“I’m eating clean,” the postgrad says, not for the first time that week. Six of us are crammed around this tiny three-person IKEA table in the Chulalongkorn Biomedical Laboratory, eating a spread of grilled fishballs, red pork covered with gravy, and spicy somtam. I slurp a mouthful of tom yum noodles, briefly tasting the phrase before moving on. She proceeds to enviously eye the others eating blissfully carefree, but not before she pulls out a homemade salad, completely drenched in Caesar salad dressing. The overwhelming stench of mayo made me nauseous; I had to hold back a gag.
“Yeah, you guys should try clean eating,” she says with this smug expression, popping open a can of Diet Coke; it froths over slightly and trickles down lazily. “Like, I feel so much healthier, instead of putting junk in my body.”
Perhaps my mind was completely enraptured on my lovely E. coli battlefields holding little wars between the awesome antioxidants and the feisty free radicals, but I didn’t realise at the time “clean eating” would soon be taking over the minds of millennials in years to come. Fast forward, shall we?
Year 2 has begun, and consequently, so have the diets.
Besides all the How Was Your Summer?’s, It’s So Nice To See You!’s, Did You Do Anything Cool?’s talk that becomes heavily saturated between lectures, I see a bunch of loaded veggie wraps, skinny lattes, and quivering self-control. And if this was the scenario a few months ago, my mind would’ve crumbled from the toxicity my relationship with food was creating.
I’m all for eating clean. I’m happy that people are striving to nourish their bodies with nutritious ingredients and are spending a little longer looking at supermarket food labels. This is an awareness I admire, but “clean eating” is a little different from your quack conspiracy-theory-like diets; it has challenged mainstream ways of eating, powered by the ever so convenient social media, and has become absolutist in its claims.
The phrase “clean eating” must’ve began with good intentions; to eat fresh, natural, whole foods minimally processed – vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, animal & plant-based protein, oils, nuts, pulses. Eating as close to nature as possible; cooking at home and seeking high-quality ingredients for your own health. This healthy approach towards nutrition is fantastic. Eating clean sounds modest, almost like Mum’s cooking – no calorie calculators, but simply eating as much nutritious home-cooked substances as possible.
So, #eatingclean, #eatclean, #clean – what the heck happened?
This definition has become incredibly misguided and misconstrued. It’s clear “clean eating” is more than a diet; it’s a belief system. That if you’re not “eating clean”, you’re the very opposite – sloppy, careless, and damaging your body. And that’s when this becomes a dangerous game to play. It’s morphed into a beneficial sense of awareness of food into this diet-driven caste system. Not only is “clean eating” establishing a hierarchical model for eating healthily, but it is yet another bolstering means for food-shaming. And just to make it all worse, its taking over the entire Instagram platform, shovelled into the mouths of millennials, resulting in a heightened paranoia about the foods we eat consequently falling onto an obsession with the way we look. It’s the latest fad to prompt nationwide lack of self-acceptance in this millennial generation. I miss the days when “eating clean” simply meant not getting nachos down your front (napkin, miss?).
What I realised from my personal experience – the hours and hours of searching up vegan burrito bowls on Pinterest and anxiously scrolling through the infinite #cleaneatinginspo thread – is that this whole “eat clean” culture disregards the lack of access, both in time AND money. Not all of us can find the little organic farmer’s market; not all of us can afford dried gogi berries, a kilo of coconut sugar and cacao nibs on the daily. The surge in #avocadotoast aesthetic, Amazon searches for spiralisers and cauliflower pizza bases. Frankly, it’s elitist – this isn’t food education or nutritional economic awareness. This is buying into the attempt to be, let’s face it, media-skinny; the fat-burning green juice, protein powder lovin’ pictures of health. This isn’t the “eating clean” I signed up for, but a movement I unfortunately became a part of.
In addition, the phrase “clean eating” misrepresents scientific evidence of food ingredients – more and more food products begin boasting a “clean ingredient” label. But how could it be, if your product is mostly filled with a trendier version of oil and not providing consumers with educated choices? Kale is no better than good ol’ spinach; coconut oil is high in LDL cholesterol; commericalized cold-pressed juice is essentially a bottle of expensive sugar. And like with any revolution, “clean eating” has its hardcore leaders. I know you know them.
The trend claims to be easy, but just like every YouTuber who attempts the Pinterest Challenge, it is always much more complicated than that. The rules are endless, and you have the power to choose which one to adhere to – you can begin with the vegetarian diet, pescatarian diet or vegan diet. Pretty harmless, huh? Well, let’s go further – the Atkins diet, juice cleanse diet, paleo diet, carb-free diet, gluten-free diet, dairy-free diet, or the sugar-free diet. Oh, but it doesn’t even stop there – how about the anything-cooked-above-a-certain-temperature diet, or the raw food diet? What’s next, food-free diet? Breathing-free diet? If that sounds extremist, you bet your fancy pants it is.
Unsurprisingly, this philosophy birthed unrealistic, guilt-inducing fads – and falling down to our knees, we pursue its promised attractive outcome despite its disguise as an instructional guide to becoming unhealthy obsessive and/or feeling ultimately terrible about ourselves with failure. If any kind of diet whispers into your ear, “Hey, food is the enemy. Take it down.”, drop the weapons of restriction, because there is something very wrong. Don’t you ever view your food choices as sources of guilt and shame. This war makes you delusional, and it has consequences.