Clean Eating is the Unicorn of Diets

Try As You Might, You'll Never Eat Clean Enough

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Clean Eating is the Unicorn of Diets

Is your lunch covered in dirt, tar, or feces? Nope? Good news, then—it’s clean. The increasingly popular phrase “clean eating” tends not merely to connote food that meets the baseline criteria of not being coated in literal gunge, though. Perhaps it calls to mind well-curated Instagram feed of green juices and picturesque salads. Organic cherries. Farm to table. Yoga retreats. Pink-cheeked Scandinavian children running through a wheatfield. The vaguely defined #CleanEating might seem like a call to food origins mindfulness at best and harmless lifestyle porn at worst, but in my view, it’s some dangerous, elitist bullshit. How many people, after all, can afford the time and money required to have BMW-driving Amanda Chantal Bacon’s cordyceps-and-kelp diet (And how many really want to?)

A friend recently told me about the company that caters occasional team lunches at his office. He described the food as decent-tasting and relatively oriented towards fresh vegetables and whole grains. The thing that really caught his attention, though, was that the waitstaff seemed to be universally tall and thin. He and his coworkers did some research and discovered that company hired mostly fashion models as servers.

On their website, the company boasts that they source only foods that contain “organic, clean, and natural ingredients.” One of these words has a fixed meaning. Organic food must be independently certified to be labeled as such (though the health and environmental benefits of organic agriculture aren’t necessarily cut and dry). “Natural” and “clean,” on the other hand, can be very slippery indeed. Often associated with minimal processing and undefined notions of wholesomeness, they cannot be held against an objective standard. A catering company that calls it’s food “clean” and predominately hires professional models as servers makes an implicit statement: clean = healthy = thin. This, to me, is toxic and incorrect.

I’d prefer not to name the catering company as my intent isn’t to drag their business through the mud. In fact, it sounds like they’re doing some pretty cool stuff in terms of ethical sourcing. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with hiring lots of models (hey, models gotta hustle too). This company didn’t invent the “clean eating” craze, but they have positioned themselves to benefit from it in ways that enforce our society’s unhealthy obsession with thinness. As far as harmful food and body messaging goes, they’re hardly the worst offenders. In a world of teatoxes and digitally enhanced boobs, a willowy model carrying a tray of sesame glazed carrots may seem benign. But for me at least, subtle messaging is the most deadly.

As an underweight sixteen-year-old on the path to a serious eating disorder, I knew about photoshopped fashion spreads and considered myself at least partially inoculated against their false charms. However, I was much more vulnerable to the chic asceticism of healthy lifestyle marketing. What began as an attempt to eat simple, healthy food spiraled into an obsession with eating almost nothing at all. My favorite shirt was a green skinny tee emblazoned with “Eat More Kale” in block letters. A harmless enough sentiment, perhaps, but soon I was trying to eat little else. I feared “polluting” my body with fat, starches, and sugars of all kinds.

To say that some food is clean implies that other food is dirty. If you ingest dirty food, you too must become unclean. There’s a moral hierarchy at play here, and it privileges those who can afford more expensive organic, local, and minimally processed food. The underlying message is that those who lack the resources to eat “clean” are not only unhealthy but also morally inferior.

Author and activist Virgie Tovar has written about how the U.S. American obsession with cleanliness creates yet another framework to pathologize and dehumanize low-income people of color. Furthermore, as dietician and blogger Michelle Allison, a.k.a. The Fat Nutritionist, points out, “clean eating” is often performative — hence, the hashtags and wellness evangelism. Ruby Tandoh of Great British Bake Off fame has made this point as well in writing about the provenance of her own eating disorder. In addition to dividing eaters into “good” and “bad,” the marketing rhetoric of “clean eating” can be deceptive in describing the safety and nutritional value of various foods, dietician Jaclyn London argues.

And yet, the “clean eating” trend persists. It seems to be driven at least in part by the proliferation of new health sections in many magazines, both in print and online. While some health content genuinely explores the complex landscape of bodies, food, and healthcare, many publications trade in breathless, click-seeking headlines that misrepresent and oversimplify scientific studies. People have different nutritional needs, so dietary advice that paints with a broad brush is often suspect.

With so much of the world on fire right now, going after “clean eating” might seem like a nitpicky gripe. Indeed, there are bigger fish to fry (immigration, healthcare, reproductive rights, trans rights —you know the list). However, I believe that a nourishing and inclusive food culture is more important now than ever. If, for instance, your food is “clean” but picked by underpaid migrant workers or farmed with practices that polluted waterways, it may be dirtier than you think. The resistance cannot be fueled by companies that stratify and divide us into good, clean, wealthy eaters and bad, dirty, poor ones.

Already, there have been many beautiful moments of food solidarity as protests have erupted across the country in response to Trump’s … well, everything: allies delivering pizza to protesters at airports across the country after the announcement of the travel ban; Sikh community members feeding marchers at the Women’s March in Los Angeles; resistance via cookbook window display.

So eat pizza, eat roti, eat kale, eat cake. Feed yourself and others. Keep vegan, or don’t. Keep kosher or halal, or don’t. Have any food you like. Just don’t think it’s “clean.”

Header photo by Conticium CC BY-ND

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