Nigella is right: Clean eating is not healthy

Culinary queen Nigella Lawson recently gave a talk in which she pointed out that the trend of ‘clean eating’ can be a mask for deeper issues with food, and even eating disorders.

"People are using certain diets as a way to hide an eating disorder or a great sense of unhappiness with their own body. There is a way in which food is used to either self-congratulate – you're a better person because you're eating like that – or to self-persecute, because you'll not allow yourself to eat what you want”, she said.

What Nigella says is right, for some people. The trend, driven by social media, of ‘clean eating’ is a sneaky one. For a start, the term is vague and open to wide misinterpretation. What does it even mean?

Some people who eat ‘clean’ simply eat a variety of mostly whole foods. That seems fine and quite sensible. Others interpret the term ‘clean’ to encompass eliminating many foods, including grains, dairy, meat and coffee. And it’s in this area that we get into problematic territory. If someone is susceptible to disordered eating – the idea of exercising control over what they eat to the point where it interferes with living a normal life – then the concept of ‘clean’ eating can be a sort of socially acceptable way of doing that. It can be a gateway into a world of restriction and self-punishment that can be just as dangerous as other more well-known eating disorders.

Apart from its most serious consequences, the other thing that bugs me about the term ‘clean’ eating is that it seems to imply that anyone who doesn’t eat that way is doing something unclean, and therefore wrong or bad. Frankly, that’s not how I choose to think about food, and I don’t think it’s healthy. Food is just food. Yes, it’s important to eat well for the best possible health. But what and how we eat should never determine how we feel about ourselves. That is giving it too much importance. If we allow food to control our moods, or make us feel like a good or bad person, it’s not healthy.

At this time of year, when we’re celebrating almost always with food and drink, it’s a good time to remember that food is also about family and connection and community. Food is an expression of love and affection; a way of showing we care. And food is also about pleasure. Beautiful, enjoyable food makes us happy. And enjoying food – in moderation, obviously – for the pleasure it brings us, is nothing but a healthy thing.

First published: Dec 2015

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