CW: eating disorders.
As anyone who has read the Lifestyle section of any newspaper, ever used Instagram, or has ever set foot into the food section of Waterstones will know, there has been a revolution underway in the realm of ‘healthy’ eating. Long gone are the days of buying microwaveable meals and ordering late night Deliveroo without judgement or guilt, the advent of kale, quinoa, and chia seeds have conquered the world of cooking faster than you could say ‘Nutribullet’.
‘Wellness’ or ‘clean eating’ refers to eating unprocessed, natural, ‘pure’ food as a way of achieving a so-called healthy lifestyle. It is considered a way of getting your daily dose of vitamins and minerals while also, honestly believing you are avoiding fad diets and maintaining a healthy and balanced mind-body relationship. Wellness has become such an integral part of our modern day understanding of food that it is almost impossible to avoid: supermarkets have increasingly growing ‘free-from’ sections and the number of sugarless, reduced salt or oil snacks are drowning out the usual crowd favourites of highly processed and sodium-filled products. This is undeniably a beneficial impact of the trend, providing consumers with increased access to and awareness of the healthy alternatives. However, problems arise when taking a deeper look behind the twinkling eyes of the Instagram-filtered faces that initiated the wellness trend.
Many of these bloggers began their ventures into the food industry after personal journeys of un-diagnosed food allergies or intolerances. They documented their discoveries of how ‘clean’ eating helped them understand which foods their bodies rejected and which made them feel more awake, alert and less susceptible to symptoms. Using the most obvious example, Ella Woodward of the health brand, Deliciously Ella. Woodward was diagnosed with postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition which results in extreme exhaustion and dizziness. Her documentation of her food-based journey back to health was inspirational for others with similar conditions, and led to her becoming one of the most prominent faces of the wellness and clean eating industry.
While the successes of Deliciously Ella and similar businesses are undeniably commendable, they become problematic when considering how these entrepreneurs managed to create vast health food companies without having any scientific education themselves. Their philosophies are largely based on how they feel post-consumption, rather than empirical fact or data. Hadley Freeman declared in a 2015 article for The Guardian that “very few wellness bloggers have traditional nutritional qualifications”, at most taking an online course from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, as admitted by wellness gurus Madeleine Shaw and Tess Ward. This achievement “only qualifies students to describe themselves as an ‘integrative nutrition health coach’’, a revelation leading Freeman to understandably argue that “instead of qualifications in boring things such as nutrition and science, the wellness guru has a blog and an Instagram account.”
Adding to the misleading legitimacy behind the wellness trend is the elitism inherent in the practice of wellness. Advertisement for many of these blogs claim to create natural food from simple ingredients, however the majority of typical supermarket shoppers would agree that Himalayan pink salt, kombucha culture, or ‘liquid smoke’, as featured in a Deliciously Ella recipe for vegan bacon, do not fall into this category. Hard to find and definitely not economical options, many of the ingredients suggest that ‘clean eating’ is a fad of the elite; for those able to throw money at recipes for Cacao and Avocado Mousse or Cashew Cream and Salted Date Caramel Easter Eggs.
Clean eating has been denounced by many scientists, doctors and dieticians, such as Dr Giles Yeo. Dr. Yeo investigated and exposed clean eating as nothing more than a scientifically unfounded diet craze and a social media sensation. Similarly, food writer Ruby Tandoh was one of the many public figures to voice concern over the links between ‘clean eating’ and eating disorders. In an article for Vice, Tandoh interviewed Nigella Lawson, who convincingly argued that “clean eating necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and… leads to that self-shaming and self-persecution that is forcibly detrimental to true healthy eating.”
While it is irrational and unsubstantiated to blame a diet fad for historically prevalent eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia, the concept and language associated with the trend can provide validation for skipping meals or avoiding foods with calorific content.
Whatever empirical or scientific evidence denounces the wellness phenomenon, it’s constant rebranding and fluid identity allows the trend to remain relevant in consumer markets, allowing the inevitable focus on ‘aesthetics’ and ‘inner purity’ to thrive. While doctors, chefs and writers all remain adamant that the wellness trend is nothing more than a groundless fad detrimental to physical and mental health, the inevitability of it’s future seems secure in households and middle class mind-sets. Being aware of the dangers and scepticism surrounding social media and health trends enables consumers to make educated choices about their lifestyles, rather than succumbing to convincing fads.
Image: (silviarita) via (Creative Commons)