Madeleine Shaw promoting her volume Get the Glow. Photo: Joe Pepler/ REX/ Shutterstock
” But I only find the positive”, said Shaw , now wiping away tears. It was at this point that the audience, who were already restless whenever McGregor or I spoke, descended into outright hatred, shouting and hissing for us to get off stage. In a volume shop after the event, as fans came up to Shaw to thank her for giving them” the glow”, I too burst into tears when person or persons jabbed her thumbs at me and said I should be ashamed, as an” older females”( I am 43 ), to have criticised a younger one. On Twitter that night, some Shaw fans constructed derogatory remarks about how McGregor and I appeared, under the hashtag #youarewhatyoueat. The implication was that, if we were less photogenic than Shaw, we clearly had nothing of any value to say about food( never mind the fact that McGregor has degrees in biochemistry and nutrition ).
Thinking about the event on the develop home, I realised that the crowd were angry with us not because they disagreed with the details( it’s pretty clear that you can’t have sugar in “sugar-free” recipes ), but because they detested the fact that we were arguing at all. To insist on the facts of the case made us come across as cruelly negative. We had punctured the happy belief-bubble of glowiness that they had come to imbibe from Shaw. It’s striking that in many of the wellness cookbooks, mainstream scientific proof on diet is seen as more or less irrelevant , not least because the gurus watch the complacency of science as part of what built 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 find that clean feeing- or whatever name it now runs 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 medication. 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 aims, can cause real harm, both to truth and to human beings. Over the past 18 months, McGregor says,” every single client with an eating disorder who strolls into my clinic doors is either following or wants to follow a’ clean’ way of eating “.
In her new book, Orthorexia, McGregor observes that while eating disorder long predate the #eatclean trend,” food regulations”( such as eating no dairy or avoiding all grains) easily become” a guise for restricting food uptake “. Moreover, they are not even good rules, based as “theyre on”” unsubstantiated, unscientific asserts “. Take almond milk, which is widely touted as a superior alternative to cow’s milk. McGregor considers it as little better than” expensive water “, containing just 0.1 g protein per 100 ml, compared with 3.2 g per 100 ml in cow’s milk. But she often discovers it very difficult to convince her clients that restricting themselves to these “clean” foods is in the long run worse for their health than what she calls” unrestrained feeing”- balanced and varied meals, but no anxiety about the odd ice cream or chocolate bar.
Clearly , not everyone who bought a clean-eating book has developed an eating disorder. But a motion whose premise is that normal food is unhealthy has already had muddied the water of” healthy eating” for everyone else, by planting the idea that a good diet is one founded on absolutes.
The true calamity of clean eating is not that it is entirely false. It is that it contains” a kernel of truth”, as Giles Yeo puts it.” When you strip down all the pseudo gibberish, they are absolutely right to say that we should feed more vegetables, less refined sugar and less meat ,” Yeo said, sipping a black coffee in his office at the Institute of Metabolic Science in Cambridge, where he spends his days researching the causes of obesity. Yeo agreed to that clean eaters that our environment of inexpensive, plentiful, sugary, fatty food is a recipe for widespread obesity and ill health. The problem is it’s near impossible to pick out the sensible bits of” clean feeing” and ignore the rest. #Eatclean built healthy eating seem like something” expensive, exclusive and difficult to achieve”, as Anthony Warner writes. Whether the term “clean” is use or not, there is a new puritanism about food that has taken root very widely.
A few weeks ago, I overheard a fit, middle-aged human at the gym castigating a friend for not feeing a better diet- a conversation that would once have been unimaginable among men. The first human was telling the second that the” skinny burgers” he preferred were nothing but” shitty mince and marketing”- and arguing that he was able to get almost everything he needed from a diet of veggies, cooked with no petroleum.” Fat is fat, at the end of the working day ,” he concluded, before bemoaning the “idiots” who tried to eat something wholesome like a salad, then ruined everything by adding salt.” If you have one bad diet day a week, you undo all your good work .”
The real question is how to fight this kind of diet absolutism without bouncing back to a mindless festivity of the modern food environment that is demonstrably stimulating so many people sick. In 2016, more than 600 children in the UK were get registered as living with kind 2 diabetes; before 2002, there were no reported cases of children suffering from the condition, whose causes are diet-related.
Our food system is in desperate need of reform. There’s a threat that, in fighting the nonsense of clean eating, we end up looking like apologists for a commercial food supply that is failing in its basic undertaking of nourishing us. Former orthorexia sufferer Edward L Yuen has argued- in his 2014 book, Beating Orthorexia- that the old advice of” everything in moderation” no longer works in a food environment where eating in the “middle ground” may still leave you with chronic diseases. When sections are supersized and Snickers bars are sold by the metre( something I find in my local Tesco recently ), eating “normally” is not necessarily a balanced alternative. The answer isn’t yet another perfect diet, but a shift in our idea of what constitutes normal food.
Sales of courgettes in the UK rose 20% from 2014 to 2015, fuelled by the rise of the spiraliser. But overall consumption of vegetables, both in the UK and worldwide, is still vanishingly small( with 74% of the adult UK population not managing to feed five a day ). That is much lower than it was in the 1950 s, when freshly cooked daily snacks were still something that most people took for granted.
Among the affluent classes who already feed a healthier-than-average diet, the Instagram goddesses generated a new model of dietary perfection to aim for. For the rest of the population, however, it simply placed the ideal of healthy food ever further out of reach. Behind the shiny covers of the clean-eating volumes, there is a harsh form of economic exclusion that says that someone who can’t afford wheatgrass or spi
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