Sunday, May 26, 2013

Is Clean Eating Just Wanky Nonsense?

courtesy of Favim
This post has been coming for awhile. I feel like so called 'clean eating' has taken on a life of its own and it has been occupying my thoughts quite a bit lately as have cupcakes. 
Food intrigues me. The very fact that it can evoke a myriad of responses and effects means we should ALL probably pay more attention to what goes in our mouths.
I have always danced between catering for health and weight loss goals and for pleasure. The 3 rarely coexist peacefully. I mean cupcakes don't fit into many diet plans but they most certainly do not make it onto the list of 'acceptable' food choices for a clean eater. Diet phenomenons come and go, some leave an indelible mark, others just surface at second handbook stores much later: forgotten and outdated.
The latest, clean eating, is the concept of eating food in its most natural form, free of chemicals, unprocessed and full of the goodness nature always intended. Sugar and flour are struck off the list hence no cupcakes. In theory 'clean eating' has my vote. But theories have a way of getting blurred in practice which brings me to the problem with clean eating.

Let's start with the name: does terming something clean not indirectly suggest that everything else is in fact, dirty? With all the psychological issues we know are ingrained in our food choices is it wise to make such a distinction? At one end of the spectrum we have people struggling with obesity, consuming boxed meals full of things linked to lifestyle diseases and at the other we have puritans grazing on nature's gifts. Is it really okay to label food good and bad, clean and dirty? There is an underlying inference that the pursuit of 'clean' somehow makes you superior as though the act of choosing an organic tomato makes you a better person. Are we comfortable with making food, a necessity for every human on earth, a symbol of good versus evil. Do we not already have enough labels, enough expectations to live up to, enough guilt in our lives?

Irritating too is that so many of those choosing the clean food are not going about it humbly without fanfare. You see eating clean seems to go hand in hand with social media commentary of the accomplishment. If a tree falls in the forrest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound? Similarly If a clean eater consumes grass fed beef and doesn't tweet the activity was it just a meal? Should choosing to commit to better choices not be born form the satisfaction of knowing you are doing the best you can for your body rather than the accolades your clean eating fraternity provide when you post your dinner on Instagram?

If that wasn't enough clean eating is for many of us an unachievable ideal. Even if you are committed to eating clean there are a number of obstacles that make it difficult for most and impossible for many. We can't pretend food is not an industry. For it to exist someone has to grow it, rear it, harvest it and because most of us have jobs it isn't going to be us. To provide food without using chemicals and still being competitive is a monumental feat. I'm not suggesting we accept defeat and don't bother looking at better farming practices but thinking we can shift an entire industry instantly is pie in the sky stuff. Cost too is a huge consideration. Ask any mother about grocery bills and you will understand that clean eating is a lovely concept that exists someplace with unicorns and fairies not in a shopping trolley and certainly not in family kitchens. Pursuing a lifestyle that challenges your budget, availability and sanity is likely to be a rocky ride.

Even if industry could support this type of food are we in a position to eat this way? I mean think about it. One of the big reasons we are in the crummy situation we are when it comes to food is our want and need for convenience. Clean eating and convenience don't go together. It takes time to grow, harvest and cook vegetables. Equally it takes time to track down organic farmers, check the conditions of livestock and read every label. There is a reason why cereal is popular and it is not just because of million dollar advertising campaigns or the sweet taste: that shit is easy. After all is stress not an accepted cause of lifestyle diseases, family breakdowns and general ill-health? Green smoothies are not doing you much good if you have to have a mini meltdown just to get the concoction in the glass. Many clean eaters can't escape the need for convenience which is why you will find protein powder in their pantry. Something which they gathered under a bushel while hunting for a wild buffalo no doubt.  

Even if we had a world that supported this type of eating does it deliver on all of its promises? There are many: eating clean will see you lose wight and have your skin glowing like a model in a makeup campaign, you will  live longer, be free of disease and have lots more energy.
To accept food is a like a drug and that your choices can have huge, positive, impacts on chronic pain, disease prevention, and mood is responsible, to suggest it can turn you into Miranda Kerr is ludicrous. We all have unique genetics that dictate so much of  who we are and what we look like. Sure we can put our best foot forward with the best food choices but Kale isn't going to clear up a face full of acne any sooner than it is going to make pigs fly.

I understand why we buy in to clean eating the way we do. For every struggle we hope to find an answer. If it is a chronic disease or a terminal prognosis we are at the mercy of cures that are yet to be found. If we are young women battling body image we are believing of any tool that can make the outside look better in order to ease the insecurity inside. If we are nearing middle age and mortality is softly knocking on our door then we are all ears for any possibility of age prevention. Unless you are a kid food is the one thing you can control. Prayer, hope and spare change may be the only things you have to offer global studies on cancer cures and you may  be 'just waiting' when it comes to western medicine but food, oh yes, this is where you have control. To control your health and looks by what you put in your mouth is empowering, but is it realistic?

The problem with so many of the paths we start down in relation to diet and fitness is that we are looking for one nice little packaged answer. We like cause and effect and we like obvious tangible results. I'm not suggesting that eating clean can't vastly improve your skin, your mind and your body. But I am willing to bet a fair chunk of cash that even if you see some results they won't be infomercial-worthy nor will they be delivered in 8 short weeks. Improvement might be good but it doesn't impress others and unfortunately it doesn't impress ourselves. 

Any idea you take on in regards to the food you eat has to be yours. It has to be born of your own beliefs and convictions because total body transformations and complete cures are the stuff glossy magazines are made of: they aren't real. 

Am I dogging on clean eating because it is a way of life that I haven't been able to commit to? Am I envious of those who manage to tread the pure path? Perhaps, but I'm no stranger to the big claims that the diet industry make. I have quit sugar for 12 weeks, followed the liver cleansing diet, quit diet soft drinks and many crazy regimes in between and while I don't doubt they did me some good there was no glowing skin, no amazing transformation and no light bulb moments. 

What is much hard is quietly and consistently making better choices even when nobody is watching. 

Please don't misunderstand me, if you have the commitment and drive to cut sugar from your diet completely and never let a preservative or additive pass your lips then make no mistake I applaud you. I thank you too because it those of us who demand more from industry  who will eventually bring about the change in food manufacturing and production we most certainly need to have. But if you are like me - just making better choices within your own personal constraints - then I applaud you too. Because ideals are nice and perfection is admirable but making the small changes that suit me and giving up the notion that I can be a superior, pure human being simply by the diet choices I make is hugely freeing. And you know what? I really love the idea and practice of nourishing myself with as many nutrients as I can and being conscious about my diet, but cupcakes are pretty freak'n great!


  1. Your post articulates a lot of my thoughts on "clean eating." I used to stress myself out trying to eat as "cleanly" as possible but these days, I don't care that much. I eat pretty much everything (in moderation) and haven't noticed any changes at all - my weight, energy levels, health, physical appearance, performance at the gym, etc are all the same as before despite regular consumption of refined carbs. The only difference is I'm much less anxious about food. So yeah, I'm in the 'wanky nonsense' camp.

    p.s. - did you get my e-mail? Just wondering because your original e-mail to me went to my spam?

    1. I did! Thanks for sharing here. I think in addition to making better choices we need to be making more realistic ones.