Is 'clean eating' simply dieting dressed up as 'wellness'?

Ihor Pukhnatyy

Is ‘clean eating’ simply dieting dressed up as ‘wellness’?

Diets don’t work. If they did, there would be a lot more skinny people walking around – as many as there are fad diets.

And if you’ve been thinking about eliminating sugar or gluten or dairy, don’t bother. Although it might look great on Instagram and may have worked wonders for a friend of yours, “clean eating” is just dieting dressed up as “wellness”. True wellness doesn’t entail depriving yourself of things you love.

You won’t lose weight or be any healthier if you drastically restrict the amount you eat or cut out whole food groups. Of course, focusing all your energy on not eating is a waste of your time on Earth. But if you really want to lose weight, there are better strategies than going on a diet.

Diets, which rely on willpower, will always fail in the long run.

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Diets, which rely on willpower, will always fail in the long run.

For now, let me explain that dieting is dead. Clean eating, although popular, needs to die, too. And the answer to eating healthily is not to be found in the new superfoods section of your supermarket.

In 2015, Professor Traci Mann published a summary of more than two decades of research on dieting from her Health and Eating Laboratory at the University of Minnesota. In Secrets From The Eating Lab, she identifies why so many people constantly try dieting and fail. It’s because nobody has enough willpower. So diets, which rely on willpower, will always fail in the long run. In fact, they may even make you fatter.

Coconut oil has been touted as “healthy”, but it’s still oil.

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Coconut oil has been touted as “healthy”, but it’s still oil.

Despite the New Year’s resolutions you make, your body already has its heart set on an ideal weight. In The New York Times, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt explained that this “set point” is “determined by genes and life experience”. If you suddenly start to lose a lot of weight, your brain’s weight-regulation system will coordinate a neurological, hormonal and metabolic response designed to protect you from starving. On a diet, your brain is more likely to notice food, which will seem more tempting and eating will seem more rewarding. Your hormone levels change so that you feel even hungrier and less full, and your metabolism slows so your body stores more fat.

Professor Mann says that in the first six to 12 months of a diet, even a crazy diet, most people can lose about 10 per cent of their weight. And they’ll think this means the diet works. In the long term, though, most will regain the weight. But rather than blaming the diet, they’ll blame themselves.

Mann estimates that about 5 per cent of dieters do manage to keep weight off – by devoting their entire life to living like a starving person.

Dietitian Jessica Moulds says inexpensive vegetables, such as broccoli, are just as nutritious as pricey “superfoods”.

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Dietitian Jessica Moulds says inexpensive vegetables, such as broccoli, are just as nutritious as pricey “superfoods”.

THE BIG CON

In light of these facts, the diet industry looks increasingly silly at best, and wilfully misleading at worst. Of course, there are myriad wacky diet pills, cleanses and teas that use caffeine or laxatives to mess with your body’s normal processes. But you don’t have to venture into the fringes of a Facebook banner ad to be conned. To walk through the average supermarket is to be assailed by a bewildering number of health claims.

There are “low-fat” yoghurts that have as much sugar as ice cream and “iron man food” cereals with as much sodium as a packet of chips. There are expensive “alternatives” like Himalayan pink salt (mined in Pakistan) and agave syrup, which, because they have negligible trace elements of minerals or vitamins, we are seemingly expected to regard as health foods. There’s coconut oil, which is still oil and will still raise your cholesterol if you have too much of it. And coconut sugar, which is still sugar, and therefore something to be minimised.

In the next five years, the global market for food intolerance products is expected to grow by 7 per cent. This could be because foods labelled “free from”, intended for those with allergies, are often assumed to be healthier, when that’s not necessarily the case. Look at almond milk, which is about 2 per cent almonds and 98 per cent water. And coconut yoghurt, which is great if you’re lactose intolerant, but high in saturated fat and low in protein, with little to no calcium to promote healthy bones.

And don’t get me started on the new health foods section in my local New World. Here you can buy a cacao mint bliss ball that contains 24g per 100g of sugar (the recommended maximum daily intake for 7 to 10-year-olds) and costs $2.99. For one measly bliss ball. Turmeric is suddenly everywhere, it’s healthfulness suggested rather than claimed, since the pigment in turmeric that has widely touted anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties (cucurmin) is very poorly absorbed and rapidly eliminated.

The cumulative effect of all these bogus health claims can be mind-boggling. Researching this story one night, I read about the alkaline diet (invented by a convicted fraud, espoused by actress Kate Hudson) which stipulates that, because our blood’s pH level is slightly alkaline, we should eat foods that are alkaline, or risk making our bodies too acidic.

This theory neglects to account for the fact that everything we eat goes through the stomach, which is highly acidic.

Dietitian Jessica Moulds stresses that eating well doesn’t have to be expensive.

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Dietitian Jessica Moulds stresses that eating well doesn’t have to be expensive.

I laughed at this and even read parts out loud to my family. But the next morning in the supermarket, I caught myself hovering on impulse over some “low acid” tomatoes. Hadn’t I read somewhere that low acid was good for you?

Jessica Moulds, a Christchurch-based dietitian, stresses that eating well doesn’t have to be expensive. “Things are being sold to people as ‘superfoods’, when actually, basic leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, some dairy and lean meat and fruit are all superfoods,” she warns. “You don’t have to have hugely expensive things like acai, goji berries and cacao to be healthy. I’d rather buy three big broccolis, which are cheaper but just as nutritious.”

It’s not just food marketers who are leading us up the garden path. We’re easily swayed by Instagram posts of rainbow-coloured salad bowls and smoothies. Rather than taking advice from dieticians with degrees, we would rather hear some influencer’s personal story of redemption through “clean eating”.

But, Moulds points out, “often they’re not telling the whole truth. They’re sharing that they lost all this weight and feel great and have all this energy, but they’re not sharing that they’re out on the weekend having a wine and feeling guilty about it.”

Clearly there is something deeply seductive about clean eating, with its 35 million boring Instagram posts and its promise of freedom from allergens and unspecified toxins. I wonder if we’re suggestible because we’re confused and anxious about where our food comes from and what might be in it. Deep down, we’re scared our food is making us sick.

As a population, there is some basis for this. In the last half-century, portion sizes have become bigger and the Western diet has become more sugary, salty, fatty and oily, with more meat and fewer vegetables. Diabetes, obesity and heart disease are on the rise. Parts of the clean eating message – to side-step dangerously moreish, highly processed foods and eat more vegetables – make perfect sense.

But it’s not just our food that’s making us sick.

Aro-Hā retreat near Glenorchy is part of the fast-growing wellness tourism industry, for which Asia-Pacific is a hot ...

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Aro-Hā retreat near Glenorchy is part of the fast-growing wellness tourism industry, for which Asia-Pacific is a hot destination.

It’s everything. The stressors of technology, social media, increased working hours, and even threats such as global warming and terrorism combine to cause insomnia, anxiety and a longing for peace of mind. The forces that made clean eating popular are also behind a large-scale interest in wellness, in all its guises.

Don’t get me wrong: people still care about looking their best. But punishing gym workouts and counting calories are beginning to feel a bit quaint and 80s. Life is punishing enough. These days, we want to do things that make us feel calm, grounded, and nourished, not starved.

Wellness practices that were once considered a bit fringe and hippie – yoga, meditation, organic food, natural skincare – have entered the mainstream, becoming billowing billion dollar industries, with glamorous connotations and selling power.

In New Zealand, yoga has exploded, growing by 500 per cent in the last 10 years. Although it’s often associated with wealthy young white women, yoga is actually popular across all socioeconomic backgrounds, performed by nearly 30,000 of our 65 to 74-year-olds, and even embraced by the All Blacks.

Alongside yoga, meditation is growing, too. In the past five years, several peer-reviewed medical journals have published studies concluding that mindfulness meditation has a demonstrable effect on anxiety, depression, stress and burnout. In the US, Google, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America offer mindfulness training to employees, as does Air New Zealand and Wellington City Council.

Wellness tourism is growing nearly 50 per cent faster than global tourism. Asia-Pacific is now the world’s second-largest market, and Tourism New Zealand says high-end retreats offering yoga, Pilates and meditation alongside the usual spas and massages have become primary destinations. Aro-Hā, a wellness retreat near Glenorchy, offers five nights in “Zen-inspired luxury”, hiking, doing yoga and meditation, getting massages, and eating “Paleo friendly, gluten free, dairy free, and enzymatically active” vegetarian food, for $5575 per person. And Te Aroha now has Te Atawhai, a new retreat where you can enjoy four days of wellness activities (including a tour of Hobbiton!) for $2200.

In the beauty industry, which has long relied on synthetic ingredients, natural skincare brands now outsell traditional products by two or three times, and New Zealand entrepreneurs are among the vanguard.

Nearly 10 years ago, New Zealander Imelda Burke opened one of London’s first natural skincare shops, Content Beauty, and last year published a book explaining her holistic take on skincare: tuning in to your skin’s needs, simplifying your routine and letting your body find its own balance.

Emily L’Ami launched her wellness company Bodha from Wellington five years ago, before relocating to Los Angeles. Originally a yogawear brand, Bodha now makes high-end products to complement yoga and meditation – aromatherapy eye pillows, luxuriously scented Japanese incense and essential oil blends – as well as natural, therapeutic perfumes. (This is yet another market which, like essential oils, is forecast to experience 7 per cent growth over the next seven years.)

In New Zealand, yoga has grown in popularity by 500 per cent in the past decade.

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In New Zealand, yoga has grown in popularity by 500 per cent in the past decade.

In publicity for a scent she created for a designer fashion label, L’Ami describes her morning routine – misting with a calming spray, drinking apple cider vinegar, meditating. Typical wellness stuff. But she also describes how the rationale for these rituals also helped her to reshape her career, and gave her life a sense of purpose. When she decided to “start following what felt good, no matter how big or small”, she slowly began to feel happier and more confident, which flowed into her business.

It’s a good example of wellness “mission creep” – how easily a bit of yoga can turn into a liking for meditation, which can deepen into a whole new way of thinking about your life, your career, your relationships and everything in between.

Last year, business news site Quartz argued that, in America, the wellness industry now amounts to an “alternative health-care system” – built by privileged women and riven with dubious claims, but worth taking seriously as “a direct response to a mainstream medical establishment that frequently dismisses and dehumanises women”.

New Zealander Imelda Burke opened one of London’s first natural skincare shops, Content Beauty, nearly 10 years ago.

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New Zealander Imelda Burke opened one of London’s first natural skincare shops, Content Beauty, nearly 10 years ago.

Bridget Delaney, a Guardian writer who investigated wellness in her 2017 book Wellmania, sees it as a replacement for traditional religion. “The wellness industry… has found a way of monetising elements of spiritual practice from a variety of different traditions,” she writes.

Whether you see wellness as alternative medicine, a secular religion, or just today’s answer to the tennis and bridge my grandmother played with her besties, it’s clear that it has the economic potential to revitalise any market. Its core principles of self-care and mindfulness, of shutting out distractions and tuning in to what feels good, can be applied to almost anything – even eating.

“I’m a huge believer in that mindfulness stuff,” Moulds says. “Also, thinking every day about a couple of things you’re grateful for can change your whole mood – and your mood drives your eating actions, a lot of the time.”

Nicola Jackson, a registered nutritionist, says relying on a 
set of food 'rules' might sell books, but it also ...

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Nicola Jackson, a registered nutritionist, says relying on a set of food ‘rules’ might sell books, but it also generates fear.

Nicola Jackson suggests anyone habituated to following diets looks into something called “intuitive eating”. Connected to mindfulness, this involves giving up the dieting mindset and learning to tune back into your body’s hunger, fullness and satisfaction cues. “Some people feel that if they don’t have rules, they’ll just eat everything and anything, but ironically, it’s often trying to control food with rules that leads to feeling out of control,” she says.

Many dietitians will tell you to stop worrying about your weight. Shane Gosnell, a Wellingtonian who lost 60kg over two years without dieting, says he stopped weighing himself early on. “It was just kind of a mindf… and I realised that it’s not a linear process,” he says. (Gosnell, who blogs about his transformation at 127kgs.co.nz, made small, incremental changes – one less sugar in his coffee, getting off the bus one stop earlier.)

And while brands such as New Zealand’s own Lonely lingerie are building successful campaigns around body-positive messages, you don’t have to “love your body” either. Just try to accept it and treat it well.

Shane Gosnell lost 60kg over two years without dieting.

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Shane Gosnell lost 60kg over two years without dieting.

“Hating your body is not a great motivator for change,” Nicola Jackson says. “Kindness is a much better driver of self-care behaviours.”

Besides, it’s quite common to make healthy changes and feel better without losing weight.

In Studies from the Eating Lab, Professor Mann notes that young women’s diaries from the 1890s tended to fret about things like being kinder, working harder, being less frivolous. A century later, our thoughts are consumed with how to look better and what we can buy to accomplish it. Opting out of this mindset doesn’t mean letting yourself go, Mann writes.

Lonely markets its lingerie with normal-looking women – including Girls creator Lena Dunham, left, and actor Jemima Kirk.

Zara Mirkin

Lonely markets its lingerie with normal-looking women – including Girls creator Lena Dunham, left, and actor Jemima Kirk.

“It just means not letting our bodies become our primary life projects.”