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The dirty truth behind “clean eating”

by Aviva Majerczyk April 13, 2021
The dirty truth behind “clean eating”

“Wellness” has become a ubiquitous term, but is it as beneficial as it’s marketed to be?

CW: This article contains discussions of disordered eating.

Turmeric capsules, alkaline water, detox teas — more and more the market is filling with new-agey products claiming to rid consumers of a multitude of ailments. One the one hand, many see this trend of “wellness” as a good thing. The more healthy food on the market, the more empowered consumers will be to make positive purchasing decisions. However, it may not be as simple as it seems.

What we now know is the wellness industry owes a lot of its tactics to ol’ faithful: the diet industry, which cares less about consumers’ health and long-term goals and more about keeping people hooked on their products and systems.

The wellness industry is chock-full of pseudoscientific answers to issues they themselves made up. Cleanses and detox regimens are a perfect example of this false promise. As Christy Harrison, a registered dietician and intuitive eating expert, explains, detox companies freely choose which foods they consider toxins, and this is not in line with actual scientific data. These companies label anything from gluten to coffee to peppers as toxins and then sell consumers a nutrient deficient liquid regimen to flush their bodies “clean.”

This can lead to a multitude of health problems. As Harrison explains, fasting cleanses can lead to massive drops in blood sugar, hypoglycemia and possible further pain from caffeine withdrawals. Further, research shows that “yo-yo dieting” may increase risk of heart disease in women.

The madness of the whole situation is that there is no point in detox dieting to begin with. If you have a functioning liver and kidneys, and have not ingested poison, there is simply no need for a detox — there’s nothing in there to “cleanse.”

We’ll come back to that word — cleanse — because it’s all over wellness marketing.

The diet industry is smart, and over the years marketers have realized that modern women are skeptical of the claims of diet pills, low-fat diets, and exercise programs of the 90s. So, the message had to change. Since the term “diet” tends to conjure up images of gloomy “before and after” shots, flavourless, pre-portioned freezer meals, and constant weighing, the industry has pivoted to a more positive and contemporary image — wellness.

Yet, a lot of the tactics of dieting have stayed the same with this turn to wellness, just dressed in new clothing. Cleanses, for example, rely on the same moral idea of food as either good or bad that the diet industry loves to pedal. No longer is food labeled “low fat” or “high fat,” now it’s “clean” or “toxic.” No matter the verbiage, this superimposes a binary between foods, erasing the importance of all types of food in a person’s diet. Despite aesthetic changes, the message stays the same: there is good food and bad food and it’s your job as a consumer to pick which side you want to fall on.

When we ascribe morality to food, that carries on to how we view people and their bodies. If it is seen as virtuous to diet and eat salads everyday and sinful to consume fast food, it becomes a personal responsibility to be thin. Thus, this contributes to inaccurate notions that fatness is a choice, and a scornworthy one at that.

Further, wellness culture does little to address the staggering food disparity across North America. Canada, for instance, holds many “food deserts” where healthy and fresh foods are either extremely difficult to find or exorbitantly priced. In these areas, diet concerns are less about healthfulness as much as simply surviving.

The shift from dieting to wellness has wider implications than just wasted money on overpriced tuscan kale and chia seeds. The shift towards “clean eating” can be connected to a new type of disordered eating: orthorexia. Orthorexia centers around an obsession with eating “cleanly” and healthily, rather than simply losing weight.

Sondra Kronberg, founder and executive director of the Eating Disorder Treatment Collaborative, explained to NPR, “Orthorexia is a reflection on a larger scale of the cultural perspective on ‘eating cleanly,’ eating … healthfully, avoiding toxins — including foods that might have some ‘super power.’”

Yet, this doesn’t make the disorder any less harmful. Though the focus may be less on weight than on perceived healthfulness, when taken to obsessive length, clean eating can still cause a lot of harm to your body, mental health and self esteem.

Furthermore, the celebrities and influencers leading the crusade for wellness and clean eating just so happen to be overwhelmingly thin. So, regardless of intention, the perception still stands: healthy = thin.

Whether it’s the Atkins Diet or detox teas, it’s important to be wary of the shifting goalposts of the diet — I mean, wellness — industry. These companies are promising an unrealistic aesthetic of health that may leave you worse off than when you started.


Feature graphic by Taylor Reddam

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