Clean eating has a dark side. Its gurus can no longer ignore it

‘There’s a slight irony to the whole thing, having never described myself as “clean”,’ Ella Mills says to Dr Giles Yeo, in the BBC’s recent Horizon investigation into clean eating.

Over the last couple of years, clean eating has taken over the world. Paleo diets abound; spiralisers and Nutribullets sell like gluten-free hotcakes, and even Pret a Manger has flirted with selling ‘magic bone broth’. Or… stock. A whole legion of evangelists have swallowed the Kool-Aid; their diets are anti-gluten, anti-dairy, anti-almost-everything. Welcome to the ‘wellness lifestyle’.

If my tone is less than neutral, forgive me. This criticism isn’t new: nutritionists, doctors and food writers alike have been decrying the movement and its cod science and virtue narrative since its inception. Way back in August 2015, the Spectator examined the darker side of the wellness movement.

But lately, clean eating’s leading lights have done a volte-face. Ella, who you probably know as Deliciously Ella, told Dr Yeo that she had never advocated ‘clean eating’. Her website told a different story – that is, until she quietly scrubbed all mentions of the term.

Spiraliser-pushers-in-chief Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley have also changed their tune. Until recently, their publisher’s website cited Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride’s GAPS diet book as a major influence on the Hemsley sisters’ rather woolly food philosophy. The page has now been deleted. Given that proponents of GAPS (‘guts and psychology’) claim it can help with conditions as varied as multiple sclerosis, psychosis and autism, it’s not surprising.

At last year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival, Madeleine Shaw, a food blogger and author of Get the Glow and Ready, Steady, Glow, was called out on the nutritional fallacies in her writing by Bee Wilson, a food writer, and Renee McGregor, a dietician. Wilson and McGregor were shouted at by Shaw fans, and later attacked on Twitter. Apparently, our distaste for experts isn’t restricted to politics.

Why should we care? It’s hard to disagree with some of the essential tenets of clean eating: eat more vegetables, fewer processed foods, less sugar. How bad can it be if these bloggers lead to more people eating more veg? Unfortunately, the clean eating movement has several stings in the tail.

The first is that restrictive diets have a worrying association with disordered eating. Dr Mark Berelowitz, a clinical specialist in eating disorders, has told the Sunday Times that some 80 to 90 per cent of his patients follow clean eating diets that exclude one or more food groups.

The second is that, once you’ve abandoned science, you’re vulnerable to all manner of sharks and charlatans. Natasha Corrett, a proponent of ‘alkaline eating’, believes that the pH balance in the body plays a major role in health and disease. ‘There are certain foods that are acid-forming, such as meat, dairy, gluten, sugar, alcohol and caffeine,’ according to Natasha – and avoiding them helps you resist terminal disease. She credits her ideas to Dr Robert Young.

In the Horizon exposé, Dr Yeo meets Dr Young, who turns out to be – surprise! – an utter quack. His doctorate was bought online, and he has now been convicted for practising medicine without a licence. Despite this, his clinic – which charges terminal cancer patients vast sums of money for treatments that include injecting them with bicarbonate of soda – flourishes.

This may seem a far cry from spiralised broccoli and the semantics of ‘bone broth’. But the glossy, glowing world of clean eating creates an environment in which total rubbish thrives. Once, Ella et al could claim well-meaning ignorance as to the underbelly of their lucrative industry. But not any more.

Ella, sisters Hemsley: it’s time to come clean.

  • Graeme Harrison

    Would it be overly cynical of me to suggest that the reason that Ella and Jasmine and Melissa are having a re-think is because (a) most people who were ever likely to have bought the books have done so and and realised that, by and large, they’re pseudo-scientific shite such that the income stream is drying up and (b) the girls are about to release a whole new range of pseudo-scientific shite on to their gullible public and all at vast personal profits for themselves?

  • post_x_it

    I watched the conversation between Dr Yeo and Ella, and one of the things she said was that before she got ill and had her dietary epiphany, she only ate bad quality, unhealthy food.
    If this is the case, then it’s not surprising that she felt better when she switched to higher-quality, fresh food. But is there any evidence that she had to go vegan, gluten free etc. to achieve this effect? Since she did it all at the same time, it’s impossible to isolate the different factors.

  • Roger Hudson

    What a load of ****.
    I love ‘bone broth’, i ask my (real) butcher for a bone or two , he thinks i’ve got a big dog, i give them a good clean, saw in half them to expose the marrow and cook slowly, adding vegetables etc. good slowly all day, eat some, freeze some for later, very healthy. No magic, no spirits (perhaps a dash of NV Port).

    • kowloonbhoy

      Healthy indeed. I stayed with *clean* friends for a month in Kent in the lead-up to Christmas. Slightly shaken by all the shrieks, gasps and sneers thrown at my home made oxtail soup I glibly poured scorn on their latest dietary fad. A couple of days later I found myself playing nurse as they all succumbed to flu, snivels and sneezing after a change in weather. Myself & the dog were fine.

  • plainsdrifter

    Over the last few decades we have had more food fads than you can shake a stick at. Result? A nation of fatties.

  • Sophie Isabella D.

    The problem is that everyone’s dietary requirements are unique, and these supposed no-fail healthy solutions actually do more harm than good for a lot of people. For example, many of these clean eating gurus are advocates of a diet with a high pulse content, and as someone who needs to follow a low-FODMAP diet, pulses wreak havoc on my digestive health. We’ve lost touch with what our personal body compositions need in order to operate with maximum efficiency, and it’s now all about what society expects us to eat instead.

    • They’re not THAT unique. As humans we have pretty much universal requirements, certainly those of us raised on Western diets and with Western genes.

  • Kim Bax

    A doctor who treats patients with plant based nutrition at The Cleveland Clinic (a respected USA hospital), was censored by the BBC during this programme. Google “British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Your Credibility Is Tarnished Part 2” for more info re this. To date, the BBC has not given any reason for this censorship.