‘Frontiers: Inside the Outsiders’ is Pi Comment’s very own column tackling social issues from the perspective of students. Alexandra Hill challenges the mania for clean-eating taking over social media, with its unsubstantiated health benefits and potential to cloak restrictive eating disorders.
Forget calorie counting or cutting out carbs, the latest fad in the diet world is that of ‘clean eating’: a diet consisting in principal of wholly unprocessed foods. However its meaning in practice is shrouded in ambiguity.
A quick search on Instagram will yield thousands upon thousands of pictures consisting of this week’s selection of supposed superfoods, all arranged in the most aesthetically-pleasing way above a ten-line long list of the familiar hashtags. Likewise an emerging group of clean eating lifestyle influencers on YouTube share an array of ‘What I Eat’ videos to their audiences, depicting perfectly presented acai bowls, smashed avocados and dubiously coloured smoothies.
On one level it may seem positive to have a movement which encourages the eating of nutritious wholesome food as opposed to the promotion of a diet based upon arbitrary and meaningless measures like counting calories or grams of carbs. But this movement hides a far more detrimental and counterproductive undertone, especially when most of the foods it typically promotes are based on fad-like trends that change like the weather and share little consistency between proponents of the movement.
Goji berries were once the flavour of the month, with clean eating gurus glorifying the supposed miraculous health properties – being rich in antioxidants, vitamin C and iron. Similarly, we are told by self-proclaimed nutrition experts on social media that they will cure a long-list of ailments and help us lose weight, of course. Health food shops consequently jumped on the bandwagon, stocking them at premium prices and marketing their all-healing properties, and soon after, the everyday supermarkets increased their supply of goji berries and related products. However, despite their more than hefty price tags, it turns out goji berries are perhaps not as great as we have been told – we can get more vitamin C from numerous other fruits and the level of antioxidants they contain are actually rather insignificant.
Moreover, aside from the Clean Eating movement endorsing the endless food fads that emerge, it has also become a platform which vilifies food groups that are deemed to be unclean. Some influencers tell us to cut out gluten, whilst others tell us that we should spurn cooked food and instead opt for a raw vegan diet. The impact of the popularisation of restrictive diets such as these has become clear when we see the immense growth in ‘Free From’ products in our supermarkets, and brands like Deliciously Ella offering an array of ‘clean’ gluten and dairy free snacks to a growing audience.
But clean-eating is symptomatic of a vast western problem. Eating disorders are becoming rife in the UK, especially among young women, and ‘clean eating’, and a fixation on it, can often be a precursor to a restrictive disorder, like anorexia or orthorexia, or can be used to disguise an underlying dietary issue. It is particularly concerning when we hear eating disorder specialists, like Dr Max Pemberton, openly articulate their concerns relating to the clean eating movement, dubbing it ‘ugly, malevolent and damaging’ in an open letter published by the Daily Mail. He explained how some individuals with underlying psychological difficulties may start engaging in a clean eating diet and restricting food groups deemed, often on no sufficient scientific grounds, unhealthy or not clean. In many cases, such a regime can evolve into something more sinister and, in some cases, a severe life-threatening eating disorder. Similarly, individuals with a history of restrictive dieting may disguise their ongoing difficulties by simply asserting to others that they are ‘eating clean’ or ‘eating healthily’, when in fact they are depriving themselves of vital food groups and nutrients.
Equally, it is no coincidence that with the rise of clean eating influencers, many clinicians have felt the need to coin the term ‘orthorexia’ to describe a new form of eating disorder where individuals who may not be severely underweight are still engaging in highly restrictive eating. Although such individuals may not be in such a life-endangering situation, their restriction often comes at a cost to both their health and mental wellbeing – an increased risk of osteoporosis or amenorrhea in women, as well as mental health conditions like depression among a myriad of other susceptibilities.
The epidemic of clean eating and its fans on social media is perhaps no surprise; we live in an era of rising obesity and the routine demonisation of food groups by governments and media alike, with the implementation of the sugar tax on drinks, for instance. However, whilst we must indeed remain concerned about obesity and its immense repercussions, we must also be concerned about the negative consequences of the clean eating trend and its profound detriment to those with existing eating disorders, or those most at risk of developing them.