The musings of a final year medical student

Saturday, 30 July 2016


I am not a fan of the clean eating brigade. Over the past year or so, healthy 'clean' eating has exploded in a very commercial way. It's like someone put Pret a Manger on steroids and took away the meat, gluten and dairy. And the fun. 

Where did Western society's obsession over clean eating begin? Well, I suppose we have always been interested in diets that will make us look like models, ways to stop us from getting cancer and how to get better skin, hair and nails. These are some of the claims that the poster girls of clean eating have told us (Belle Gibson, Madeleine Shaw, Ella Woodward et al.).

I love food. I love variety and I care about being healthy. I think it would be really hypocritical if I became a doctor and told patients to eat healthy whilst I ate takeaways on the daily. As Margeret McCartney rightly says in her recent BMJ article: "The command to eat cleanly implies that everyone else is filthy, being careless with their bodies and lives. It comes with promises of energy boosts, glowing skin, spirituality, purity, and possibly immortality. But this nonsense is all based on a loose interpretation of facts and a desire to make the pursuit of wellbeing an obsessive, full time occupation.". 

I think it is really important that we question all of this clean eating advice that we are being served. Most of these ladies promoting clean eating are not medical professionals. Many of them are nutritionists, which is a controversial issue. You can literally buy a nutritionist qualification online for £29 (and less than 20 hours training) and then command people to follow your food mantras. Grace Victory proved this in her recent BBC documentary on clean eating. 

There are two particularly sinister sides to clean eating: profiting out of our ignorance, and indoctrinating unrealistic expectations into men and women. Clean eating is now a massive business. If you tell people that they need to cook everything in coconut oil, funnily enough the people selling it will make a lot of dollar. Secondly, a newer form of eating disorder, orthorexia, has increased in incidence. Telling someone to not eat gluten or anything refined is just one way that a person can control their eating, and then that control becomes debilitating. Of course, people can eat a gluten free diet and enjoy it and not let it take over their life. But portraying food as 'good' and 'bad' is distressing and wrong. It is triggering. 

It's great that the clean eating brigade wants us to cook more from scratch, eat more fruit and vegetables, and question where our food comes from. That is a really positive thing we can learn from them. However, it's the exclusion and the need to be 100% consistent that is my bug bear. The key to loving food and being healthy is not criticising other people's habits or our own. We shouldn't chastise refined foods. We need to do what we've always been told: eat a balanced diet. A little bit of what you fancy does you good, the key word being little, not a lot. 

If you love coconut oil, good for you. Enjoy it if you like it. If you are diagnosed with coeliac disease, yes avoid gluten because it will make you very ill if you do eat it. Buy these lovely cookbooks (if you want to), that encourage us to try new things and buy fresh ingredients. But when you read the bit about how you shouldn't eat gluten/any meat/any dairy/anything fun. Pause. Question their reasoning, and get advice from someone who knows, such as a qualified dietician, where there are much stricter guidelines on training. The Hemsley and Hemsley sisters will tell you not to eat gluten despite it saying on their website that they are not qualified nutritionists or dieticians. Now that is food for thought. 


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