Clean Eating, Dirty Reputation
Clean eating, it seems, is earning a bit of a dirty reputation. This popular meme has grown out of the even more popular idea of healthy eating. Cambridge scientist Giles Yeo examined a range of clean eating fads for a BBC Horizons film. With the gentle persistence of a real scientist, Yeo takes apart inflated pseudo-science health claims for gluten-free, grain-free, alkaline, and vegan diets. He presents a compelling story, well worth watching.
The idea that some foods are unclean has ancient religious roots. In a classic paper, theology professor Jerome Neyrey offers a guide to the religious ideas of clean, unclean, pure, polluted, holy, and profane. Even in Greek and Roman civilizations, dietary purity, spiritual purity, and physical health were woven tightly together. Unclean foods defile the body.
Writing in Good Housekeeping, dietitian Jaclyn London is blunt, saying “clean eating is total BS.” She explains:
I’m worried that the phrase has taken on a new, misguided meaning. The implication is that if you’re not “eating clean,” what you eat otherwise is dirty or unhygienic, and that’s simply not true.
It has also been attached to a health and lifestyle claim. That is, if you’re not “eating clean,” the reverse is true: You’re probably sloppy, lazy, and making yourself sick. It’s morphed from a sense of awareness about food into a diet-driven caste system. Not only does the phrase establish a hierarchical model for eating well, it’s yet another medium for food-shaming.
Social status. That seems to be the dividing line for clean eating. The time is ripe to step back and look at unproven presumptions about healthy eating. Perhaps excess zeal in reforming the dietary habits of others carries a risk of its own.
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February 3, 2017