Dishing the dirt on clean eating

Violet food writer Jess Lock provides yet more proof of why everything works in moderation

Jess Lock

Green and leanGeolavia

From Buddha bowls to spiralised courgettes, sugar-free Insta-celebs to raw food, to the ubiquity of juice cleanses, kale merchandise and avocado toast, we live in a food culture centred now on what it claims to be ‘nutrition’.

Gone are the days of Nigella’s domestic indulgence in warm comfort foods – 18 out of the 20 cookbooks in the Amazon food and drink bestsellers boast a focus on dieting, shifting from flavour and feasting to ‘cleanness’. Think Deliciously Ella’s gluten-free fanaticism, the Hemsley sisters’ heavily restricted diets and the health food porn which litters social media.

It's ‘clean eating’ that's now on the menu. It’s the moralisation of ‘good’ food over ‘bad’ food. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be considerate about the foods we eat – in an age of obesity epidemics, horse meat scandals and ‘carcinogenic’ chocolate-hazelnut spread (don’t, I’m crying as I type it too), it is wise to be sceptical of the goods we gobble.

“What truly seems to evade the ‘clean eating’ trend is the idea that nutrition is balance”

So why not eat ‘clean’, detox our diets and go back to basics? Why not eliminate all those pesky ‘bad’ foods and live happily ever after…?

‘Clean eating’ says red meat is out, processed grains are out, butter and olive oil are out (but a generous spoonful of coconut oil or nut butter are perfect alternatives), and sugar… oh my, sugar is most definitely out (but consumption of sticky dates and sweet, sweet honey is actively encouraged).

Gluten is a popular target for ‘clean eating’ to attack too, because it can be ‘hard to digest’. Madeleine Shaw calls it “sandpaper for the gut”; the author of Eat Nourish Glow, Amelia Freer, says it can cause a variety of ailments from headaches to joint pains. There’s even a website called For people who suffer from coeliac disease, of course, this is true but these claims are made in view of making non-sufferers go gluten-free and, worryingly, are completely unfounded.   

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These issues go even deeper: EU regulations banned the term ‘superfood’ in 2007, after nutritionists revealed the claims regarding more than 100 foods were completely unproven – chia seeds, coconut oil, blueberries and kale all have repeatedly failed to hold up to the claims made about their weight-loss-inducing, nutrient-density, ‘good’-fat-possessing qualities and instead can be seen simply as a marketing ploy for the multi-million-pound dieting industry.

‘Clean eating’ ultimately values certain ingredients as pure, cleansing and moral, while others are served with an unwanted side order of guilt, shame and anxiety. It implies that any other form of eating is dirty, bad, shameful and harmful, and manifests not only as a way of shaming others, but also as self-shaming which is forcibly detrimental to health and happiness. 

Negative feelings about food can have very tangible consequences. While many people are aware of anorexia and bulimia, orthorexia has only recently started to be examined by the media. Orthorexia is a preoccupation with ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’ foods, a fixation on ‘healthy’ eating to the point where it becomes detrimental to physical and mental health, and is an issue which has gained notoriety in the past few years, alongside the social media stars hashtagging #eatclean #instahealth #fitspo and the susceptible audiences who view these images. ‘Clean eating’ does not directly cause orthorexia by any means, but when we do not challenge a diet so restrictive and moralised, the marketing and promotion of that diet and its claims of self-care and health, we are not being responsible.

What truly seems to evade the ‘clean eating’ trend is the idea that nutrition is balance: unless you suffer from food intolerances or allergies, no food is inherently evil, nor will it break you out in pustular spots/cause you to gain a pound just by smelling it/invite organ failure.

They say you can find out the history of someone’s diet through analysing a strand of their hair (NatScis, please don’t call me out on this). One look at mine would reveal a lifelong love affair with chocolate roulade and garlic bread, but also (I hope) the revelation that I am happy with the balance I strike between my five-a-day and foods I enjoy more for my mental health than my physical health.

The World Health Organisation advises that health is “a resource for everyday life, not the object of living” and even if we do choose to prioritise health in our lives, it needn’t be restrictive, and most certainly, needn’t be moralised. Enjoy all in moderation – go forth and eat