On clean eating

Bethan Irvine


Set against the backdrop of a so called ‘obesity epidemic’, these days it seems healthy eating diets are everywhere. As this recent article by Milly Morris on Instagram’s fitness trends has already pointed out, social media feeds are now bombarded with images of toned and tight bodies, kale smoothies and raw beets in hand. Accompanied by captions such as “eat clean, get lean”, “just eat real food”, or “you are what you eat”.  On the surface, clean eating trends appear to be a positive thing and are often situated within a counter-movement challenging fast-food culture and the businesses capitalising on the production of cheap and heavily processed food.  At first glance, those spearheading the movement appear empowered and in control, representing the pinnacle of morality, righteousness, and success.

“Eating healthily doesn’t have to be expensive”, they cry.

“It’s just about making the right choices”.

Yet, despite my belief in the healing power of nourishing food which has been produced partly by my own bodily knowledge and experience, so far my involvement in the healthy-eating movement has left me questioning whether eating “clean” food is always as “empowering” and “healthy” as it seems, and it appears I’m not alone. Recently there have have been others voicing their concerns over the damaging potential of today’s #CleanEating movement. For instance, this article by Protein Pow discusses the feelings of guilt and shame that many of us feel when we are unable to eat to the strict rules of eating clean. This week there was also a documentary aired by Vlogger Grace Victory on BBC Three encouraging viewers to question whether healthy eating diets are just eating disorders in disguise. And as I sit here hungry, stuffing my face with green vegetables worrying about today’s calorie intake, I am also troubled by the idea that disordered eating is being normalised and masked by a positive language of health and wellness.

But rather than asking the question: are healthy eating diets are good or bad for us? I feel it’s important to ask other questions such as: how is healthy eating being defined? How is it marketed and sold? Who is defining it? And, who is able to engage with it? To me, asking these questions seems crucial not only to challenging diet industry BS which is received and experienced in multiple and complex ways, but also in cultivating a more inclusive and compassionate fitness culture that challenges the broader systems of power which benefit from our obsessive self-care and preoccupation with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, bodies, and people.  When we ask ourselves these questions, we cannot ignore the political and economic context in which healthy eating diets are located; contemporary neo-liberal capitalism.

Within this context, the commodification of fitness and bodies has produced an array of confusing messages about food as markets seek out new opportunities for capital. Low fat diets, high carb diets, low carb diets, paleo diets, and raw vegan diets are just a few healthy eating fads to be promoted by businesses looking to maximise profit (Dworkin & Wahs, 2009).  But while food businesses do promote healthy eating trends, these diets are not just imposed upon us by evil corporations. Instead they are actively lived and reproduced within our everyday lives and interactions with others. We openly praise others for choosing salad over chips and punish ourselves for indulging in too much chocolate. We post ‘inspirational’ transformation selfies and hate ourselves when we can’t see visible abs.

This process of self-discipline and policing which lies at the heart of the #CleanEating movement demands we look beyond one-dimensional narratives of evil capitalists and brainwashed consumers. To reflect on the way in which the neo-liberal political ideologies of late capitalism are played out within our everyday lives and practices. Within the neo-liberal clean eating movement, food (and bodies) have become categorised as ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as states strategically dodge the responsibility for health and place the blame onto individuals whose bodies come to reflect moral and social worth (Crawford, 1990). Those considered ‘too fat’ are persecuted for being lazy and lacking discipline, while toned, slender, and more recently athletic looking bodies are praised for their dedication to making the ‘right choices’ (Cairns and Johnston, 2015).  As the neo-liberal health food industry would have it seem, ‘healthy’ eating can be understood simply as a matter of individuals on a level playing field exercising free-will and consumer choice on the market. Everyone is expected to take personal responsibility for making ‘positive choices’ about their health and diet, regardless of their background (Guthrie and DuPuis, 2006).

Yet, as anyone who has had to cope with illness, injury, unemployment, low wages, a stressful job, life event, or even manage the conflicting demands of a family meal time will tell you, eating “healthy” food isn’t always that simple.  We’ve all seen it. Advocates of healthy eating preaching condescendingly to the ‘uneducated masses’ who are just too stupid to know how to eat ‘right’. Attacks being directed to people considered ‘too fat’ for being dumb and lacking self-control (Orbach, 1978).  But this neo-liberal rhetoric of ‘choice’ overlooks vast inequalities in wealth and resources, and notions of health that place blame onto individuals perpetuate ongoing class divides (Dworkin and Messener, 2002). Clean eating trends privilege and normalise the middle classes who can afford to adopt wholesome lifestyles considered ‘healthy’ and ‘good’. Consequently creating distance between the middle-class and the undesirable working class ‘other’ who simply don’t have enough money spend on raw organic extra virgin coconut oil (Lawler, 2005).

The notion of healthy eating as a personal ‘choice’ also overlooks ongoing gender inequalities. It’s not uncommon to see images of ‘strong’ and ‘empowered’ women who are able to take control, all the while still looking hot. Although men are in no way excluded, it should not be understated that women’s behaviour and bodies continue to be placed under significant scrutiny. As Bartkey has noted, “women’s movement is subjected to a still finer discipline” (1988: 30).  In the process of “choosing” health, many women find themselves caught in a balancing act trying to manage conflicting ideals of femininity.  Often holding themselves accountable to dominant images of ‘fit’ and ‘healthy’ women that are disproportionately white, slender, middle-class, and (hetero)sexually desirable, while simultaneously being encouraged to be a ‘strong’, ‘empowered’, and active consumer (Dworkin and Messner, 2009; Cairns and Johnston, 2015). As mothers, women also continue to take a large proportion of the responsibility for children’s health, deemed a success only if they can make the ‘right’ choices about food and wellbeing (Cairns et al, 2013).

So, while it is great to see that more and more people are challenging contemporary healthy eating trends which risk masking obsessive and disordered eating. I urge critics to also think about the way that #CleanEating trends are washing away ongoing social divisions under the neo-liberal rhetoric of individual liberty and freedom to “choose”; a tactic which is unquestionably in the interests of consumer capitalism (Penny, 2015). Rather than directing our energies inwards, attacking ourselves for eating foods we consider “bad” and patting ourselves on the back for only eating 500 calories in one day, it seems important to begin challenging the wider economic and political agenda that lies beneath our self-hate.


Bartky, S (1988) ‘Foucualt, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power’ in Diamond, I and Quinby, L (Eds) Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance (Northeastern University Press)

Cairns, K, Johnston, J, and MacKendrick, N. (2013) ‘Feeding the ‘organic child’: Mothering through ethical consumption’ in Journal of Consumer Culture, 13(2): 97-118

Cairns, K & Johnston, J. (2015) ‘Choosing Health: embodied neoliberalism, postfeminism, and the “do-diet” in Springer Science & Business Media Dordrecht, published online on 28 January 2015

Crawford, R. (1980), ‘Healthism and the medicalisation of everyday life’ in International Journal of Health Services: Planning, Administration, Evaluation, 10(3): 365-388

Dworkin, S.L and Wahs, F.L. (2009) Body Panic: Gender, Health, and the Selling of Fitness (New York: New York University Press)

Dworkin and Messner (2002) ‘Just do…what? Sport, Bodies, Gender’ in Sheila ScratonandAnneLintoff (Eds) Gender and Sport: A Reader (Routledge: London)

Guthrie, J. (2005), ‘Embodying Neoliberalism: economy, culture, and the politics of fat’ in Society and Space, 24: 427-448

Lawler, S. (2005). ‘Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities’ in The Sociological Review, 53(3): 429-446

Orbach, S. (1978) Fat is A Feminist Issue (London: Arrow Books)

Morris, M. (2015), ‘#Gymlife: does Instagrams fitness trend have the potential to negatively impact female body image?’, Feminist Academic Collective, https://feministacademiccollective.com/2015/12/17/gymlife-does-instagrams-fitness-trend-have-the-potential-to-negatively-impact-female-body-image/

Penny, L. (2016), ‘Life-Hacks of the Poor and Aimless’, The Baffler, http://thebaffler.com/blog/laurie-penny-self-care

Protein Pow. (2016) ‘The Dirty on ‘Clean Eating’, http://proteinpow.com/cleaneatingprotein

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