Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The Trouble with....'Clean Eating'

What are your thoughts on 'clean eating'? Perhaps you're one of the thousands of people with a copy of the Deliciously Ella cookbook, maybe you've quit sugar and wholeheartedly embraced a way of life where chia seeds, coconut flour and quinoa are the staples of your kitchen cupboards. Or perhaps you don't really give two figs about clean eating and are getting a tad bored with everyone else that you know evangelising about its benefits every two minutes.

Wherever you stand, one thing I doubt you will be is unfamiliar with a movement which seems to have dominated culinary trends for the past few years. Clean eating - and everything that goes with it (organic food, yoga, mindfulness, etc.) - has become big business, commanding massive marketing budgets that make unawareness of the movement akin to not knowing that Trump is the President Elect. It's a way of living that has captivated millions and spawned the rise of the 'lifestyle blogger', shiny, beautiful people who, via blogs, vlogs and social media, have found a far-reaching - and extremely lucrative - platform to promote this idealistic way of life. Trouble is, after trying it out for myself, it's a lifestyle that just isn't that healthy for your mental health or achievable for about 99% of the population. 

A few years back, I was feeling pretty crappy about myself. I'd turned 40 and instantaneously became ill with a mysterious virus (just like Deliciously Ella, right? Actually the parallels end there...) that manifested itself with strange pains and debilitating headaches. But there appeared to be nothing wrong with me from a physiological point of view. I decided to cut out sugar and, within a few weeks, I started to feel better. Interestingly, the getting better coincided with my finding a fantastic new job and a degree of security entering my life after a long period of unreliable and stressful freelancing. Suddenly the headaches disappeared - "It's the giving up sugar, it worked!" I told myself, absolutely convinced that my diet prior to this had made me feel unwell.

But looking back, I can view the situation with a little more clarity, and see that a few factors were, in fact, at play. Firstly, I hadn't been eating huge amounts of sugar anyway. Yes, I had one teaspoon in my coffee and the odd biscuit but I was not by any means a big consumer of sugar; I was not putting away a Cadbury's Flake with my coffee, or loading up on Krispy Kremes. More generally, my diet was good and I followed the ethos I'd grown up with in my part Italian family: that healthy food is freshly made, colourful, comforting and life-affirming. Cutting down on sugar most certainly has its benefits, and many of us eat much more than we should. But I think a combination of lifestyle factors contribute to wellbeing, and in my case I believe the alleviation of work stress and anxiety through getting a new job was equally as useful in making me feel better as cutting down on sugar was.

So, what I'm saying is that I was generally a fit and healthy person; I was just going through some middle-aged anxieties and suffering from stress when I became poorly. And one of the worst things you can do when you have an anxious mind or are going through life challenges is to fixate on your health...

While there is without doubt some useful advice to be gleaned from the raft of clean living cookbooks out there - we should all probably be eating more veg, eliminating processed foods and being careful with sugar - there are too many flaws in them to be ignored. Firstly, and perhaps most dangerous of all, few of the authors behind these 'bibles' has the academic background to back-up their claims; in short, the books perpetuate myths that aren't cemented in clinically sound, scientifically proven advice....it would be hard not to read most without deciding to eliminate gluten from you diet, for example. Yet there's simply no reason for most of us to do so. 

My own diet - based on a Mediterranean culture of eating home-cooked, fresh food wherever possible - was not unhealthy prior to reading up about clean eating. But after digesting the advice of these purported 'experts' (despite their lack of professional accreditation) I began to closely examine my diet and demonise the things I loved - pasta, bread and builders tea, for example. I spent hours examining labels in the supermarket and even longer agonising about how on earth I was going to get my children to eat quinoa.

I swapped making one family meal for special, 'nutritionally rich' foods for the adults and more palatable options for the kids. I started to spend a small fortune on coconut flour, buckwheat and clean alternatives to sugar. Some were fine and I continue to use them (coconut oil, for example) but there were many more times when I'd spend hours labouring over an expensive recipe to find the results simply inedible. I started to resent the fact that food was becoming an immense cause of stress in our household. 

I also became cross with myself for being drawn into an illusory, glossy take on reality that had virtually no bearing on my everyday life. Seems ridiculous now but those shiny blogs and books do have a habit of making you (a 40-something, normal mum with an average income) compare yourself to a 20-something, long-legged, raw eating advocate with a big book advance and a mum who's part of the Sainsbury's empire. I'm not questioning Ella Woodward's illness, but I can't help but ponder how she just happened to start coming up with raw food recipes during her convalescence, and that her blog just happened to be picked up by a publishing house. I can't help but feel there might have been a bigger plan in place from the outset, mobilised by a privileged background and a fat Rolodex of contacts in the food industry.

Anyway, the point is that - on a practical level - living the clean lifestyle is wholly unachievable for most of us. Sure, you can take some ideas from it and they'll possibly have some benefits for your health, but trying to embrace this way of life wholeheartedly will set most people - normal people with jobs, families, bills to pay - up for a fall. And you may find yourself swapping one type of toxicity for another - it's all well and good being sugar-free but if your mind is a toxic zone weighed down with stress because you accidentally ate some Heinz Tomato soup for lunch then that surely defeats the point.

It's an unfashionable view, but my brief foray into clean living has made me see one thing with clarity - that no foods should be forbidden and that life is really too short to ferment your own sauerkraut. A restrictive, puritanical diet might look good on Instagram but if you can't take joy in food in its many forms, you'll become bored, boring and isolated. By all means find healthy alternatives and explore some aspects of clean living (raw cocoa and homemade granola won't be disappearing from my cupboards any time soon) but follow your own path to wellness.

I've found that while cutting down on sugar has helped me manage my blood sugar, mood swings and skin problems, pasta, red wine and Dairy Milk are, in fact, equally essential for my wellbeing and happiness...

For a more in-depth and excellent read on Clean Eating, read Ruby Tandoh's article 'The Unhealthy Truth Behind Wellness & Clean Eating'.


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