The Cult of Clean Eating

I’m not a scientist or dietician. I don’t have exceptional knowledge around nutrition. Like most of us, I try to eat a balance of “healthy” and “tasty” foods, and when they overlap I’m pleased. I am however the target audience of most diets and diet lifestyles, as a woman in my 30s, and as the mother of a young child I’m charged with feeding. The clean eating movement has caught on in a big way, combining the austerity of the Atkins or South Beach diets of old with homey touches and artistic photography.

The movement makes big promises. As Clean Eating Magazine states “It is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation, leading to an improved life – one meal at a time.” As I read on I’m told this lifestyle will reduce my carbon footprint, let me shop with a conscience, allow me to savor every bite, and make my child magically eat veggies with joy instead of the age-typical responses he usually has. I’m SOLD. It doesn’t even matter that I started my reading full of skepticism, this is hitting all the right buttons.

Color photo shows two mason jars wrapped with twine containing chopped salads against a white background.

Color photo shows two mason jars wrapped with twine containing chopped salads against a white background.

The photography choices of the clean eating movement tend toward a simple aesthetic with softened backgrounds, brightly colored produce, and no humans or movement in frame to disturb the fantasy. The clean eating promises to help me get back to a nature I didn’t grow up in, epitomized by the ubiquitous Mason jar. Once the quirky beverage glass of a few Southern restaurants and a canning staple for preppers and Mormons, Mason jars have exploded onto the scene as everything from a salad shaker to a lantern. They symbolize a pastoral, agrarian society without actually smelling like manure.

The problem of course is that it’s never just about the recipes or the cookbooks or the produce shopping tips. It’s about an ethos, a way of living, and providing the products to enable that lifestyle for a price. One clean living professional sells everything from mascara made from berries to a mortar and pestle set made from volcanic rock on her website. Of course, these products are much more expensive than their non-clean (dirty?) counterparts.

If I eat enough quinoa, I'll live on the coast.

If I eat enough quinoa, I’ll live on the coast.

I understand why people are drawn to these promises. I want glowing skin, flat abs, the body of a yoga-posing runner, and a child who loves green juice instead of cereal for breakfast. I want to believe that those things are both easy to obtain and guaranteed – that if I just shop smarter, cook from scratch, and drop sugar, I’ll have the healthy and energy of a woman who isn’t disabled. I want to believe that cooking veggies will persuade my child to eat them. I also know how disappointing it can be when those promises don’t come to fruition, or don’t come right away.

That’s where the supplements come in. The three-day cleanses and the 24-hour fasts. The decidedly not-healthy parts of weight loss that are accepted as part of most diet plans, and often praised as willpower by lay people. When the promises made by clean eating – not the simple, scientifically backed factual statements about nutrition, but the promises of a more fulfilled life – don’t happen they way people-e imagine, they either bail entirely (potentially dropping some healthy habits worth keeping) or they double-down and start looking for more intense ways to meet their goals.

There are aspects of clean eating that have value – like a lot of the recipes. But it’s important to remember they aren’t just trying to sell you good food. They’re trying to sell you a lifestyle full of high-end products, on promises food alone can’t meet.

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