Debate or Cult: The Clean Eating Movement

An Open Mind is A Healthy Mind

Last Friday I was invited to the Cheltenham Literature Festival to take part in the nutrition panel on “The Clean Eating Debate”.

I was asked to be involved as the expert who could provide the scientific reasoning behind whether such a way of eating is suitable or not, based on my work and publications as a Clinical and Sports Dietitian.

The other panellists included Madeleine Shaw, who has been hugely successful with her books, “Ready, Steady, Glow” and “Get the Glow” promoting the idea of a “cleaner” more wholesome way to eat.

The final Panellist was Bee Wilson a highly esteemed food writer, historian and author of 4 books, including her latest, “The First Bite, How we learn to Eat”, a fascinating book that looks closely at the psychology around how and what we eat.

The Panel was headed up by chair Eleanor Mills, Editorial Director of The Sunday Times.

So a great mix of backgrounds to discuss a controversial topic so that the audience could leave armed with facts and the ability to make their own minds up about “Clean Eating”.

Unfortunately this is not how the evening unfolded. When you sit on a panel for a debate, you would like to think that you have an open minded audience. On Friday, it seems that the majority of the audience were there not to be educated but to hear Madeleine speak about her approach to nutrition. Trying to debate in front of a closed audience is an incredibly difficult task and while Bee and I only stated facts, we were met with huge hostility.

For those of you who follow me regularly, will know that my main issue with food bloggers, of which Madeleine is only one of many and I actually want to praise her for coming forward and attending the debate, is that they don’t have a nutritional qualification between them and yet their popularity in the #EatClean market is huge. This is increasingly frustrating when you come from a background with a biochemistry degree and post graduate degrees in both Dietetics and Sports Nutrition.

These Non-qualified food bloggers base their nutritional preaching on n=1. That is, something that has worked for them, will work for the rest of the population. However this is not science and indeed can result in dangerous consequences from nutrient deficiencies, to poor growth and development in teenagers. I appreciate that the majority of these individuals started off posting pictures on instagram, writing blogs and doing the occasional vlog as a completely innocent past time. However what they have attracted is a huge following, sadly not based on scientific reasoning but based on their ability to sell a lifestyle – “eat like me and you will look like me”.

This is where I take issue – I worry about the nonsense nutrition that is being spouted. On Friday, I wanted to have the opportunity to provide the counter argument against the rules that have been created, demonstrating that they were not based on sounds scientific findings.

Some of the key messages I wanted to get across are based on the guidelines they encourage their followers to live by.

This in itself sets up the mentality that if you don’t follow them, then somehow you are not conforming and you have failed.

The majority of food bloggers insist that we should go sugar free; however, within their books, there are ample recipes that contain honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar that again suggests that these are superior to the humble table sugar.

All of these are sugar and the body utilises them in exactly the same way as table sugar –it cannot differentiate. Additionally they also all provide the same amount of energy per 100g. Often these alternatives are promoted as “healthier more nutrient dense” options. However, in order to benefit from the slightly higher mineral content of coconut sugar for example, you would need to consume it in huge quantities, which defeats the object. The main difference is that Coconut sugar costs 10 times the amount of table sugar.

Similarly many of these bloggers encourage you to remove dairy form your diet often promoting almond milk in its place. If you’ve got the time and inclination to make your own almond milk, then perhaps you can accept the claim that with regards to calcium and protein they almost stack up. However the majority of us do not have this time luxury and so resort to buying it from the supermarkets where it costs double the amount of cow’s milk but is devoid of nutritional value – it is just expensive water, containing 0.1g of protein per 100ml in comparison to cows milk that provides 3.4g of protein per 100ml.

The Clean Eating brigade often talk about “inflammation” within the body and how certain foods can “affect your body’s pH” and so encourage a gluten free diet as well as avoiding foods that can cause acidity within the body.

So firstly, having conducted a serious systematic review on the subject of Gluten, I am yet to find a credible article that demonstrates than anyone who is not Coeliac will benefit from a gluten free diet. Thus in my practise as a Dietitan, it is not something I advocate.

When it comes to acidity and alkalinity within the body; the body is an incredibly clever machine and has the ability to keep homeostatic control; that is it has the ability to monitor the body and ensure that a balanced environment is always achieved, without making changes to your nutritional intake.

What we do know that if you eat certain foods, like animal protein, it can cause the PH of our blood to rise.. However the body also has the amazing ability to control this and neutralise so that it maintains a constant environment. It does this in a number of ways but one of the key methods is release of calcium ions from our bones. For healthy body’s this is not a problem, and the body soon returns back to normal. The problem comes in those individuals who are not taking in sufficient calcium, particularly from dairy protein; they do not have sufficient calcium within their diets to replace what has been released from the bone. This in turn can lead to poor bone density and an increase risk of osteoporosis and stress fractures.

I don’t doubt for a minute that these bloggers truly believe what they are saying is true but the bottom line is, it isn’t and as seen, it can actually be dangerous. These individuals are role models to many; people look up to them and so in my mind with such a huge following, there also needs to come responsibility.

One of the key points I wanted to get across on Friday was the potential danger of “clean eating”. I was very clear to point out that I don’t think food fads such as these cause eating disorders – I have worked in the area for long enough and I know it is a very complicated multifactorial mental illness. However individuals with eating disorders make up food rules to live by – this is to maintain their eating disorder, which they feel is keeping them safe but that we know is the complete opposite. The problem with “clean eating” is that it promotes fads such as being gluten, dairy or sugar free. They see the beautiful image of the food blogger that is encouraging this way of eating and it not only glamorises but also consolidates their rules as a way of life, endangering their physical and mental health further. Pretty much every single eating disorder individual I have worked with, young, old, male, female, athlete, no-athlete, talks about the rules; the rules that started, from following food/celebrity bloggers and that now feel difficult to overturn. So many of them believe that if they eat gluten or drink milk then something awful is going to happen to them.

In my practise, I define healthy eating as unrestrained eating; where you eat everything but in moderation and I think here lies the problem: moderation is not innovative; it is not glamorous or sexy and is actually quite difficult to achieve.

Individuals want something new and exciting to follow and while I take my hat off to Madeleine, she has created some really delicious and inspiring recipes, which would encourage even the most resistant to try vegetables; my main worry is that a lot of her suggestions of meals and meal plans are not balanced, increasing the risk of nutrient deficiencies.

I went into Friday’s debate concerned about how big “Clean Eating” has become and hoping to provide information to help individuals make educational decisions around food choice. Sadly I was met by a hugely closed audience who really just wanted to evangelise the benefits.

I stand by my word that being healthy is not just about food; it is also a mind set. The most important lesson I try and teach my daughters and clients is self-acceptance and self worth. This doesn’t come from eating a certain way or following a certain practise, self esteem comes from accepting you are good enough just the way you are. Shouldn’t this be what we try to encourage and in still in each other rather than a sense of failure because we choose to eat food that is deemed “Not Clean”.