clean eating cult

The hashtags #cleaneating, #eatclean and #avotoast have taken over Instagram with feeds filled with breakfast bowls, organic everything and gym selfies.

It seems like everyone is doing yoga, meditating, or cooking vegetables in more ways than known to man; everyone who’s everyone is at it. It encourages people to get out, exercise, and to eat more fruit and veg in fun, colourful ways. However just like many trends ebbing in and out of social media it isn’t all as perfect as it seems. How do these super health feeds impact our mental health?
Stripped of all the Instagram filters, clean eating is a philosophy, which is seemingly both healthy and sensible. The idea is to eat only whole, unprocessed foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, beans, and seeds. Nutritionally, it’s perfectly possible to live healthily on a plant-based diet, with meal variety coming from the different ways you can cook and combine ingredients. On paper, it’s a spinach filled paradise.

But why exactly has #eatclean become such a big movement on social media? At the surface it seems well-intentioned, but perhaps under all the quinoa there is something else going on. In general, social media is about likes; we like the likes our photos get when we are seen to be doing something ‘good’, like eating healthy food or exercising. It’s a play in perfection, often shifting all the imperfections under the metaphorical carpet for sake of appearances. The problem arises when we’re forced to think of the opposite of #eatclean. If some foods are clean, which are dirty? If you’re not in on the healthy club, then you must be out of it – the language of clean eating subtly shames those of us who don’t submit our everyday lifestyle to it. People are picking up on this, and rebelling – think Deliciously Stella.

Wellness bloggers have become huge in the last year or so, many with thousands of followers with whom they share their advice on how to eat, exercise and live. But wellness blogger isn’t another word for ‘dietician’ (coincidentally, neither is ‘nutritionist’, a title which requires no qualifications for a person to adopt and use); the dietary advice given by these bloggers is based on experience and not science. Meaning that when they preach about cutting out certain foods, the advice they give, which may have worked fabulously for them, may not translate to all of their trusting followers. Never mind that you may have a different body shape and type to them, but it may just not be feasible for you to follow a diet like theirs – what do you do when your own body can’t be ‘trendy?’ There are some of us who are genuinely gluten intolerant, but most of us aren’t and we shouldn’t make ourselves miserable by trying to cut it out of our diets.

If you’re concerned that gluten might be making you feel ill, the best place to visit for information is your doctor, not Instagram. Yes, cutting out excess sugar (sugar which doesn’t occur naturally in plant based foods) may be better in the long run, but the occasional slice of chocolate cake has never killed anyone.

Finally, we need to be careful about the way the saturation of these posts effects women’s mental health. #cleaneating tends to come with a perfect body, which is described as #strong, not #skinny. There is a trap we must be wary of wherein our eating habits become more than just a perfectly valid attempt to be healthy, and instead are obsessive and unhealthy. Obsessive healthy eating is an eating disorder, not a trend. Laying out some kind of perfect lifestyle through a series of edited Instagram pictures and brief snapshots from the everyday isn’t realistic, and it’s a breeding ground for self-punishment.

The idea of #cleaneating isn’t necessarily a bad one, and there are plenty of people who eat this way with positive relationships to food. But a positive relationship with food and exercise does not mean a perfect relationship. However, as it becomes more and more popular, we need to be aware of the potential shortfalls of prescribing ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ foods. Eating clean can become an obsession, eating foods which aren’t ‘clean’ can begin to give way to feelings of intense guilt. Healthy habits are great, obsession is not.

Follow Kat on twitter: @KattSkippon

Illustration: Georgina Reynolds