Clean eating and ‘wellness’: Should we think about food in terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’?

Verity Winn: Our eating choices have consequences beyond ourselves…

In recent times, food and our relationship with it have become a tumultuous topic open to debate as never before. Once a neutral mundanity, what we eat in the twenty-first century has become suffused with high-octane disagreement of a kind previously preserved for political discourse. Those of us who have any interest in such debates will know the feelings of frustration and alienation aroused by the incommensurability of viewpoints that seem simple to those who hold them, and how exhausting such debate can be. But hey, critical analysis is long overdue.

‘Wellness’, encompassing diet, exercise, and general ‘lifestyle’ is certainly a problematic concept. Its ambiguity has been used to cover all manner of sins, such as the marketing of blenders and gym memberships which takes advantage of people’s insecurities and aspirations. More damaging than its impact on bank accounts are the harmful effects prescriptive diet and exercise regimes can have on mental health, particularly when they become associated with body image in societies which holds appearance to unhealthy standards. However, such dangers result, in part, from the perversion and misuse of ‘wellness’. It would be a loss to abandon all aspects of it as a result; we are likely to find that there is much that is salvageable from what it has become. Most significantly, legitimate concerns regarding ‘wellness’ defined by Instagram must not cause us to abandon critical thinking about food. Considering the impacts it has on the environment, animals and our health, food is subject to categorisation as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, even if these need not be cast in exclusively moral terms.

It may be wrong for those who seek to profit from beauty industries to hold people’s eating habits to moralised standards, but our food choices can, and must, be considered negative or positive in light of the damage they cause beyond ourselves. Our choices about whether to recycle our waste, what form of transport to use, and whether to purchase clothes produced in sweat shops can be positive and negative in light of the consequences they have for others and our environment, and as the largest source of greenhouse gas production, choices about what we eat are no different. Indeed, as most of our food choices involve the lives of animals, food choices have even more serious consequences beyond us as consumers. Regardless of one’s opinion about this undeniable and uncomfortable fact, it appears that as our food choices can inflict good and bad effects upon others, the choices themselves could be correspondingly labelled. Freedom from any constraint on diet may be preferable over impeccable health for some, and crucially this is a personal choice which effects the individual first and foremost. However, judged against environmental damage and the lives of animals, disregard for any dietary judgement in favour of preference alone might start to look less important.

Our food choices can, and must, be considered negative or positive in light of the damage they cause beyond ourselves

‘Wellness’ courtesy of Pinterest and fitness companies was always unlikely to have the interests of public health at its heart. Ironically, however, some of its aspects could be of great benefit to mental and physical health if they are taken without regard for their trendiness. For example, whilst you probably don’t need a yoga mat as urgently as you may think, meditation in its most basic (and free) form can be hugely beneficial in managing the pressures of modern life. It is also worth wheeling out the blindingly obvious fact that certain foods are objectively beneficial, neutral or harmful to human health, even in the broadest terms. The force with which public health campaigns have attempted to instil slogans espousing our ‘five a day’ reflects the damage that poor, uninformed eating choices are having upon our health. It is understandable and legitimate to decide that eating what you feel like some (or all) of the time is more important than adhering to regulations, but it is still difficult to avoid the fact that different foods remain ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for us and beyond us, regardless about how we feel about it.

To lurch from the fog of ‘wellness’ to nutritional normativity flies in the face of the fact that food and our choices regarding it have very present positive and negative consequences for ourselves, for animals and our environment. When it comes to making choices for ourselves, I would suggest that we have no particular responsibility- making decisions for ourselves regardless of the influences of social media and fashions is essential. However, when these decisions have such significant consequences beyond ourselves they are unavoidably positive or negative in nature, and whatever our choices, we must take responsibility for them.


Emma Gilpin: but does moralising food pose a threat to our health?

The food we eat has always been, and will always be, tied to our identity. Different cultures, religions, families, diets and beliefs all influence what and how we eat, but, whilst our relationship with food often seems to be second nature, it can quickly become strained, difficult and even damaging. When I moved to university, food was not something I really thought about. I was eating enough for my body and mind to work well and I was lucky enough to never really think about my weight or body shape.

Since that time I have become more conscious of what I put into my body, and whilst I enjoy cooking and thinking of the best ways to nourish myself and the people I eat with, I have also become more conscious of the way we talk about food and the ways we use food to moralise in ways that have nothing to do with our actual physical wellbeing. ‘Clean eating’ is the insidious trend that has only recently started to face criticism from health specialists and the media. It is based on ideas, propagated by its advocates who tend to be young, white, middle-class, thin and attractive females, about which foods are ‘good’ and ‘bad’. The diets tend to be vegan and are often wheat or gluten-free; they focus on cutting down on carbs,  resembling the once-favoured Atkins diet. However, these diets are not marketed as diets but as ways to the suddenly ubiquitous but largely undefined ‘wellness’. The smiling faces of those beautiful, thin women attempt to lure in those of us who want to feel ‘well’.

The ambiguity of the term ‘wellness’ means that it has been used to market all sorts of things, including yoga classes and smoothies. In the age of social media – when we are even more vulnerable to judgements made on our bodies – we are told that these solutions will make us feel ‘well’. Food is seen as a cure.

So it follows that, if we are eating ‘naughty’, ‘bad’, or ‘junk’ foods, we are not going to be ‘well’. We are responsible for our own failures, for the sticky-out bits of our bodies and for our darker thoughts in times of trouble or worry. Food does have healing powers, but sometimes the most healing thing to eat when we are feeling down is not a kiwi but a chocolate digestive. The language we use to talk about these foods, especially words such as ‘naughty’, intentionally foster a sense of shame and seems to be linked to the moralising manner often used to discuss overweight people and obesity. Our society is obsessed with images, particularly images of the thin, attractive people that grace the covers of clean-eating cookbooks, the sides of buses and the covers of magazines. Meanwhile, overweight people are shamed, mocked, and sometimes even blamed for strain on NHS services, despite the fact that the modern-day lifestyle is highly likely to involve long hours sitting down and working in offices, heightened levels of stress and depression, and time pressure that means we are more likely to buy and eat food on the go.

The language we use to talk about certain foods intentionally foster a sense of shame

The fear of being fat, which has led people to follow various fad diets over the past few decades, is linked to a fear of being unhealthy, but it is also linked to a fear of being unattractive, shameful and a strain on society. Eating healthily, at least most of the time, is important and there are certainly benefits to balanced vegan or plant-based diets, as long as eating continues to bring us joy.

Whilst there is nothing wrong with people sharing things that they enjoy online, we are more likely to share food that we feel proud for eating, because it is healthy, pretty and ethical. The dichotomy created by these ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods is harmful. As clean eating is a largely middle-class trend, it may seem inaccessible to people from poorer backgrounds. The foods that are revered by wellness advocates can be expensive: avocados, gluten-free products, coconut water. It can be alienating for people to hear that the food they have grown up eating is ‘bad’. Shaming people for food that they eat is not likely to lead to any positive change. People can and do make healthy, sustainable choices because it makes them feel good; these changes should not be made due to guilt.

We must remember that it is okay to eat when we need and want to, that it is okay to enjoy things in moderation, that it is okay to eat the occasional Mini Egg (or bag of Mini Eggs), even if we normally follow a vegan diet or have given up chocolate for Lent. Environmental and health concerns about food are important, but so is your mental health, and sometimes the best way to feel “well” is to listen to your body. Sometimes that will be a fruit salad or some cashew nuts, sometimes it might be a packet of crisps or a donut. Let’s focus on taking care of ourselves and others, and stop using food as a vehicle for moralising and shame.