In our latest nutrition tips article Gemma Rose calls time on the fantasy of clean food. At the height of the Covid-19 confinement many people took to cooking at home more often – or even for the very first time.
“I spent all last week eating really badly, so this week I’m going to eat clean,” announced my friend, peering over my plate of a fairly clean lunch: avocado salad, hummus, tomatoes but with a bit of dirty food such as mozzarella and gnocchi to accompany it. This is what I think clean food is: food which is not processed, free-range and ethically sourced, but doesn’t include certain food groups like carbohydrates or refined sugars.
But my definition could be wrong. Some gurus offering nutrition tips would say that clean means wholly plant-based and whole foods (I’m not sure what “whole foods” are), others would cut out the gluten, the dairy, the nuts, grains and the refined sugar. Others would just simply avoid ALL sugar (including fruit, honey, etc.), whilst some only eat alkaline foods (again, no idea what these foods are). It seems that the clean food industry doesn’t really know itself which food is clean.
There have been a number of officially or unofficially designated clean food queens: such as the Hemsley sisters (The Art of Eating Well); Ella Mills (Deliciously Ella); Natasha Corrett (Honestly Healthy); and of course, probably the pioneer in clean eating, Gwyneth Paltrow and her brand Goop. These celebrities intertwine healthy eating with wellness, and their recipes require cutting out a lot of food or food groups such as refined sugar, simple carbohydrates, grains, gluten, and/or dairy. Thanks to their ingenuity, their businesses are booming.
The tide, however, has been turning against clean foodies. Most of these gurus are neither formally trained nutritionists nor chefs, yet they have made claims to health and wellbeing with very little supporting scientific evidence. This concern has been highlighted in the Guardian, Vice and in the BBC documentary Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth. Moreover, these proponents of clean food have been accused of being elitist and morally superior: who can afford coconut oil/sugar, hazelnut butter or chia seeds on a regular basis? And who has the time to spiralize courgettes or make cauliflower rice?
What seriously worries the medical community is the emergence of ‘orthorexia nervosa’. It was first coined by Dr. Steven Bratman in 1997 as an obsession on righteous and pure eating. What may start out as healthy eating eventually becomes toxic due to rigid eating and limiting food choices, causing health – ironically – to suffer.