deliciously Ella, who has recently added a new range of vegan-friendly energy balls to her burgeoning empire of books, apps and a West London deli. I pick up a Deliciously Ella Hazelnut and Raisin ball in Sainsbury’s. It is “free from gluten, dairy and refined sugar”, naturally, and costs £2. As I unfurl the lavender-coloured packaging and tuck in, I’m immediately struck by how the natural sweetness from the raisins beautifully offsets the nutty crunch. I feel content, smug, almost. It’s so good, I could almost Instagram it. That is, until I flip the nowempty wrapper over in my hand, look at the nutritional information and find that almost 50% of the ball I just devoured is made up of sugar – 19.9g out of 40g. That’s the same amount as a Snickers bar.
“These products are being launched under a brand that is strongly associated with health, and yet there is no clear reason why it should be considered a healthy product,” says Anthony Warner, a development chef in the food manufacturing industry whose blog, The Angry Chef, has gained cult-like status within both the scientific and foodie worlds for its vocal and well-informed criticism of clean eating and wellness. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t eat those energy balls, but you do have to remember they’re high in fat, high in sugar and are a processed, packaged food product. The problem is, because they’re associated with a wellness brand, there is an implied affiliation with health. But invariably there is little evidence to back that up.”
In the same way that many bloggers can call themselves nutritionists without either respected or recognised qualifications, many of their claims around food frequently go unchecked, notes Warner. “The food industry is strongly regulated, but within certain areas of the wellness industry people can often say what they want without any regulation. A book, for instance, can even be published without anyone checking the facts. That’s frustrating because it’s spreading misinformation. There’s a lot of bad science in the bestseller list.”
Almost as bad as the baseless claims that proliferate the wellness industry, says Warner, is its distinctly undemocratic nature. “You see a lot of status-signalling with food, which is a relatively new phenomenon in human society. These days we have so much choice about what we can eat that people use food to say something about themselves: ‘I’m rich and successful and I can spend hours trawling shops for really exclusive, expensive ingredients’. But in order to justify doing that, they’re attaching these incredibly unrealistic health claims to them, be they strange sugar replacements like medjool dates and coconut sugar, or extract of seaweed. In reality they’re no more nutritionally potent than any normal healthy balanced diet.”
Such criticisms haven’t gone unnoticed by the wellness gurus themselves. Last year Deliciously Ella posted the following statement on her website: “It’s not about dieting, restriction or rules, and it’s certainly not about the concept of ‘clean’. Despite being labelled as ‘the queen of clean’, I do not use that term to describe what I do and never will do. I agree with the critics that dividing food into two categories: ‘good’ and ‘ bad’, is incredibly negative, and only works to further fuel the idea that food is something that should inflict feelings of guilt, which I fundamentally disagree with.’” She still avoids wheat, refined sugar, meat and diary, of course, but then that’s evidently what works for her.
HANGING IN THE BALANCE
For Mills, distancing herself from the negative aspects of wellness might be as straightforward as penning a blog post. But for Clean Eating Alice, who I meet in Fulham’s health sanctuary Lomax, it isn’t so easy. After blogging about her own fitness overhaul, she has rapidly amassed over 500k online followers.
“When I chose the name ‘Clean Eating Alice’, I was like, right, I just want to get rid of all the crap in my diet, so I’m going to call it ‘clean’,” she explains. “I had no idea what it meant and there’s still no real definition of what ‘clean eating’ is.”
Her smile falters. “It’s incredibly frustrating. I don’t believe in restriction, I don’t believe in cutting anything out of your diet. In fact, I’m looking at doing a complete rebrand.”
You are naturally inclined to feel for Alice. She seems sincere when she says that she has never advocated a restrictive diet. Gluten, dairy and meat are all on her menu, and she has never claimed to be qualified in the field of nutrition. Now, by focusing on a career as a PT, Alice is readying herself for life after wellness. “The bubble is not going to last for long,” she says. “They will have to crack down on all the misinformation sooner or later.”
Within publishing, too, this tectonic shift in the wellness plates hasn’t gone unnoticed, says Orchard. “Because there’s so much information out there, the public is starting to interrogate things more... looking for people who actually have the right credentials.” That the idea of seeking advice from people with “credentials” is a dawning realisation rather than an a priori assumption shows you just how far down the rabbit hole we’ve come.
So have a surfeit of wellness experts spoilt the bone broth? Well, not quite. With more bloggers landing book deals, more energy balls filling shopping bags, and more vegetables being spiralised, the time when boring, evidence-based facts trump Instagram tags as health influencers is a little way off.
In the meantime, perhaps the best thing you can do is hit the gym for a bit. Fix yourself a hearty, colourful dinner, then pour yourself a glass of something nice. Do the same tomorrow, then see how you feel. This is not nutritional science, of course; but crucially neither is it rocket science. And that is rather the point.
“Food prices are justified by attaching unrealistic benefits”