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Eating Too Clean

News & Features | November 17, 2014

From the gluten-free craze to the paleo diet (which aims to mimic the diet of Paleolithic humans and cuts by cutting out carbohydrates, dairy, and sugars) to the obsession with farmer’s markets, Americans today talk about food very differently than they once did. There are innumerable websites and blogs dedicated to clean eating recipes and methods—showcasing the lives of those who live “clean.” At one point in time, it was a status symbol to be overweight because that signified that you could afford to eat, then it was a status symbol to be thin. Now it’s a status symbol to be fit, organic, and clean.

This craze for healthy, organic food—usually termed “clean eating”—has quickly become the norm when discussing food in America. “I think there are a lot of different prongs to it,” Explains Tufts Professor Shannon Weber, who teaches a class called Sociology of the Body. “Partially it’s a response to this anti-capitalist, anti-GMO, anti-agro business type of ethos that is trying to empower people to take back their bodies and food culture. It’s also this idea that you’re reacting to modern culture and that the obesity epidemic is seen as an epidemic of our modern culture.”

Whole Foods, famous for its organic and natural options, had been struggling in recent economic quarters, as other grocery stores began offering the same products and brands at severely reduced prices. However, this year after the chain released a national ad campaign on YouTube detailing its dedication to local and sustainable food, the company reported record total sales at $14.2 billion. Consumers want food that is not only organic but also locally grown, health conscious, and sustainable. And the market is growing.

While the push for healthy local eating is ostensibly better for our bodies and our environment, the preoccupation has some sinister side effects. Those who are able to adhere to the strict regimen are praised while those who can’t are shamed. The very term “clean” eating creates an inherent value judgment: intimating that those who do not adhere to these strictures are unclean and inherently less healthy. These assumptions can be particularly problematic when it comes to class. People don’t all have access to farmers markets, gluten-free food, vegan options, or time to cook.

Some nutritionists hope that this obsession with clean eating can create positive side effects, specifically for those who traditionally do not have access.

“What are the ways that we can encourage healthy choices around food that’s been processed like flash frozen vegetables or canned foods? It’s a mix between the affordability and availability,” explained Sylvia Rowe, a Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “It’s a little romanticized but there are now alternatives that are in supermarket shelves, maybe even in stores and bodegas in the communities that don’t have supermarkets.” But the clean eating trend often emphasizes an all or nothing mentality; there are no “skip days” or excuses to buy manufactured foods.

This all or nothing mentality can be harmful even for Americans who can adhere to the tenets of clean eating. It may seem counterintuitive, but being obsessed with health food can be highly detrimental to a person’s health. In the late 90s Steven Bratman, MD coined the term “orthorexia,” meaning “a fixation on righteous eating.” Orthorexia is now officially being diagnosed as it becomes trendier to take juice cleanses or the paleo diet to the extreme. The most publicized case of this has been the blogger formerly known as The Blonde Vegan, whose inordinate focus on vegan, clean, local eating became a threat to her health. She documented her eating disorder recovery and now advocates moderation on her new blog—The Balanced Blonde.

“It’s marketed as this celebration of being healthy,” commented Weber. “But there’s something about the idea of cataloguing your food and then sharing it with everyone around you to confirm that you’re succeeding in clean eating—you’re a more politically active person, you’re more radical, you’re more moral. The way that’s people’s neuroses and insecurities about their bodies gets masked in this progressive politics, and masks the way our culture still body shames people is problematic. Not to mention it masks the issues of class.”

Nutritionists also worry that what is being marketed as “healthy” or “clean” is not necessarily a better option. “A number of studies show that the organic label inspires comfort—it’s a psychological thing,” commented Dr. James Tillotson, a professor of Food Policy Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy currently researching the American food industry. “Look at the shining faces coming out of Whole Foods. Food is probably safer now than it’s ever been, but there’s more concern because there’s more written about it.”

Professor Rowe agreed, voicing several concerns about food trends that don’t have research backing them up: “I suspect that the people advocating paleo don’t really have an idea of what our ancestors really ate and how food developed over time. We went to one extreme in our eating patterns, and this health focus is a way of coming back to a balance, but we have to be very careful not to be on this see-saw. There’s always a villain and there’s always a magic bullet, but that’s not what nutrition is about.”

Everyone knows that there are trends in foods and diets, and though this recent craze seems like a new era, it is in fact another iteration of diet and food affecting social identity. Nutritionists hope the focus on healthy eating can trickle down to an actual focus on balance, but currently that is far from the reality.