Guilt, sin, pure, clean and sacrifice. All morally charged words with strong religious connotations that you’d hear in a sermon. However, alarmingly they’re the buzzwords propelling the ‘clean eating’ epidemic. Where food is now framed in the dichotomy of good or bad; we must cleanse and repent our dietary misbehaviour and weight loss group Slimming World quite literally categorises certain foods as ‘syns’. Is clean eating the new religion of 21st century, non-secular capitalist culture?
The incorporation of morality in our dietary decisions is one of humanities ancient obsessions. In Leviticus 11, God categories foods as clean or dirty. Two thousand years ago, Daoist monks in ancient China decided you’d live forever if you ate five specific grains. Eve quite literally caused humanity to fall from grace by eating the wrong food. The connection between morality and willingness to resist temptation dates back as far as the garden of Eden. The key words are ‘resist’ and ‘temptation’, where the puritan ideology in which pleasure is bad has translated into modern day class values and perceptions of foods. The self-congratulating middle class defers gratification, professing to not liking ‘dirty’ foods and having a passion for quinoa. This form of virtue signalling translates as soothing our moral conscience through the regimented avoidance of certain food groups while making those who don’t adopt these regimes feel inadequate. This creates a moral grey area which parallels religious orthodoxy, in the militant adoption of laws and codes to how we live our lives.
My concern with this ethically charged and ritualistic diet culture is that it is causing people to lose their natural intuition around eating (as a fundamental process to fuel the body). Principles of restriction, regiment and self-discipline now override our natural nutritional instincts. Rules such as ‘Don’t eat past 6pm’, ‘don’t eat before 12pm’, ‘don’t eat carbs’, ‘don’t eat gluten’ don’t seem to sound that ridiculous anymore.
This issue is (unsurprisingly) a highly gendered phenomenon. Defining clean eating has become a game of semantics. Although what all definitions have in common is an emphasis on restriction. Given patriarchal feminine ideals have centred around moderation and daintiness in history, it is no wonder the pressure to restrict and shrink food options (along with your body) is targeted at women. This issue dates back centuries. Dr Flemming in 1860 wrote of how women can cure corpulence (being overweight) by consuming soap. The idea being that if soap makes something pure and clean from the outside, it works on the inside.
There is an engrained idea that what a woman consumes is linked to their purity and morality. The commercial obsession with purity and ‘correct’ eating is an epidemic far more common for women than men, where what women eat is closely intertwined with their identity. Socialisation is to blame for the misconception that men and women have highly different nutritional requirements based on evolutionary needs. As women, we are socialised to having small appetites, preferring lighter meals with an emphasis on control and restriction. Ever wondered why ‘lighter’ versions of snacks have such feminine marketing, as if a woman couldn’t possible tackle a Kit Kat chunky but can manage a Kit Kat sens? What is so damaging about gendered marketing is that it gives rise to women’s emotional attachment to food, which has made the clean eating movement so morally charged and powerful.
What’s also shocking is that the targeting of women within the clean eating sphere isn’t even subtle. While there is increasing backlash against the clean eating movement, clean eating jargon -‘Detox’, ‘guilt free’, ‘cleanse’, ‘indulgent’- is everywhere. Reading an article on the Huffington post criticising the wellness movement, I was bombarded with numerous -and ironic- links to articles with click bait titles such as “5 Ways to Detox from the Inside Out” and “8 Addictive Foods & How to Overcome Their Power Over You”.
The imagery used within the articles consistently focuses on women and their bodies. One girl in underwear, clutching a juice to her naked belly in an article about detox. Another holding a huge bar of chocolate in her mouth in a piece about overcoming the powers of food. Another staring hopelessly at her computer screen in despair in an article about dieting will power. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle where exclusive portrayal of women in all elements of diet culture means they feel obliged to participate.
The momentum of the clean eating movement is not motivated by legitimate health concerns but by profit driven corporations and individuals. The toxic and persuasive combination of pseudo-science, body commodification and moralistic marketing is indoctrinating a growing number of people into these regimes. Even on a trip to Sainsbury’s you are bombarded with messages like ‘be good to yourself’, Innocent smoothies or Halo ice-cream. Food is no longer for nourishment but a commodity in the corporate hands.
Alarmingly research has proven there’s no merit to going gluten free unless you suffer for coeliac disease. However, from 2009-2014 the number of Americas who turned gluten free (despite not being coeliac), tripled. Similarly, we are now trained to believe a juice will detoxify our body, as though our livers don’t do that for us. Even the term ‘chemicals’ is casually thrown around in health food marketing, when obviously everything which exists is a chemical of some sort. So, if clean eating isn’t underpinned by legitimate scientific backing, then it must be rooted within this obsession for purity and the dichotomy that categorises food and bodies as good or bad.
The phenomenon of clean eating has dangerously warped our perception of health. The white, slender heterosexually desirable bodies that dominate the wellness movement, only reflect a tiny fraction of what healthy can look like. Unfortunately, this niche depiction of ‘heath’ sells. The Wellness economy is worth £3 trillion and incentive of fickle brands, publishing houses and products is to get behind which is going to earn them a big buck.
So, we can see food parallels religion in the continual separation of the pure from the impure and the clean from the dirty. It has become militant, evangelical and ritualistic. Clean eating has developed into an attempt to connect something as simple as what we into our bodies with our moral worth and identity. It’s a feminist issue. Unfortunately, within our (capitalist) society it will continue to be so, unless profit hungry organisations stop commodifying women and their bodies in sale of pseudo-science and untangible body ideals. “Female focussed” doesn’t mean “female friendly” and we must remember it’s quite literally - nutribollocks.