Nobody brags about eating junk. A healthy diet includes veggies and eschews too much sugar, and if you eat that way, you can feel satisfied that you are eating "clean". But you know what? Eating clean is a trap.
Photo by Mr Tin DC
Sure, it feels good to eat a "clean" meal or two. Nevermind that there's no consistent definition of "clean". I liked the word when I first heard it, because I took it to mean unprocessed foods (fresh vegetables, home-cooked meals) and it wasn't wedded to any particular theory, like eating low-carb or low-fat. But the same vagueness that was once its appeal has been co-opted. Now anything can be clean if it's sold by someone standing on a beach looking gorgeous.
This was probably inevitable. For years we've heard that diets don't work; what you need to be healthy is a lifestyle change. So breed that mostly sensible concept with our modern craze for the all-around enviable lifestyle, and what you get is an influencer (Instagrammer, movie star, supplement huckster and so on) who can paint you a picture of the amazing person you will be if you eat what they eat.
Gwyneth Paltrow used to be best known as an actress, but in the last decade she's built an even bigger reputation as a health guru. Her newsletter venture, Goop, peddles an enviable lifestyle — travel, fashion, anything that looks gorgeous in photographs — but with a central message of living a clean, healthy life.
Here's how the appeal works: Each guru presents a simple idea held up by a scaffolding of half truths and cherry picked data. Debunk one small pillar, and the others still stand. Nobody has time to debunk them all, and if you try, you look like a killjoy. But from a distance, that one big idea looks like a beacon of clarity in a confusing world.
The Whole30 diet declares swaths of food off-limits, and sets up ironclad rules about the little that's left. That means it checks a lot of boxes for a fad diet or one that's too draconian to be effective. But there's good here too, enough that it might help if you know what you're in for.
These aren't variations on one basic idea of healthy eating; they're each a different gimmick masquerading as common sense. Bee Wilson writes in The Guardian that we've been snookered by a "dream of purity in a toxic world" and "[w]e are so unmoored that we will put our faith in any master who promises us that we, too, can become pure and good".
This fantasy backfires, though, when we look at the foods and diets and people who don't qualify as "clean". Does that mean that other foods, and the people who eat them, are "dirty"? It isn't like quinoa is that different from rice, or sweet potatoes are that different from regular potatoes. Coconut sugar is far more expensive than regular sugar, as Wilson points out, but nutritionally almost identical.
The same goes for processed food. It isn't as if processing is inherently bad. (Cooking is a form of processing, after all). Twinkies, for example, aren't "unclean". They're just high in sugar and low in a lot of healthy nutrients, so it makes sense not to eat too many of them.
Picture a wholesome meal. lots of veggies, maybe some pastured meat or free-range eggs, lovingly cooked at home from scratch. Do a quick count of how many of your meals from the past week looked like that. Close to zero? You're not alone.
Without the halo of clean eating, we're back to evaluating foods on their merits, and figuring out whether they fit into the diet that makes sense for each of us. Sorry if that's less romantic.