Lots of Brits Are Rejecting #CleanEating. Should We Follow Suit?

More and more UK-based wellness bloggers, who once popularized clean eating, are now distancing themselves from it

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Clean eating: Two manicured hands hold onto a burger with a bit taken out of it
(Photo: Getty)

Look up the hashtags #eatclean and #cleaneating on Instagram and you’ll find more than 80 million posts collectively—and counting. Each image is more carefully curated than the rest, but they all extoll the same virtues: ditch added sugars, gluten, processed foods and the like, and you too can be effortlessly sun-kissed and carefree.
It’s a hashtag that 30-year-old writer Hannah Matthews took to heart. What started as simple browsing became all-consuming: at first, she decided to eat “clean” as a way to deal with personal anxiety and maintain weight loss, but soon she found herself edging toward an increasingly risky and restrictive lifestyle.

“I thought if I had one bite or sip of something ‘bad’ like candy, bread, ‘processed’ food or ‘toxins’ like alcohol, it would unravel all of the ‘progress’ I had made and taint my spotless health routine,” says Matthews.

Hyperconscious of every morsel she put in her mouth, Matthews developed what she believes is orthorexia. It’s not currently recognized as a clinical diagnosis, but it’s a designation coined in 1996 to characterize someone who has become unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating. Matthews’s approach to diet and exercise eventually left her malnourished; she lost her period and developed heart problems. When a concerned friend stepped in, Matthews realized she needed help. She sought out a therapist and nutritionist to learn how to reorient her relationship with food.

For Matthews, rejecting the clean-eating paradigm wasn’t just intensely personal. It had become a matter of life and death.

Later, she wrote an essay for SELF describing her recovery, which included a more mindful, but less compulsive, approach to food. She recalled: “I was able to walk back my rigid thinking around what I’m ‘allowed’ to eat, eating and exercising on a certain schedule, and defining healthy as being thin, toned, and free of ‘bad’ food in my body.”

For Matthews, rejecting the clean-eating paradigm wasn’t just intensely personal. It had become a matter of life and death.

Matthews is not the only one questioning the now-ubiquitous clean-eating paradigm. In the UK, a backlash to clean eating has been brewing over the past couple of years. More and more clear-skinned, shiny-haired UK-based wellness bloggers and cookbook authors, like Ella Mills and the Hemsley sisters, who once popularized clean eating, are now trying to distance themselves from the term as backlash builds and the trend is increasingly linked to disordered eating or unhealthy habits.

Prominent British writers and chefs have been particularly active in raising red flags about clean eating. Celebrity cookbook author Nigella Lawson has referred to the trend as “smug,” and noted that it’s become fashionable cover for disordered eating.

Ruby Tandoh, author of cookbook Flavour: Eat What You Love, has been calling out clean eating as a “bad fad” for more than a year, criticizing the movement for being part of “precarious health claims and a trend-driven food press, all underpinned by an unfaltering disdain for fat bodies.”

Bee Wilson, a British food writer and historian, has also criticized the movement, taking on coconut oil, spiralized zucchini noodles and pricey raw vegan juice diets that deprive your body of fibre by excluding pulp. “We are once again living in an environment where ordinary food, which should be something reliable and sustaining, has come to feel noxious,” she writes.

A London-based blogger, Bella Younger, has also started a clean-eating parody account, mocking the most popular aspects of the diet: Deliciously Stella. (“There was so many avocados on Instagram,” she told one reporter.)

We live in a random post-truth world, driven by social media, and it permeates a lot of fad diets and the pseudoscience of Gwyneth Paltrow.

In addition to food writers, scientists are also asking questions about some of the claims made by some of the clean eating movement’s loudest voices—particularly that gluten or grains are harmful, that labeling beef soup as “bone broth” somehow makes it magical, and that alkalinity should have any relevance to what you put in your mouth. In the BBC documentary Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth, presenter Dr. Giles Yeo, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, debunks these claims. “They’re marketing these diets based on pseudoscience, and that’s what I have a problem with,” says Yeo.

To some, clean eating might seem like a sensible call to eat more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods, an attempt to reclaim our diets from an increasingly opaque and industrialized food world. But for others, it’s just another punitive and anxiety-producing measure, largely imposed on women and completely detached from actual wellness, personal contentedness or most dietary science. One study showed that adherents of clean eating—particularly those that cut out whole food groups like dairy—are at a higher risk of weakened bones, leading to osteoporosis or fractures. Another recent, much smaller study followed more than 100 people and found that the act of declaring yourself a “clean eater” in fact makes you appear less likeable—perhaps an indication that more people are tiring of being constantly fed instructions on how sucking down lemon water will help cleanse them and help them become more virtuous.

While science is undeniably our friend, it’s no wonder we reach for magic beans from time to time. Food is indeed something we can control, but only to a point. We’re told we’re not supposed to eat fast or processed foods, and our portion sizes are apparently shameful.

We’re told we’re supposed to enjoy food, to use it bring the whole family together and even draw personal comfort, but not to the point where we deviate from a narrowly prescribed body image. And while common sense should prevail (the advice offered by Michael Pollen, author of In Defense of Food, is appealing: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”), there is an enormous volume of conflicting messaging. Our food supply chains are increasingly dubious and far from transparent, and there are questions being raised about whether increased sugar consumption is slowly killing us. Clean eating, while potentially destructive and seemingly adjacent to joylessness, appeals to some because of the clarity in its restrictions–which, even if damaging, create a moral food universe that simply divides items into easy-to-follow “good” and “bad” categories.

But while some in the UK are starting to ask questions, celebrities and food influencers in North America are seemingly still enamoured with clean eating. The term continues to be ubiquitous, and has even served as a gateway to newer clean beauty and even clean sleeping trends.

Despite the concerns being voiced, Yeo believes that the clean-eating movement is here for the long haul. “Judging by my Twitter feed, it’s only gaining steam,” he says. “We live in a random post-truth world, driven by social media, and it permeates a lot of fad diets and the pseudoscience of Gwyneth Paltrow. Telling people to eat a little less of everything isn’t going to make me a million bucks on Instagram.”

For Matthews, she’s taken a step back from hyper-monitoring her own food consumption, as well as from friends who do so either in real life or on social media. “This is an extremely high-anxiety time in our culture, and especially for women who were already facing extreme beauty and fitness expectations,” says Matthews. “The desire to control our food and exercise so rigidly creeps into our ideas about self-worth.”

Related:

“Sweat Isn’t Fat ‘Crying,’ Khloé:” Why This RD Can’t Stand #Fitspo
We Asked an RD About the Gwyneth Paltrow Supplements: “I Can’t Even”
Diet Swapping: Two Editors, With Totally Different Diets, Trade Places

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