If there’s one thing that sets my teeth on edge it’s when people start going on and on about how they’re “eating clean.” I’m not the only one. In “The Unhealthy Truth behind ‘Wellness’ and ‘Clean’ Eating,” Ruby Tandoh argues that “wellness” and “clean eating” are more sinister than they might appear.
Though they don’t cause eating disorders, they can be used to mask them. They depend on demonizing certain foods and singing the praises of others. Instead of proposing moderation, they insist upon elimination and all-or-nothing thinking.
She first came upon wellness in the hopes of getting away from her eating disorder. Instead of calorie counting, the wellness approach was all about self-care and choosing “good foods” while avoiding “junk.” More than anything, it’s promoted as “a lifestyle, not a diet.” Despite no calorie-counting, it’s a quite rigid way of eating:
Orthorexia is a preoccupation with “right” and “wrong” foods. Although it doesn’t yet have an agreed upon diagnosis among clinicians, a spokesperson at beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, told me that there has been an anecdotal increase in the number of people who suffer from the disorder in the recent years, and explained that “this may be exacerbated by the emphasis on what is termed “healthy eating”, which may prompt people to go beyond taking care and moving into fixation or obsession.” Some consider orthorexia an eating disorder, while others place it closer to OCD, but regardless of its diagnosis, its symptoms – anxiety around “Bad Foods”, dietary inflexibility, a concern with physical health at social and emotional expense – seem to be on the rise.
She goes so far as to suggest that “wellness” and “clean eating” are actually a rebranding of “dieting.” They involve the same fat-phobic central assumption.
Fat is as the heart of wellness, though you’d never guess it by the way the industry brands itself. Tess Ward is quick to point out that her “Naked Diet” isn’t a diet diet, but a lifestyle diet, just like the how that Madeleine Shaw separates her calorie-counting past and her gluten-free present. Again and again, Deliciously Ella shuns any claim that her diet is about “deprivation”. Wellness isn’t a diet, we’re told, but something clean and sustainable, far from the baseness of ‘diet talk’, weight-loss and bodies.
And yet throughout these books – the very same ones that tell us to locate our self-worth not in how we look but in who we are and how we feel – there is a consistent, entrenched fear of fatness. When Deliciously Ella allays our fears that “things like avocados and almonds will make you fat,” she leaves that foundational anxiety around fatness intact as a valid concern. When Madeleine Shaw boasts that her lifestyle tips can create a “leaner, healthier physique,” you could be forgiven for wondering where her “be your own cheerleader” pep went.
She ends her piece recommending well-rounded meals and snacks that include a variety of foods from a range of food groups and that give us pleasure. And she includes a plug for intuitive eating, which works well for me, though not all of us at the blog are as enamoured by it.
This post is not saying that there is something wrong with the foods recommended as part of a wellness approach. Rather, it’s meant as an invitation to think about the moralizing and demonizing of some foods in the name of wellness. Granted, mangoes and strawberries, celery and zucchini, fresh greens and whole grain bread are healthy foods with all sorts of nutritional value.
But if you’re rigidly stuck on the idea that some foods are permissible and others forbidden, and if fat-phobia is the motive behind the method, then maybe it’s time to branch out, enjoy a few things that are on the wrong side of your list, and relax already. There is nothing “dirty” about not eating clean.
Here are some of our other posts about clean eating, detox/cleanse diets, and demonizing foods: