Can the message of clean eating be harmful?

By Stella Botes

Opening on Saturday 18th March, NOSH Durham was met with an influx of students  with 3,074 likes on its Facebook page and 263 potential guests to its grand opening. Yet it is important, amongst all the anticipation, to raise awareness of the potentially harmful practices that NOSH might be endorsing.

Within weeks of its opening, NOSH has already been criticised for the moralistic language which it applies to food. Shari Jahangiry, owner of NOSH, has said that ‘there’s a lot of people that…want to stay away from some of the naughty things that are in the market’ and the tagline for the chain is ‘eat delicious healthy food without the guilt of adding on those extra pounds.’ Imposing a moral framework on food through vocabulary like ‘naughty’ and ‘guilt-free’ implies that some foods are ‘good’ and others ‘bad.’ Imbuing essential nutrition with priority and morality has serious implications on the way in which we think about food. Ruby Tandoh writes that ‘this isn’t just about nutrition, it’s about morality, and when food becomes imbued with this kind of scandalising language, the dinner table becomes a minefield.’

It is important to realise, amongst this discourse of purity versus chaos, the unreliable science it employs to support its claims. Perhaps the most passionate campaign of the ‘clean eating’ movement is that against gluten. Like MSG in the 70s, gluten is held up as the ultimate enemy to your wellbeing  it will leave you bloated, damage your gut, lower your mood and may even cause autism  removing gluten from your diet is the cornerstone of good health. And, like MSG, the gluten war is a lie. Unless you have celiac disease, gluten poses no threat to your health whatsoever. Cutting out gluten means cutting out whole ranges of foodstuffs and hiking up the prices of ‘free from’ foods. Peter Green has written that ‘eating a healthy gluten-free diet means paying constant attention to what you eat. This isn’t something that anyone should do casually.’

Myths such as this expose the manipulation involved in healthy eating. It is so easy to market lies to vulnerable people, especially through a medium so emotional and personal as food. We eat to survive, we are consuming, gorging beings  the food we eat is messy and the way in which we digest it is a chaotic, complex, beautiful process. To impose a rhetoric of ‘purity’ onto our food is to deny the primal and instinctive nature of nutrition, and there is no better way to perpetuate methods of control than through restriction and lies expressed in ‘fear foods’ and nutritional enemies.

The way in which NOSH in particular exercises the practices of clean eating is evident most glaringly in its boast that calorie counts are included alongside every meal. Alan Levinovitz writes that such practices have ‘turned the dinner table into a pharmacy and life into a fitness routine. Food is a composite of nutrients; walks are exercise.’ To base choice on calorie counts is to remove the real freedom and imagination from our food  it is stripped to the bones of nutrition and numbers, blind to the hot salty taste of pulled pork, or the aftertaste of sugar rubbery on your teeth.

Implicit in this evidence is the eventual danger of NOSH’s ethos, and the community to whom it poses the most threat  eating disorders. When food is a minefield, and mouthfuls become miracles, it can become so easy to find solace in the arms of wellness. When food is so tied up with fear, if some control can be exercised through exclusion, numbers, or knowledge, then ‘clean’ eating becomes another way to plug up the holes of vulnerability that an eating disorder leaves. To encourage calorie control, to promote ‘lighter’ weight-neutral foods and to perpetuate restriction of foodstuffs is to make recovery practically impossible.

Admittedly, wellness doesn’t cause eating disorders. But how responsible is the marketing of an extremely restrictive and moralistic diet to young women, masked behind a facade of self care and benevolence? Yet what is concerning about NOSH is that they seem entirely unaware of this responsibility – a commenter complaining on their Instagram post about their ‘guilt-free’ cake was subsequently blocked, and when NOSH did later engage in discussion, they ignored entirely the complain about their moralising language, focusing instead on the idea that ‘we need to explain to customers that our food is low in calorie and other content somehow.’

I am in no way advocating for a boycott of NOSH’s commerce. Taken separately from their practice, the food looks delicious, is made fresh every day and used by the end of the day. Such exciting food should be desirable for its taste and flavour, as I’m sure it is, with health benefits coming only secondarily. NOSH is family run, independent, and student-oriented. They actively sponsor local athletes, advocating for performance-based exercise and nutrition. But NOSH isn’t entirely innocent, and I would encourage them to be aware of the implications of their rhetoric and marketing. Health is complex and messy, as are we, and by raising awareness towards the way in which we understand eating, whilst providing vibrant food with supplementary benefits for our health, NOSH could work to create an inclusive and delicious atmosphere in its company and ethos.

Photograph: Kayla Seah via Flickr

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