Too clean or not too clean?

What is ‘clean’ food? Not very long ago, you would have been forgiven for thinking that ‘clean’ meant food that didn’t have hair, dirt, or foreign objects in it. Food run under the tap for five minutes. Food that hadn’t fallen on the floor. Food not partially eaten by rats.

These days, ‘clean’ food means something else entirely, and if you’ve ever spent any time around fitness trainers, gym rats or even idly flicked through a lifestyle magazine, you are probably familiar with it. Depending on who you are, ‘clean’ means food that is free of dairy, gluten, sugar or saturated fat; food that has been prepared without oil; diet free of animal products; paleo, vegan, raw. Generally, its proponents advocate less pre-packaged food and more fresh fruits and vegetables. This is less for their essential vitamins and minerals than their ‘detoxifying’ superpowers and ability to cure everything from autism to Alzheimers.

A quick Google search is enough to get the idea. Think: pictures of young women performing natarajasana in fields. Pots of tea and colourful plates of salad concocted from ingredients that cost five times as much as anything else on the shelf – here’s looking at you, quinoa. Green smoothies served in mason jars. Advice about how supplements can help you recover from adrenal fatigue (not a real medical condition) or how certain juices, brews, and expensive gadgetry will help your body ‘detox’ (your kidneys are probably doing a better job already). Synergy! Activation! Holistic everything! Forgive me if I sound bitchy, but these buzzwords don’t buzz anymore so much as clang and jar in a terrifying ‘wellness’ symphony.

After a while, this marketing copy (because that’s what it is) throws up more questions than answers. Why is broccoli ‘cleaner’ than wheat? Why are the highly-processed vitamin supplements and refined protein in powder form okay but refined carbohydrate, ie. raw sugar, is not? Why does Pete Evans hate beans (and children)? The truth is, ‘clean’ eating can mean whatever you want it to mean, as long as it is established around a set of arbitrary rules, only very remotely related to actual dietary health, based on the idea that some food is more pure than other food. That Caramello Easter egg you just ate? Bad. A cupcake made with coconut oil, coconut flour, almonds, stevia, protein powder and melted chocolate? Wonderful! And buy our cookbook to get the recipe!

And then there are the gurus. The cult of foodie personality can be big money, and more and more people want a slice of that gluten-free pie. Nutritionists, chefs, fitness trainers, yoga teachers – everyone can style themselves as a lifestyle guru. In my own little circle of acquaintances I have watched a disproportionate number of friends struggle with direction – move back in with their parents at the age of 30, or skip across fifteen different jobs in the space of a few months, sinking into wells of depression – before discovering vegetables and a gym membership and suddenly they are open for business. Food coaching. Personal training services. Wellness counselling. I am sure they are much happier having objectives and goals than they were floating aimlessly through their days. God knows I can relate to that – but I confess, I am cynical. I am cynical not so much about their genuine enjoyment of their new life, but at what’s driving them down this path.

Because ‘I want to be the best person I can be’ no longer means generosity, or standing up for the rights of others, or learning about history and philosophy and art and science. It means turning one’s body into a perfectly oiled and glistening marketable machine by consuming all the right products from all the right companies. ‘Healthy’ no longer means a body that functions at its optimum but living by a particular set of arbitrary rules invented by someone with a product to sell and no medical authority. Anyone can call themselves a nutritionist with the thinnest of qualifications, but an Accredited Practising Dietician is the only national credential recognised by the Australian Government, Medicare, the Department of Veterans Affairs and most private health insurance providers. The problem is that evidence-based dietary advice is not very sexy. It will not promise a cure for cancer or autism or clinical depression, but it will help you fuel yourself according to your needs. Unfortunately, the market is so saturated with misinformation and outright lies that it’s hard to separate the good advice from the bad, and – as demonstrated by the recent furore around Belle Gibson and Pete Evans – popularity is absolutely no guarantee that someone is not a quack.

Other more refreshingly sane commentators have written at length about how there is no moral value to food: at its most basic, it is fuel. Furthermore, that pile of leafy greens and tiny portion of lean meat is no doubt full of nutrients, but will only go a fraction of the way towards getting you through the day. ‘The body does not run on nutrients,’ writes fitness trainer and blogger Amber Rogers from GoKaleo, ‘it runs on calories.’

But in a culture where we are increasingly alienated from the most fundamental things – our daily labour, the political system, each other, but most particularly our own bodies – it is no wonder that the diet/exercise nexus has become a site of revelation (and, conversely, terror) for so many people. It represents the primary site of control: sometimes the only thing that we feel like we can actually change in a world full of chaos. But it’s a false comfort, because there’s a market for that too, and the price just keeps on rising.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Great article Stephanie. There is so much rubbish information in the food area or natural health industry – little based on science. When my son was diagnosed with autism at 3 I was sucked into the giant vortex which is the let’s cure autism with diet crap and I found it very difficult to separate the fact from fiction. Over the years it slowly dawned on me what a lot of money making fiction was being tossed about. I was also reading a lot of the natural food websites and the fairy tale continued and expanded to every condition (cure cancer with x, cure schizophrenia with y) and the elimination of nearly all food groups (dairy, gluten, artificial colours et.c,) and the idea that what we consume is causing all manner of mental health and other conditions. Now I can step back and see how much time I wasted and the whole things makes me really angry as they are targeting vulnerable people who are desperate for a cure or to help with symptoms.

  2. I work in the health industry, and can relate to all you have shared. It’s a labyrinth out there now with so many claims of cures and wellness (targeting vulnerable people). I had Epstein Barr virus and have been bombarded with so many things I ‘should’ do. Head spinning stuff. Because I don’t subscribe to crystal healing and raw food and wholistic lifestyle (impossible), apparently I’m not trying hard enough. The cones of shame just keep stacking up.

    A few good things remain however. I’ve thrown out the bath water now but kept the baby. Am in a daily battle with lack of appetite due to depression/anxiety and I sing nothing but praise for my ‘tiger tonics’ (as they used to call them back in the old days according to mum) aka smoothies. (Vegemite jars are still cool). Without these I would fade away. They are my fuel.

    Anyway I digress. Our food system has way too many cure claims, misinformation, quack ‘healers’ and snake oil salesman. Let’s go back to Grandma’s recipes and the Country Women’s Association cookbook. Soups, stews, meat & 3 veg. And always dessert. (Maybe scrap the blamange) 😉

    Ps. Fancy meeting you here Gabrielle Bryden. 🙂

  3. Excellent article on the always already food fad diet. “Everyone’s going paleo – quick – what do I buy, what do I eat?” I can recall too Ita Buttrose saying in an interview once, when she was editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly in the 1970s and 1980s, how the editorial team would sit down and invent a new fad diet every couple of weeks. History constantly repeating itself – as farce.

    1. damn, forgot the emoji – no matter, if I want to call on them, they’re always already there …

  4. Great article, however please don’t tar us all with the same brush. I am a Registered Nurse with over 17 years experience, a Wellness Workshop Facilitator and a Wellness, Food & Lifestyle Coach. My practice is evidence based. I do not give individual dietary advice as this is not within my scope of practice, but when asked about dietary advice always refer people back to the Australian Food Guidelines. I don’t prescribe, diagnose, treat, I help people elicit positive change.

    I became a coach because whilst working in the hospital system, I became interested in why a great number of patients with chronic health problems weren’t able to take the invaluable education and guidance provided to them from medical and other health care practitioners and make the changes they needed to improve their health and wellness. Whether the information was about the need for weight loss, healthy eating, exercise, taking medication, dressing compliance, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake or implementing stress manage strategies, change alluded many patients resulting in readmission and lost quality of life.

    When talking to patients I found that most individuals could discuss why they needed to make the changes recommended to them, showing that they had understood the information provided to them on a cognitive level. However, when enquiring why they didn’t make recommended changes some individuals seemed to lack the internal drive to change because they did not own or internalise the need to change. Others alluded to not knowing the steps to take to make necessary changes, feeling overwhelmed by the path to change, and not having the confidence to make a change.

    Wellness Coaching has an opportunity when delivered correctly to successfully help people take control of their lives so that they can make the changes they need to improve their health and wellness. It helps people move from “ambivalence to change” to “readiness to change”, and to achieve their health and wellness goals.

    I know there are charlatans out there, but I am not one of them.

  5. I reckon eat what you like, just don’t stuff your face with it. All animal fat in large quantities will block your arteries that is something proven by medical evidence.

  6. I agree with a lot of the points in this article, but I don’t believe the true nature of the problem has been understood or explained.

    Thanks to the Internet, we’re all saturated in information across all industries, not just health, and we have welcomed this change as a form of liberation from the traditional informational model. But when allowing free access to creating and consuming information, we find ourselves in the conundrum we now face where the true is mingled with the false and we are forced to sift through an ocean of information from all corners of the globe. Even the parts that are true and relevant may still be completely unnecessary.

    At the same time, it would be foolish to think that everything was better before the Internet, when we just had TV, thesauruses and standardised textbooks. So much of the traditional knowledge and education has already been proven incorrect, especially in relation to health, disease and nutrition, yet it was always government credentialed, and ‘scientifically proven’. So who should we trust to provide us with accurate answers?

    Modern nutritional science has a great deal to answer for when it comes to the havoc that it has wreaked upon our health. I really don’t think we need degree qualified dietitians to tell us that we’re getting fatter and sicker every year. Everything we’ve been lead to believe is healthy for us has made us sicker than ever, and yet it has all been promoted by governments, scientists and ‘experts’. So where do we turn now? The current situation in the health industry is precisely in response to this problem.

    I don’t believe that its right for people to take a short course and brand themselves as experts because the only information they have to rely on is the same mish-mash we all have. However, the closed academic and scientific world deserves to have its iron gates thrust open by people who don’t conform to its doctrines because its doctrines have failed us and we need to figure out a way to get back to normal, healthy living. And as much as we all yearn for hard scientific proof about what’s good for us, the reality is that it was simple anecdotal advice and cultural traditions that allowed the human race to survive and thrive for millennia – NOT science!

    1. Actually, learning from experience is science. Eating poison berries over and over again even when they kill people is the definition of “not science”

  7. It seems to me that this and the takedowns of Pete whatshisname are reductive and unempathetic. While I can understand the frustration, I feel like this just adds flames to a flame war and doesn’t really provide much clarification of the reasoning behind why people adopt the diets, nor what are the issues at stake. How can we account for the popularity of ‘clean eating’ if it is ‘just’ marketing? What about the anxieties, justified and unjustified that clean eating is addressing? And isn’t it interesting how clean eating doesn’t have a simplistic hygiene/ pathogen approach to beneficial microbes characteristic of conventional understandings of cleanliness… Is food really just fuel? Maybe it is just fuel in one technologically-oriented value system, but it certainly not just fuel in others. Can’t there be an analysis of the confluences of several social forces that contribute to their popularity?… when I get time I would like to write something like that. In the meantime, I wrote something [linked above] to defend people who have eliminated gluten and those experimenting with various diets to address health problems- it often takes endurance and determination- especially the elimination diet, the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, sugar free diets and the low FODMAP diet – all similar to paleo- that among their difficulties cause die off reactions similar to how drug users experience going cold turkey. While it’s dangerous to follow someone’s evangelical food testimony uncritically, it’s also quite interesting to witness the processes of informal knowledge generation and exchange with regard to food particularly among communities of people with chronic inflammatory conditions on the internet.

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