Diets: why clean eating has become a dirty word
As food gurus distance themselves from the dietary trend that made them famous, a British doctor asks what took them so long
Obesity and other diet-related illnesses are easily the greatest public health problem of our time. But losing weight and keeping it off is incredibly difficult; it is not what we are evolved to do.
Over the past 20 years, my research at the University of Cambridge’s MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit has focused on the genetics of why some people get fat and some don’t. Science is set up to get to the truth . . . eventually. It does not provide quick answers.
Looking for the silver bullet
As a result, there are many desperate people looking for a way out, a silver bullet.
Over recent years, a proliferation of, by and large, skinny and attractive food gurus such as the Hemsley sisters and Deliciously Ella have emerged, armed with dietary advice that is not based on any serious scientific evidence.
Much of this new advice goes far beyond healthy eating, and in some instances argues that food can actually make you well.
Welcome to the world of “clean eating”, which I have spent the last few months investigating for a BBC Horizon documentary, to understand just how scientific these claims really are.
It became clear that many hundreds of thousands of people are more likely to believe the advice of these food gurus – buying their books and following their social media feeds – than listen to scientists and other experts who are taking an evidence-based approach to nutrition.
Something of a backlash began in 2018, when Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh warned against the clean-eating “evangelism” she said such gurus propagate.
She warned that it was based on “bad science” and gave “false hope” to vulnerable people, adding: “Food is not medicine.”
I put this to one of the key drivers of the clean phenomenon, Ella Mills, otherwise known as Deliciously Ella, who I interviewed (and cooked with) for this programme. She told me it had lost its way.
“My problem with the word ‘clean’ is that it’s become too complicated, become too loaded,” she says.
“Clean now implies dirty and that’s negative . . . I haven’t used it, but as far as I understood it when I first read the term, it meant natural, kind of unprocessed, and now it doesn’t mean that at all. It means diet; it means fad.”
And just this week, the Hemsley sisters, Jasmine and Melissa, whose claims for the benefits of grain-free cooking I sifted through in the programme (but who declined our invitation to appear), followed Ella in distancing themselves from the “clean-eating” trend.
Speaking at Selfridges in Oxford Street, where they opened their Hemsley + Hemsley cafe in 2018, Jasmine said: “As with any trend there is always a backlash, which in a way is a good thing as it gets people talking about food. It is a media-coined term. We have never, ever used the phrase ‘clean eating’.”
But for healthy-eating devotees, Instagramming everything that passes their lips, the term #clean still reigns supreme. Clean eating is not one way of eating, but encompasses many different dietary approaches.
In the documentary, we focused on three of the big beasts: giving up gluten, an alkaline diet, and a plant-based diet.
What rapidly emerged was that “post-truth” science permeates the entire culture.
This troubling narrative was best illustrated by the case of so-called doctor Robert Young, father of the “alkaline diet”, which at one stage was endorsed in the UK by food brand Honestly Healthy.
The author of the popular pH Miracle book series has been proven to be a total fraud (see footnote).
Its co-founder, Natasha Corrett, one of the food “gurus”, has hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram and four best-selling cookbooks. Honestly Healthy recipes are vegetarian and, having tried out a few myself, are very good.
Ignore the pseudo-babble
If you ignore the pseudo-babble, then what an “alkaline diet” encourages is lots of vegetables with little to no meat. Where’s the harm, you might think?
Well, there is the salutary tale of Young.
The gurus of clean are doing nothing wrong encouraging healthy eating, but they have a responsibility to ground their promises in proof.
The NHS advises us to eat a balanced diet including fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, and dairy, while limiting meat.
And the simple – if unfashionable - truth is that science has, so far, discovered nothing to prove otherwise. – The Daily Telegraph
Footnote: Young was sentenced to a jail term in 2017 after admitting that he illegally treated patients at his luxury ranch without any medical or scientific training. In addition to this three-year, eight-month sentence, in November 2018 a US jury ordered him to pay $105m (R1.4m) to a cancer patient he had been “treating” illegally...