The Dirt On Clean Eating

“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.”

Hoo boy.

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.




Day 2: Forget Calories, Kamakura

  • Hakata Ippudo ramen in Minatomirai’s Queen Square for brunch – we are the first customers, and the staff were literally turning the sign to “Open” as we walked in.


  • Then, it is off to Kamakura – after approx 20 minute train ride, we reach, and head towards Zeniarai Benten Shrine which was a 25 minute walk. We stopped to buy a chocolate stick (chocolate…wrapped in chocolate).
  • At the shrine, we washed our money within the traditional sieves provided, prayed with candles & incense, paid ¥100 each for omikuji (fortune-telling strips) upon shaking a cylindrical wooden box until a stick falls out (the prognostics for my love life: “If you just continue being patient, all your dreams will come true!”) and wrote blessings for our family on ema (wooden wishing plaques) that we tied up. Absolutely beautiful scenery; gorgeous shrine. Felt at peace.
  • We then walked down the famous Komachi-dori shopping street, where we made multiple pitstops:
    • Donguri Kyowakoku (Acorn Republic) – one of the official Studio Ghibli shops full of Totoro (!!!) + his pals, Chihiro, No-Face, and many more wonderful characters.
    • Ate a soba noodle & tempura set together between the 3 of us.
    • Hopped to another dessert place and shared the famous Japanese dessert, cream anmitsu. It contained green tea ice cream, chewy mochi balls, sweet red beans, smooth green tea jelly, and kinako (roasted soybean powder), with a dollop of kurimitsu (dark sugar syrup).
      • Stopped at big we-have-everything store for everything.
  • Stopped at torii (gates that mark the entrance to a shrine) with komainu on either side; one has an open mouth (“a-gyo”) and one has a closed mouth (“un-gyo”), where “a” and “un” are the first and last characters of the Japanese alphabet, therefore symbolizing the beginning and end.


  • Hopped on the train back to Yokohama station to meet with our old Japanese friends, who took us to eat at a wonderful local place nearby – never, have I ever, felt as full as I have on that night. A lottery of tempura, sushi, croquet, fish, and everything else. I found the menus very beautiful, because it looked like calligraphy, even if it was just kanji on paper. Beef slices were our appetizers. My clothes and hair were infused with cigarette smoke galore. Everything was bliss.




Day 1: Yokohama – Good To Be Back!

  • Despite functioning on only 10 hours of sleep collectively in the past 3 days (through attempted plane naps and on-land naps), I never felt more energized upon looking over the town that I fell deeply in love with 10 years ago.
  • My goodness, it’s all true. We see a packed train carriage with the doors closing, but a businessman sprints in and there is literally no space, and the train staff don’t shout at him or at people to move, oh not at all – the train staff instead shoves the man in  the train, with legs braced in a straddling position for more strength, and manually closes the door on him. This poor man in a suit has no space to move to the point where he cannot even change his facial expression because it’s mashed up against the train door, which further smooshes his face…I felt so terrible for laughing but I blame my Mum who burst out giggling first. I love Japanese people. Their dedication is insane.
  • Immediately after leaving our bags with reception, we went on a trip down memory lane, prancing around Minatomirai (“Remember when we thought that was an actual roller coaster of death” “Sweet Factory still exists!” “I know McDonald’s is right up that escalator…” “Isn’t this where you made those skateboarding videos to Avril Lavigne songs”) when most shops were closed (8am), and then walked through Cosmo World (“Wanna go to the haunted house?” “I want to win beef jerky”).
  • I snack on a tuna & mayonnaise onigiri.
  • But the first true activity was when I brought up going to an Onsen (hot spring bath where you go naked) – my mum and I simply loved going when we were living here, and we had a favorite one opposite World Porters we went to on the weekends. So there we went! When we saw that familiar Onsen logo my Mum got very excited.
  • My sister isn’t as big a fan of Onsens.
  • I was never really embarrassed to be naked in front of the other Japanese locals in an Onsen, because it’s a culture. I always found the human body very beautiful (maybe a contributing factor to why I’d like to become a doctor) because we should respect and celebrate this vessel we are given to inhabit. This time was no different. Except now I kept thinking of areolar tissue and the rectus sheath. Seriously? Even I can’t stand my own self. Can’t ever escape anatomy.
  • I have terrible eyesight and obviously I’m not going to wear glasses inside, so maybe that’s another factor to my lack of embarrassment of my own nudity
  • Suddenly we are all feeling light-headed because of the stark heat of the hot springs and cold wind. But first, I had to stand and wave my hands up in the air because we are at the top of a building with a killer view (no, not me as the view, the Yokohama landscape view). We head back to the hotel to check-in (12pm).
  • I really have to stop associating every single oblique zebra crossing with the inguinal canal…
  • And then we nap. And mine turns out to be not 30 minutes but 3 hours.
  • So we wake up and decide to go to Yokohama Station and Mum desperately looks for Cafe De Monde but it’s permanently closed. We end up eating Omurice at a restaurant that plays a surprising array of music for a little Japanese corner shop (“Hair” by Little Mix, “Worth It” by Fifth Harmony ft. Kid Ink, “New Thang” by Redfoo)…


  • We get coupons for a free spin on a lucky draw downstairs part of “Join Us”, so we go. We spin this contraption and out pops this yellow ball, and before we know it the man is ringing a bell loudly and shouting celebratory phrases in this public place and gives us a 500 yen coupon to spend!
  • Then we walk to Tokyu Hands (!!!) and there I buy a hedgehog calendar, and the calendar of Instagram famous shiba inu Maru recently released for my brother (Christmas present).
  • We buy taiyaki, a waffle-shaped fish filled with sweet red beans. Puts London’s version to utter disgrace.
  • Then we sit in the Pompompurin Cafe (famous Japanese dog-themed cafe) and even the lamps are in the shape and colour of the dog (but quite pricey dessert considering it’s just a pile of very nice whipped cream in a tart, but it’s a scene of the dog in an Onsen with a piece of mochi as a towel on its head so maybe it’s worth that presentation)
  • We walk for hours, and get trapped in the after 7pm sale where every single food store is shouting to get attention to their reduced prices and it is the best thing ever.
  • I buy sushi (how can you not), and my sister buys a mochi with a full strawberry inside, and sleep. And once again I thank God because of how lucky I am to be here with my family.