The GI tract is not a clean place

I don’t think I’d heard of “clean eating” before. Apparently it’s a thing.

In the spring of 2014, Jordan Younger noticed that her hair was falling out in clumps. “Not cool” was her reaction. At the time, Younger, 23, believed herself to be eating the healthiest of all possible diets. She was a “gluten-free, sugar-free, oil-free, grain-free, legume-free, plant-based raw vegan”. As The Blonde Vegan, Younger was a “wellness” blogger in New York City, one of thousands on Instagram (where she had 70,000 followers) rallying under the hashtag #eatclean. Although she had no qualifications as a nutritionist, Younger had sold more than 40,000 copies of her own $25, five-day “cleanse” programme – a formula for an all-raw, plant-based diet majoring on green juice.

Huh. Sounds very Gwyneth Paltrow, doesn’t it. Be a person with no technical expertise in the subject whatsoever, and tell people to put jade eggs up their vaginas and avoid eating everything except kale and coconut oil. What could possibly go wrong?

For as long as people have eaten food, there have been diets and quack cures. But previously, these existed, like conspiracy theories, on the fringes of food culture. “Clean eating” was different, because it established itself as a challenge to mainstream ways of eating, and its wild popularity over the past five years has enabled it to move far beyond the fringes. Powered by social media, it has been more absolutist in its claims and more popular in its reach than any previous school of modern nutrition advice.

At its simplest, clean eating is about ingesting nothing but “whole” or “unprocessed” foods (whatever is meant by these deeply ambiguous terms). Some versions of clean eating have been vegan, while others espouse various meats (preferably wild) and something mysteriously called “bone broth” (stock, to you and me). At first, clean eating sounded modest and even homespun: rather than counting calories, you would eat as many nutritious home-cooked substances as possible.

But it quickly became clear that “clean eating” was more than a diet; it was a belief system, which propagated the idea that the way most people eat is not simply fattening, but impure.

Of course it’s impure. We’re impure, and we require impure stuff to keep us alive. Purity is not an option for organic beings.

As the negative press for clean eating has intensified over the past year, many of the early goddesses of #eatclean have tried to rebrand – declaring they no longer use the word “clean” to describe the recipes that have sold them millions of books. Ella Mills – AKA Deliciously Ella, the food writer and entrepreneur whose coconut-and-oat energy balls sell for £1.79 apiece in British supermarkets – said on Yeo’s Horizon programme that she felt that the word “clean” as applied to eating originally meant nothing but natural, real, unprocessed food. “Now, it means diet, it means fad,” she complained.

But however much the concept of clean eating has been logically refuted and publicly reviled, the thing itself shows few signs of dying. Step into the cookbook section of any book shop and you will see how many recipe writers continue to promise us inner purity and outer beauty.

Good lord. Food is food, it’s not magic.

But “clean food” is a belief system, complete with hostility to questioners.

It’s striking that in many of the wellness cookbooks, mainstream scientific evidence on diet is seen as more or less irrelevant, not least because the gurus see the complacency of science as part of what made our diets so bad in the first place.

Amelia Freer, in Eat. Nourish. Glow, admits that “we can’t prove that dairy is the cause” of ailments ranging from IBS to joint pain, but concludes that it’s “surely worth” cutting dairy out anyway, just as a precaution. In another context, Freer writes that “I’m told it takes 17 years for scientific knowledge to filter down” to become general knowledge, while advising that gluten should be avoided. Once we enter the territory where all authority and expertise are automatically suspect, you can start to claim almost anything – and many #eatclean authorities do.

That night in Cheltenham, I saw that clean eating – or whatever name it now goes under – had elements of a post-truth cult. As with any cult, it could be something dark and divisive if you got on the wrong side of it. After Giles Yeo’s BBC programme was aired, he told me he was startled to find himself subjected to relentless online trolling. “They said I was funded by big pharma, and therefore obviously wouldn’t see the benefits of a healthy diet over medicine. These were outright lies.” (Yeo is employed by the University of Cambridge, and funded by the Medical Research Council.)

It’s increasingly clear that clean eating, for all its good intentions, can cause real harm, both to truth and to human beings.

I’m sticking with ice cream.

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