‘Why I believe clean eating is bad for you’

Obsessed? Surveys show that young people are much more concerned about what they eat. © Getty
by Laura Dennison

The co-founder of the blog Not Plant Based, Dennison started writing about food after suffering from bulimia for six years. She has also written for PA, the Guardian and Refinery29.

Is clean eating a con? The fashion for avoiding any processed food has taken off in recent years, but this author believes it is merely a destructive status symbol dressed up as a health fad

I have become as bored discussing the stupidity of clean eating as I was when I was trying to eat clean. Seriously, I thought we were past believing that clean eating was anything other than a diet trend painted as a “healthy lifestyle”. But given the amount of holy green smoothies still on my Instagram explore feed, I had better say this…

First, what is clean eating? At its simplest, clean eating is about eating “real” foods. What are “real” foods? Good question. To clean eaters, they are foods that have been minimally processed, refined and handled, making them as close to their “natural” form as possible. This is pretty ridiculous, given that chopping up a tomato to put in your salad is technically a process itself.

I suppose I’m just bitter because I’m coming from the point of view of someone who latched on to clean eating after several years suffering with bulimia and binge eating disorder, ready to welcome a diet where I could cut things out without anyone commenting because, Mum, this is a “lifestyle”, remember? Restricting your diet in any way is a brilliant way for disordered eaters to cut out calories, which obviously was thrilling to me. Looking back, I can see that clean eating is harmful when you are vulnerable.

Many clean eating bloggers have been blasted for promoting its magical qualities without any medical backing.

After a month of clean eating, my skin cleared, I had bundles of energy, and I had never felt better! But those textbook attributes did not stick around for long. Dietician Ursula Philpot says: “Whenever anyone changes their diet, or when they cut something out of their diet, about 90% of cases will report some positive outcome. But over time that effect plateaus or even dips and the temptation then is to cut something else out to get that same effect.” That is exactly what happened to me.

Clean eating is much easier to commit to if you are rich, as “unrefined” and organic foods are more expensive. Clean eating is therefore, a class issue. As someone who grew up eating pasta bakes, ham sandwiches (on white bread) and sugary cereals (with full-fat milk), this diet was never going to work for me, and turned out to be as damaging to my mental health as it was to my bank balance.

“If you can’t afford chia seeds and you don’t blend your green shakes then you’re in some way inferior where your food quality is concerned. There have been lots of studies looking at things like the content of, say, kale, and actually watercress is better than kale, but people are buying kale because it is seen as something magical,” Philpot says.

Many clean eating bloggers have been blasted for promoting its magical qualities without any medical backing.

The nation’s mother, Nigella Lawson, has also been very outspoken against clean eating, agreeing that food should not hold any kind of moral value, and that to eat clean is to consider any other way of eating dirty. “People are using certain diets as a way to hide an eating disorder or a great sense of unhappiness with their own body,” she said.

“I wouldn’t want a life where I lived on chia seed pudding, just as I wouldn’t want a life where I lived on eggs Benedict or steak and chips.”

When it comes to food, balance is best. Health is about eating for your own body, not telling yourself that if you cut out crisps for a lifetime you’ll be a better person. My hope is that we can take this message to schools to prevent young, vulnerable people from embarking on damaging diets like clean eating.

Laura Dennison co-founded the blog Not Plant Based with fellow journalist Eve Simmons last year.

You Decide

  1. Are we given too much advice about food?


  1. Design a healthy, week-long diet without cutting out any significant foods.

Word Watch

Disordered eaters
People who have an abnormal and potentially unhealthy attitude towards food. Some signs can include dieting, skipping meals, binge eating and obsessive calorie counting. Many of these behaviours can also be found in those with eating disorders. The main difference is the level of severity.
Chia seeds
The seed of the Salvia hispanica plant was sacred to the Aztecs and has been used as a health food for thousands of years.
Despite its healthy reputation, kale contributes to the formation of sulforaphane, a compound under research for its potential to adverseley affect human health.
Nigella Lawson
A British food writer and celebrity chef known for her rich recipes.

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