The dirty side of clean eating?

Nigel Slater once famously said “You can't smell a hug. You can't hear a cuddle. But if you could, I reckon it would smell and sound of bread-and-butter pudding.” I disagree. I think it would taste like two slices of crusty toast with plenty of butter alongside a steaming mug of tea (milk with one level sugar plz).

I’m a recent psych grad, self-professed ‘foodie’ and consumer of all things buttery, chocolatey, wholesome and sweet. I, like many, regularly find myself planning my days around when and how and what I will eat. There is something comforting and soothing about sitting down to a well-earned plate of good food. It’s almost built into our DNA. Food is our culture, our heritage. Some days, it feels like a familiar old friend to me. Pasta and pesto comforted me through the first difficult weeks of uni. When I discovered chorizo on my first big food shop it changed everything. Now on the days where I just want to crawl into bed and hide, melted chocolate stirred into freshly popped popcorn is a familiar friend to me. The teeth-aching sweetness reminds me that whatever happens in life, popcorn has my back.

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When we think of ‘comfort food’ our minds are instantly drawn to something bad, naughty or unhealthy. Thanks to Instagram, the rise of ‘#eatclean’ trends and popular media, we are now programmed to associate good, hearty food with guilt. Underneath this clever marketing trickery, lies a rather troubling message. Eating ‘clean’ is associated with being healthy, organic, even restrictive with your diet. Clean eating Instagram pages tell us that mangoes and chia seeds will make us feel whole again. It goes hand in hand with the fitspiration trends, also on image-based social medias like Insta. Unsurprisingly, research has found that exposure to these kinds of online messages warp our body image. Researchers in Australia found in 2015 conducted a study looking at how fitspiration impacts body image. It led to negative body image and increased negative mood. It leaves me thinking, how much of the content supposedly intended to promote ‘health’ actually does the opposite?

I’ve come to realise that as a 21-year-old female, I am the prime target for carefully targeted online messages of guilt, greed, and restriction. My Instagram home page is constantly refreshing with photographs of scantily-clad, slim, beautiful women. Next to these photos – in amongst the eyebrow tutorials and doggos – is a sea of lettuce leaves, spiralised courgette and quinoa. The photos that drown my homepage are green, organic, healthy. I cannot help but feel a little short-changed.

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We are taught that Instagram is real life. It represents the world. Helpful, well-thought-out social media campaigns can be empowering and uplifting (like the #thisgirlcan hashtag which showed women achieving great things. Love that.). But clean eating just isn’t real. Or at least, I am not prepared to let it enter my diet in the same way it infiltrates my social media. A spiralised courgette will never offer me the same comforting bite at the end of a rough day as a bowl of steaming pasta will. A kale and strawberry smoothie won’t give me the same amount of go-get-em morning energy as coffee and toast. Quinoa won’t be there for you when you’ve been crying and need something juicy and rich to absorb your emotions.

I am in no way saying that health should be ignored. Of course it shouldn't. And I do recognise that we need to look closely at how we can responsibly promote health. However, I wholeheartedly refute the idea that eating good food has to be seen as a guilty, dirty little secret. In a world that is increasingly obsessed with body image, I’m concerned that perceptions of food are becoming warped under this new #EatClean Instagram-based trend.

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