Exposing the clean eating myth

Exposing the clean eating mythAs regular gym goers, we are naturally inclined to be aware of our eating habits. Whether we go to the gym to keep our weight under control or if we work out with a physical goal in mind, we probably pay more attention to the quality of our food intake than many, less active, people.

However, the search for a healthy lifestyle means that there is a whole industry of people who are trying to persuade us that they have the answer to finding the holy grail - wellness. Which means that there is a plethora of information and mis-information around the subject of healthy eating and its impact upon wellness.

A recent article written by Ruby Tandoh – winner of Great British Bake-Off and columnist for The Guardian – has highlighted two aspects of this food-based information overload.

Twin evils

Tandoh, who has had her own battles with bulimia, says the current dietary headlining twins are the evil of gluten and the sanctifying of ‘clean eating’. To sum up: gluten has taken over from MSG as the source of a looming health crisis. Sluggishness, bloated feelings, general ill-health – all charges laid at the door of MSG 40 years ago – are now being attributed to gluten. Except that the MSG myth has been thoroughly debunked, it was never the cause of illness, and the gluten argument seems to be heading the same way.

Coeliac disease and its less severe manifestation Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity exist in one and five per cent of the population respectively and, in these cases, avoiding gluten is imperative. For everyone else, there is no reason at all why we should ditch gluten – and yet a huge market share of cookbooks are devoted to eradicating gluten from your diet.

No benefits to cutting gluten

The problem is, as Alan Levinovitz explains in his book The Gluten Lie, that there is not necessarily any benefit to cutting out gluten unless it's medically required. If gluten is not a personal health risk – and that's for a medical professional to assess – a gluten-free diet won't necessarily help you at all. And this crusade against gluten might not just be fruitless (and expensive – according to Levinovitz, gluten-free products average at 242 percent more expensive than their gluten-containing versions), but actually harmful.

Nutrition is an impossibly complicated and contested field, and rarely do we agree upon what is and is not good for us. In the absence of certainty, the safest and most healthy approach to nutrition falls back on variety – of food groups, macronutrients, ingredients. Which is where clean eating is at odds with common sense – cure-all good health through the exclusion of whole food groups is not promoting a healthy diet.

What is good eating?

Television chef and food writer Nigella Lawson said: "I despair of the term 'clean eating'...it necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and thus bad."

Of course, the food that is advocated by the clean eating brigade is often quite lovely and full of nutritional goodness. That is not in question. It is the exclusion of the other foods that is problematic.

Through the concept of ‘clean eating’ we are being sold a story that some foods are “junk”, “sluggish”, “bad” “cheating’, moral terms that do nothing to enhance our relationship with food. Clean eating gives the moral upper hand to some foods and causes anxiety about eating other foods. This can hardly be conducive to a healthy relationship with food.

A healthy diet is eating with pleasure

Tandoh’s piece is worth reading, but the crucial point that we should take from it relates to a study carried out on two groups of women – some Swedish, some Thai. The study found that when people were relaxed and comfortable with the food they were eating, they absorbed a far higher percentage of nutrients than if they were eating food that they were not familiar or comfortable with. In grounding health in rules and restrictions, rather than pleasure and intuition, clean eating misses a trick. Trust that your body knows what it needs and if you get a hankering for chips, chocolate or courgette, look to that craving. The key to good health through nutrition isn’t hiding in a fad diet or elimination regime, it is living with pleasure and without shame.


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