Clean Eating: Exposed

Clean Eating

‘Clean eating’ is a modern phenomenon and term coined by food writers, originally supposed to represent a ‘natural’ diet adopted for perceived health benefits. This is one that is based on whole, unprocessed foods. On the surface, this doesn’t seem too bad – reduced intake of salt, fat and sugar, fewer preservatives and an emphasis on cooking from scratch.

However, savvy bloggers and writers quickly picked up on this emerging trend with its bold promises of health and wellness. This was an opportunity for big business. One of the most prominent and influential bloggers in the early stages of this movement was Ella Mills (née Woodward), more commonly known as ‘Deliciously Ella’. Her debut cookbook of clean, vegan recipes and promises of significant health benefits quickly became the fastest selling debut cookbook of all time. Pretty soon, more and more bloggers began to bombard us with a constant Instagram feed of their perfect looking meals, encouraging people to ‘go clean’. Next came ‘courgetti’, giant breakfast ‘smoothie bowls’, protein seeds, nut butters, fruit water, nutribullets and an obsession with putting kale and avocado in absolutely everything. Naturally, supermarkets had to cash in on this trend too, and began expanding their ‘free from’ ranges so that everyone could enjoy gluten-free and natural products as a supposedly healthier choice, not just those who have special dietary requirements. It’s very clear that ‘clean’ does not just mean ‘natural’ anymore, it represents a whole new lifestyle characterised by plant-based meals, veganism, exercise, alkaline foods and an exclusion of gluten, sugars and dairy from the diet.

With so many conflicting nutritional messages out there, it’s no surprise that people are turning to these food bloggers and fad diets to ‘take control’ of their health. One minute the media were branding carbohydrates as the enemy, then it was fat and now it’s sugar. However, this means that food bloggers and social media can have a powerful influence on an individual’s food choices, and consequently have an indirect responsibility over their readership’s health. Unfortunately, the majority of bloggers and writers have little or no nutritional education to support their claims, which are largely based on personal experience, speculation and non-scientific research. This is quite frankly, a little bit frightening.

As a Food Science & Nutrition University student, I don’t claim to know all there is to know about diet and health, far from it actually. But based on my scientific education and knowledge of the research out there, it’s evident that relatively extreme dietary and lifestyle advice is being handed out with complete disregard for the potential detrimental health effects. There is a complex relationship between diet and health, so poor nutritional advice can be dangerous and it’s important that people are made aware of this.

I have several problems with the term ‘clean’ itself. Categorising certain foods as ‘clean’ and ‘natural’ automatically brands other foods as dirty and unhealthy. As the clean lifestyle often encourages veganism and a plant based diet, it’s essentially suggesting that anything from an animal source is unnatural and is not good for us. The recent association of clean eating with a vegan diet is not backed by scientific evidence, so diet shaming people who don’t follow the trend is completely unacceptable. Last time I checked there was nothing unclean or unnatural about eating an egg, or even a chicken breast for that matter, so I will not be made to feel bad about it and neither should you.

The clean eating lifestyle is also unrealistic and expensive. It’s all about making money and exploiting a trend. If you look on the ‘free from’ shelves, they’re all full of these little snack bars which have a ridiculously high price point. Just today I was paying for a coffee in Starbucks and they were promoting ‘Deliciously Ella Cocoa and Almond Energy Balls’. In each packet is one tiny ball of ‘natural’ ingredients for £2! They’re about £1.80 each in supermarkets too. I could make dinner for 4 people for that much money! You should not have to pay more to eat healthily.

It is also wrong to assume that clean automatically means healthy. The majority of ‘clean’ diets do not reflect nutritional advice and scientific evidence. To highlight one issue – carbohydrates are a vital food group to the human diet and should make up approximately 50% of daily total calorie intake for most people. So why are people being encouraged to renounce gluten and sugars, or follow a low carb diet? It’s also impossible to assess how healthy someone’s diet or lifestyle is by looking at short-term individual meals and products. A healthy lifestyle is all about long term balance and moderation, not following strict and restrictive regimes.

Deliciously Ella

One of the first advocators and perhaps the face of clean eating was Ella Mills, also known as ‘Deliciously Ella’. Ella’s self-titled debut cookbook was one of the first all ‘clean’ and plant-based books. It was published in 2015 and became the fastest selling debut cookbook of all time. She has since written 3 further recipe books, indicating a huge following for the trend.

Ella’s story is all about the use of natural foods in the treatment of disease and health issues. Ella suffered with Postural tachycardia syndrome (PoTS), a rare condition that increases your heart rate abnormally rapidly after standing or sitting upright, producing a variety of debilitating symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue, headaches, palpitations, sweating, nausea and fainting. She decided to give up on medical approaches and drugs after little success, opting for more ‘natural’ remedies. After some ‘googling’, reading books and watching documentaries, she “gave up all meat, dairy, sugar, gluten, processed foods and additives” overnight, opting for a whole-foods, plant-based diet. In other words, she became a gluten-free vegan – overnight. She soon began to feel better, and claimed that the natural goodness of her new diet was responsible. She then goes onto encourage others to follow her lead in renouncing meat, dairy, gluten, refined sugars and anything processed, promising they will feel better because of it.

For me, her story is not revolutionary at all, it’s incredibly obvious. When you look at her previous diet it’s no wonder she didn’t feel totally healthy. This is how Ella described her previous diet in her own words:
– “I was a sugar monster, and I mean a total addict”
– “My favourite foods were sprinkle sandwiches and what we liked to call chocolate mess”
– “My sisters and I would raid our kitchen cupboards and throw together whatever we could find into a bowl – usually a mix of milk chocolate, marshmallows, gummy sweets, caramel, golden syrup and Rice Krispies … then we’d sit with our teaspoons and demolish the whole bowl”
– “I lived off a delicious mixture of Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice cream, mountains of chocolate (preferably filled with gooey caramel) and lots of fizzy pick ‘n’ mix”

This is an incredibly unhealthy diet, and is why I’m not surprised her symptoms were so severe and her recovery appeared to be so miraculous. I get headaches from a few Haribo sweets, so just imagine eating like this. She ate an extreme diet, then made an extreme dietary change to the complete other end of the spectrum. This makes her far from an ordinary case. So why on earth is Deliciously Ella pitched to everyone? Her advice is universal – going natural is what your body needs, no matter what state of health you are in. This is incredibly misleading. Converting to her lifestyle will not automatically make you healthier and is not necessarily what you need. The majority of people reading her books will not require such extreme dietary changes to improve their health. For people with only slightly dietary imbalances, simply eating fewer processed foods (and hence less fat, salt and sugar) and trying to cook with more fresh ingredients is all it would take to make significant improvements to their overall health. This is in line with Department of Health recommendations. Many of her readers could also have a perfectly healthy diet already! It’s just setting people up for disappointment because they won’t observe the same benefits because they probably weren’t as unhealthy in the first place. It must also be considered that her symptoms probably would have also improved if she had simply opted for a more balanced diet including meat products, rather than becoming a clean eating vegan. So why did she go extreme ‘clean’? Simple – it wouldn’t have made her half as famous if she were to eat meat.

I have countless issues with the messages in the ‘Deliciously Ella Lifestyle’. Firstly, it’s never a good idea to make a drastic change to your diet or lifestyle without consulting your GP first. Although she later encourages gradual changes and that she isn’t intending to replace your GP, it’s still pretty irresponsible to set the example of turning vegan ‘overnight’ when you have such a powerful social media presence. Nutrition is incredibly complex. Our food is made up of several nutrient components, broadly categorised as macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats), and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), as well as many other bioactive compounds. These all have important functions in the body. Although the science behind it is complicated, getting all these nutrients is not. A varied and balanced diet is sufficient to get pretty much all the nutrients you need, so by making a severe dietary change, you could unknowingly be cutting out a vital nutrient. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal food sources, so cutting these products out without replacement with supplements or fortified foods could lead to pernicious anaemia. This certainly wouldn’t make you feel better. There’s also nothing wrong with meat, dairy and sugar if consumed as part of a varied and balanced diet, so it’s wrong to categorise these food groups alongside additives which clearly have a poor image with consumers. I believe that demonising specific foods is wrong, especially when the evidence is not there to back it up.

It’s so obvious that the proper research has not been done for this book. Not only does this clean lifestyle demonise perfectly acceptable food groups, it also makes sweeping and unsupported health claims about other ‘natural’ foods such as coconut oil. Coconut oil is a solid oil, rumoured to produce a variety of health benefits: improving blood cholesterol levels, maintaining health skin and even reducing symptoms of diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Ella claims that ‘the fat is all really good for you’. This could not be any more inaccurate. There is no strong scientific evidence to support the health claims about coconut oil – in fact, regular consumption is discouraged. The reason coconut oil is in a solid form is because it’s made up of about 90% saturated fatty acids, the ones that have consistently been shown to have a link with obesity and cardiovascular disease risk. It’s also hypocritical for her to have a problem with refined sugars (the sugars extracted from sugar cane and beet), yet have no problem with coconut oil which is often extracted using chemicals. Coconut oil is not naturally available as an ingredient and therefore it’s processed, just like sugar. Not exactly ‘clean’ or ‘natural’ then. She has also clearly misunderstood what being a vegan actually means. It is widely accepted that honey is not a vegan ingredient because it derives from the exploitation of bees. So if she’s a vegan, why does honey feature in so many of her recipes?

It’s not just unsupported health claims about ingredients, Ella also presents a false image about gluten. There is a major difference between someone who suffers from coeliac disease, and someone who chooses to follow a gluten-free diet. Neither of these groups have an allergy to gluten. Wheat allergy is actually very rare. Coeliac disease is a chronic autoimmune condition in which sufferers have an adverse reaction to gluten, damaging the lining of the small intestine. This produces a range of symptoms which can range from mild to severe, and can only be managed by excluding gluten from the diet. This condition should be diagnosed by a doctor. This is completely different to someone who chooses not to eat gluten. Such individuals often self-diagnose themselves as ‘gluten-free’ and sometimes even falsely call themselves a coeliac. There are many reasons why people decide to follow a gluten-free diet, most often it’s simply following the trend amongst food bloggers, regardless of whether they have any symptoms or not. Some perceive that they have a sensitivity and assume it must be gluten because of its reputation. If you do manage to isolate gluten as a digestive issue, of course it makes sense to reduce your consumption of gluten. However, there is absolutely no need to cut out gluten at all if it doesn’t bother you. There are no proven health benefits to support the trend – it’s ridiculous. The reason Ella frustrates me is because she never even checked whether gluten irritated her digestive system, she just cut it out then claimed that she “can’t eat gluten” because other people had done so. The simple fact is, she can eat it – she just chooses not to. Why should people be encouraged to cut out a major food group for no reason? Just putting it out there too, deciding that you are ‘gluten-free’ doesn’t make you cool or interesting, it just creates and reinforces negative stereotypes for those who genuinely have coeliac disease and have no choice.

I mentioned earlier that clean eating can be expensive and unrealistic, and Deliciously Ella is a prime example of that. Her recipes don’t really use basic store cupboard or common ingredients, so you often have to look for them in specialist stores or get them online, and because retailers know that these ingredients fit in with the trend, they have the high price tag to match. I’m sorry but who really has psyllium husk powder and coconut palm sugar sitting in the cupboard? It also got me thinking, how on earth did she afford all the recipe trialling for her blog as a university student? Oh wait, of course – she’s an incredibly privileged heiress to Sainsbury’s. Not your average food blogger really.

To top it all off, after allowing herself to become the poster girl for clean eating and exploiting the trend for a small fortune, in an incredibly bold marketing shift she now wants to distance herself and her brand from the term. Ella recently featured in ‘Clean Eating: The Dirty Truth’, part of BBC Two’s Horizon documentary series. The programme essentially called out bloggers and writers on their lack of scientific evidence and highlighted the potential dangers. In the face of criticism, she claimed that the term has been taken out its original context, and now means quite the opposite, “dirty” in fact. Ironic really, considering that’s exactly what the she implied about a meat eater’s diet through the deliciously Ella lifestyle. She also said that she never expected or wanted to be the face of the trend. I don’t believe this for one second. She clearly states in her first book that she had over 5 million hits on her blog within 18 months of its launch. Her first book was published 3 years after the launch of her blog, by which point it would have had way more than 5 million hits, so she clearly knew how big her following was. For me, it’s just shockingly arrogant for someone so influential to publish pages and pages of unscientific and inaccurate nonsense, then just shy away from it all, so as not to be tainted by clean’s new dirty reputation – a reputation she played a part in creating in the first place.

I hope this article has made you more aware of the wider issues surrounding the clean eating phenomenon, the hypocrisy and inaccuracy of Deliciously Ella, and the potential dangers of listening to self-educated food bloggers. Make no mistake, the clean eating trend in its current state is there to exploit money out of you. It’s original premise however, is one that I can fully get on board with. Reducing consumption of processed foods is a great way to balance your diet, but there’s no need to make drastic restrictions. Life is way too short to be cutting out half the wonderful foods out there. Diet shaming in this way is a terrible thing and it encourages an unhealthy obsession over food. It makes it seem as if being healthy is hard when it fact, it’s easy – consume a balanced diet alongside regular exercise and enjoy treats in moderation. Oh, and if you want to eat gluten, just eat it!

If you do want to read up more about nutrition, The British Nutrition Foundation website is a great place to start. It’s based on scientific evidence from the Department of Health so it includes the key government recommendations too.

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