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.


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”


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.


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”

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