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Clean eating has a dirty secret

I've never had much time for the eye-batting "domestic goddess" Nigella Lawson, but I agree with her on one point – "clean eating" is a euphemism for an eating disorder.

As Lawson (who admittedly has a new recipe book to spruik) told the BBC's  Women's Hour:  "People are using certain diets (read: clean or raw eating) as a way to hide an eating disorder or a great sense of unhappiness with their own body."

Nigella Lawson: "People are using certain diets (read: clean or raw eating) as a way to hide an eating disorder or a ...
Nigella Lawson: "People are using certain diets (read: clean or raw eating) as a way to hide an eating disorder or a great sense of unhappiness with their own body." 

Clean food refers to eating food as close to its natural state as possible, but scratch the surface, says the 55-year-old, and you'll find a whole industry built around our insecurities.

Look no further than the slim silhouettes of uber celebrities, such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Miranda Kerr and Jessica Alba, who each regularly Instagram their latest culinary creations. Or photogenic food bloggers, such as British vegan Ella Woodward, whose equally attractive recipe book Deliciously Ella rocketed to the top of Google's most-searched recipes of 2015.

As Lawson points out, when we're being fed beatific images of out-of-reach celebrities enjoying a kale smoothie it's no longer about the unprocessed food we're being encouraged to eat, but the hype we're required to swallow.

And here's why it hits a nerve. I was into clean eating long before the term entered our lexicon (let's just say, as it was 30 years ago, it certainly didn't have a hash tag).

On the one hand, I told myself, I was simply applying common-sense to eating. Not only was I eating well (first pat on the back right there), but by poring over every ingredient before anything passed my lips I was also keeping myself well informed. Little did I know then that I was on the cusp of full-blown "orthorexia", the name given to the "unhealthy obsession with otherwise healthy eating" by the National Eating Disorders Association.

Someone now devoting her time to raising awareness of the condition is former vegan poster girl, Jordan Younger, who admitted to her more than 120,000 Instagram followers that her raw diet had sapped her of energy, made her hair fall out and stopped her menstrual cycle.

My own teenage food fetishes abated in my 20s only to flare up again in my 30s during my brief fling with weights and body building (that's how dogged this condition can be). This time around I not only denied myself refined foods, but also weighed every morsel before it passed my lips. And I can't tell you how virtuous I felt; of course, when I did succumb to temptation, as I invariably did, I'd have to mentally flagellate myself.

Therein lies the rub. By its very name, "clean eating" makes the clear assumption that any other form of eating is "dirty or shameful", as Lawson points out; but it's more than that, too – the movement also pushes a philosophy that tells us that the state of our integrity is largely determined by what we put on our grocery list.

It's a no-brainer that eating lean meats, vegetables, fruit, pulses, quinoa, nuts and seeds does wonders for our blood pressure; but this doesn't determine who we are. Or, to put it another way, all those super grains in our breakfast cereal might make us regular, but they have no bearing whatsoever on our moral fibre.

That's not to say that we can't eat our way to self-improvement – but only if we dine with others, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Appetite. The Belgium study found a strong link between sharing a meal and increased altruism. (Those who had shared meals frequently in childhood were quicker to help strangers, offer their seats on public transport and volunteer.)

I'm not saying that life would suddenly improve if I could get the whole family to sit down for a meal together (what we eat has become secondary; that said, I wouldn't have a chance in hell if I were to present my brood with alkalising green soup or a beetroot and butternut stew), but it sure would boost my happy hormones.

Frankly, we could bury ourselves in freekah and still we wouldn't wake up to Miranda Kerr smiling back at us in the mirror. Nor will it turn us into Mother Teresa, but too much of a good thing can turn us into nervous wrecks. Nigella Lawson – whose recipes, even I have to admit, are culinary incarnations of a warm embrace – is right. The clean eating movement has a dirty secret. And it's high time it came clean.

Jen Vuk is a freelance writer.

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