By Gan Chin Lin (17A01B) Images by Gan Chin Lin
“I despair of the term ‘clean eating,’ though I actually like the food that comes under that banner. [‘Clean eating’] necessarily implies that any other form of eating—and consequently the eater of it—is dirty or impure and thus bad, and it’s not simply a way of shaming and persecuting others, but leads to that self-shaming and self-persecution that is forcibly detrimental to true healthy eating.” – Nigella Lawson
One of the saddest things, I feel, is when people around me express shame or disappointment at their appetite, like the natural call for food from your body is a burden to bear. Eat till you feel satisfied! I urge them. They dawdle wistfully by the shelf of stripey donuts in Chill, peering mournfully at the glossy rotund silhouettes through the fridge glass. Too many carbs is one common reason; I’ll get fat another; I already ate too much today, I’m so greedy – words of doubt and apprehension.
Take this other situation: one of the multitudinous indie cafes in Singapore (think bleached wood, cracked industrial white walls and bare hanging bulbs). They sell avocado toast that will sets your wallet fifteen dollars back, at least. The green goo is served up on slabs of wholewheat/wholegrain/something with “whole” inside, sprinkled with cracked black pepper, olive oil, lemon juice – an Instagram-worthy paradigm of healthy eating.
This dish has been appropriated as a “health option” – you can eat it and still be clean, pure, untainted, unlike the grease and sugar of the Chill donut. But wait, doesn’t avocado contain fat too? But it’s healthy fat, some declare; it won’t make you fat. And it’s green. Green things are healthy.
The disparity between the beloved Chill donut and the lush avocado toast belies the contemporaneous food culture that influences so many of us today. Deriding “gross” convenience foods; promoting lower calorie, fat-free alternatives; weaving a precarious path between diet regimes and a love of food. Gluten-free, low carb, low fat, raw food; juice cleanses, teatoxes – these are the buzzwords of the new, lucrative food culture centered on what it claims to be nutrition. The language of food has gone from flavor, enjoyment, and nourishment to words invoking cleanness, lightness. Often, this health-industrial entity manages to settle on mandates so simple they can be encompassed within a single syllable: say, “greens” – anything green is good for you. Green juice, green salad; these equate health.
There is nothing wrong with a focus on health and overall wellbeing (or greens for that matter); the danger comes when we are drawn dangerously to the comfort of a certain set of prescriptions that denote “Health”. The word has become a way of expressing a want for blameless permission, instead of having your body function well into old age.
These marketing buzzwords have been taken to exemplify a set of prescriptions for those who seek the values associated with them – a certain physique, silhouette that denotes desirability. “Clean eating” and its compatriots “cleanse” and “detox” refer not to the functionality and state of one’s internal organs, but rather a new model wherein virtuous self-denial is associated with emotional and personal purity.
Abstaining from sweets, salt, processed food is pure – blameless and “clean”; succumbing to such ‘sinful’ temptation is “dirty” – you are tarred and contaminated. “Green” food falls into the same category of phrases with “wellness” and “clean eating” – a code that means little about a particular way of eating, and everything about how we learn to see a certain type of body as blameless, and another as dirty, sinful, guilty. After all, the sole basis of the ‘sinfulness’ in consuming certain foods is that they are less likely to give you the slim, trim physique espoused and craved as the ‘ideal’.
Attach this one-track route of thinking to food and health, and we have a problem. This is the new, monolithic health model – and it gives away the fact that health is never the true essence of these words.
Take teatoxes/other “diet plans” – these are increasingly espoused by tall, willowy teenage girls that appear on Instagram touting brown paper packages or cupping mugs trailing teabags. Sponsored by the companies, the captions are inevitably contain shouty miracle claims that promise health transformations: weight loss, better skin, shinier hair. The comments section are rife with people expressing jealousy, awe and admiration at their toned, slim physiques – they often blend into a shouty cacophony of “Abs!” and “Legs!” accompanied by heart-eyed emojis.
Thus, these teas and the notion of detox are associated with desirability: “Don’t you want to be admired, like her? Try out this tea and lose some weight!” is the subliminal message. These are deceptively empowering, serving to enforce a fixed conception of an ideal body type as well as fuelling the notion that, in terms of weight, lighter is always better.
In reality, behind the glossy captions is a less glamorous reality; the detox teas utilise a natural laxative used normally to clear bowels before a colonoscopy, senna. Weight loss occurs, true, but in temporary water weight. Furthermore, the dehydrating effect of the abnormal bowel function can create a host of issues such as possible heart problems, muscle weakness, and liver damage – no meaningful improvements in health.
In fact, the word “detox” is little else but a complete fallacy given that the body does a “perfectly good job of eliminating any substances on its own”. The proliferation of these tea promotions are not only little more than money-making schemes, but are also an irresponsible advocacy of a product that can have serious health repercussions with no true science behind it – just a ruthless and unhealthy assault on your digestive system.
For another example, take white sugar – anathema in wellness circles. Indeed, eating too much sugar can damage our health (as with eating too much of anything). However, the current trend – steering clear of anything “white” and “refined” in favor of “natural” or “low-calorie” substitutes (coconut palm sugar, stevia, xylitol) promote an alternative that isn’t necessarily better in any way for you.
Just because these sugars are unrefined doesn’t change their chemical composition. Sugar from whole foods may be metabolized differently, but ultimately the same components of sucrose, glucose and fructose will enter your body. With health gurus peddling maple syrup and coconut sugar as what seems to be a miraculous source of healthy sugar, we need to realise that just because something is “natural” or “unrefined” doesn’t make it better for you – and what should be promoted instead is balance.
All these concepts of “natural”, “unrefined”, “diet” and “detox” snowball into a larger problem. A focus on health does not cause eating disorders; but when we advocate and even insist upon a diet so restrictive, moralizing and inflexible, on top of marketing that diet to young people under guise of self-improvement and self-care: how responsible is that? What are we actually preaching, by enforcing these prescriptions and stereotypes?
When the ambassadors of health (the gym bunnies that appear on your feed: certain nutritionists or pilates instructors that promote exercise plans) promote diet plans and squat challenges to create a “leaner, slimmer physique”, skepticism is natural when they reprise their captions with peppy “be yourself” lines below.
When you subscribe to this brand of wellness, it gives you the means to rationalize the body stereotypes and one-track ideals of today with the respectable veneer of health-consciousness, whilst glossing over uncomfortable insecurities to do with body image and health. The anxiety that these judgements about food – words like “clean”, “dirty”, “guilty”, “sinful” – etch into our subconscious psyches are hard to erase. It’s a neurotic, prescriptive culture that forgets that we are individuals with complex backgrounds, underlying a history of needs, tastes and desires that cannot be contained within a singular mandate for health.
If the only “clean” food is the kind that doesn’t make you fat, then what is disguised as health doesn’t look so different to stringent dieting. Dieting in itself is ineffective, with 97% of dieters regaining at least as much weight as they lose within three years – and on top of that, it is often dangerous, given the focus on a slim physique, trimness and lightness. There has been work to correct such issues – Health at Every Size works to defeat the myth that all fat people are unhealthy and ill. However, there needs to be a serious refocusing of motive and address of the issues that create an insidious undercurrent beneath the whole health movement. When wellness balloons beyond the individual, swelling from personal lifestyle choice to a conglomeration of pressures, comparison and negative self-esteem, that’s a problem for all of us. When the pursuit of health becomes obsessive and fearful, that’s not healthy – and ripe for teatoxes and the like of the individuals that espouse them to tap on for profit.
Again, this is not a flagrant dismissal of eating with health as your purpose, which is something to be encouraged – what’s important is knowing what model of health you are in pursuit of. As always, the safest and arguably most healthy approach to nutrition falls back on variety – of food groups, macronutrients, ingredients. If cure-all good health is promised via the privation or exclusion of whole food groups – carbs, gluten, sugars – that might be going against the grain of one of the few nutritional sureties.
There are, after all, infinite routes to good health – unique to each individual based on their background, their culture, their personal fitness – beyond the rigid dogmatism of ‘clean eating’ and the current fitness and diet culture. Whether your stomach grumbles for broccoli or chocolate, honor that craving: the cues of your body are not agents of sabotage. And remember that each bite brings nourishment not just through macronutrients, but also the enjoyment you experience.
The key to good health isn’t hiding in an elimination diet or a fitness regime; you won’t find it lounging amongst the bouffant heads of leafy kale or as the trophy for hours in the gym trying to work off lunch. Maybe it’s not avocado toast or Chill donuts – maybe it’s both. It is eating and exercising in accordance to what makes you feel best, with pleasure and without shame, no matter the slimming adverts, the diet industry, the magazines tell you.