Sunday, May 18, 2014

Is 'clean' eating really better?

This is my Sunday-Star Times column, published 18th May. 

When did healthy eating become so competitive? It’s hard not to feel like that these days, especially in certain sections of our community. There’s so much ‘noise’ around nutrition. Should you be eating grains? Is dairy good or bad? What about legumes? Have you gone paleo yet? Are you still eating gluten? Surely you’ve given up sugar…?!
An example of this is a newish dietary label known as ‘clean eating’. No, this is not about washing everything in soapy water before we eat it. The rules of clean eating seem to vary, depending on which website or Instagram feed you consult (as with many competitive eating trends, this one has its origins online). At its simplest, it’s about avoiding processed foods, eating whole foods, cooking your own meals and cutting out refined sugar. Sounds like a regular, healthy diet, right?  Which is great. At the more extreme end though, advocates advise avoiding ‘anything with a label’, not eating rice, bread or pasta (even wholegrain varieties) or cutting out all grains and dairy.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to eat less processed and more home-made, whole foods. That’s what I want, too. What I don’t like here is the labelling; the implied judgment; the idea that one diet is ‘cleaner’ - and therefore better - than another.  I also really dislike the demonising of different foods and sometimes whole food groups. Australian dietitian Glen Cardwell describes this as the “Component X” syndrome.

“Now, possibly more than any other time, self-proclaimed experts are in your ear telling you how bad a certain component of your diet is for your health. In fact, if you completely eliminate Component X you will avoid heart disease, cancer and in-growing toenails”, he says, tongue somewhat in cheek.

He has a point, though. In a way, the ‘component X is killing you’ argument is easier for people to understand than the more sensible but far less sexy argument that we should all just eat less rubbish and more vegetables. Many of us would rather go on a drastic short-term  ‘no component x’ diet than commit to making small but lifelong changes to what and how we eat all the time.

Unfortunately, if we keep cutting things out of our diets, we can easily veer off into disordered eating territory. I have had several conversations recently with nutritionists who say they’re seeing more young women, particularly, who have gradually reduced their diets down to a very limited range of foods, eliminating some things  because of peer pressure, whether in real life or on social media. When the perception is that ‘everyone’ is giving up dairy and carbs, surely I should, too? Who wants to be the odd man out, still eating a bit of everything? This kind of thinking is particularly dangerous for someone who’s already vulnerable to disordered eating; it can give them license to follow a very restricted diet, in the name of ‘health’. And whether it’s classified as ‘clean’ or not, that’s far from healthy.

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