The clean eating fad has a lot of dirty secrets
Just because it looks good on Instagram doesn't mean it's good for us or the planet
Clean eating. Green eating. Plant-based. Veganism. They’ve all bunched up in most people’s minds, to symbolise the path to health and a greener life. Sometimes gluten-free and raw are thrown into the same basket. Detox, save the planet, and look hot are the subtexts of the movement. But how much of this is fantasy?
With Instagram taking on the role of the fifth estate, the diet du jour will be dictated by how well it photographs. Because a bright bowl of veggies looks more instantly appealing than, say, scrambled eggs, plant-based diets and Instagram are huge friends.
Self-appointed dieticians and “wellness coaches” are the new doctors: they gain followers, provided that they look svelte or ripped, or exhibit next-level food styling. There’s a third group holding even more sway: celebrities who looked hot long before they took on the clean-green thing, but who have now convinced us that the former condition is a result of the latter. Actual knowledge about nutrition or environmental issues comes second.
FAITH VS FACTS
It’s not hyperbole to call this clean-green, plant-based movement a religion. Like any religion, it operates on faith, fear and deities. Nobody is looking too hard for any actual facts behind the fad. It surprises most people, for example, to know that the advice on the exact amount of vegetable matter humans should eat is nonsense.
The five-a-day that we all accept is, in fact, a made-up number, invented decades ago as part of a Californian ad campaign. It may be eight servings; it may be two. Who knows? I’ll tell you: nobody. There are communities who live on barely a shred of vegetable or fruit, yet are in superb health. And why bunch fruit and vegetables together? Any dietician (except the ones drawing up our own national eating guidelines) can see this is nonsense.
Why assume that something plant-based is greener? A juice made of spinach and celery, where both items are produced through industrial mono-cropping, fed with fossil-fuel-based fertilisers and sprayed with pesticides, is just the last chapter in a story about farming that destroys topsoil and groundwater, increases pesticide resistance and threatens biodiversity.
Clean and green — really? And imported fresh produce has a far higher carbon footprint than imported tinned goods. The former can’t arrive via ship or train; high-emissions flights are the only way. Only about 5% of clean-green devotees foreground these issues (believe me, I’ve trawled feeds and sites).
Apart from social media, what’s helped define our idea of clean and green is the concern around meat’s carbon footprint. So why not ask environmentally pertinent questions about plant-based diets? Because the beetroot smoothie looks really pretty, that’s why. What the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve. That seems to hold more truth than ever.