Let me paint you a picture: young professional, mid-twenties, whips out her Tupperware in the office kitchen. Her co-workers glance surreptitiously over. “Oh, it’s just courgetti marinated with mango, avocado and mint,” she pipes up, “Really quick and easy. Leaves you feeling fab.”

Forgive me for saying this but, if I was in that office kitchen, I would have to strongly resist the urge to chuck the #under200calories#eatclean#dairyfree#glutenfree #mybodyisatemple#yummy#lunch in her smug-looking face. Few things bug me more than people parading their edible virtuosity for all to see, automatically making me feel guilty for tucking into my peanut butter sandwich. Even when it’s made with brown bread.

I know, I know, I really should learn to be more tolerant of others and accept their culinary choices. At heart, I really do respect that and wouldn’t dream of challenging it unless I was specifically asked for advice on the matter. Indeed, there are many laudable aspects to #cleaneating, which we could all do with adopting. Allow me to elaborate…

Clean eating has its origins in eating ‘whole’, or ‘real’ foods, i.e. those that have undergone minimal processing and handling. This means avoiding ‘additives’, such as salt and sugar, anything manufactured in a laboratory and, instead, seeking out foods that come as close to their ‘natural’ state as possible. So, out goes white bread and in comes farm-fresh fruit and veg, right? What’s wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, I’d say. Cooking meals from scratch, rather than relying on refined flour goods and salt-ridden pasta sauces certainly gets the thumbs up from me. Considering the traceability of your food not only makes nutritional but also environmental sense.

However, some take the idea of clean eating a lot further. For instance, cooking vegetables – that’s changing its natural chemical structure. Fortified cereals – suChallenges like this have become the norm
rely they’re ridden with so-called ‘additives’? Pasteurised milk – you’ve got to be kidding?! Herein lies the problem. Some foods are actually more nutritious in their ‘unnatural’ state. It is quite commonly known that the bioavailability of lycopene (the red, carotenoid pigment) is higher in cooked tomatoes compared to raw ones. The same is the case with beta-carotene: cooking vegetables, such as sweet potatoes and carrots, changes the structure of the beta-carotene (the red-orange pigment) molecules to a form that is able to be absorbed by the body; this includes canned varieties, which have been heated at high temperatures for long periods of time. Substances known as ‘anti-vitamins’, which prevent vitamins from carrying out their normal duties, may be denatured by heat, thus allowing the associated vitamins to fulfil their biological role. For example, avidin in egg white binds to biotin (a B vitamin, needed to convert food into energy), reducing its availability for absorption. When heated, it fails to bind to biotin, allowing more biotin to be absorbed. To further convince you, fortified breakfast cereals are one of the few dietary sources of vitamin D. Given that we don’t live on the Costa del Sol and that approximately 1 in 5 people in the UK has low vitamin D levels, we need all the help we can get. Breakfast cereals can be a good source of fibre and they provide <5% of the total amount of added sugar in the British diet, contrary to popular belief. For those who can expertly substitute the nutrients they exclude by ‘eating clean’, there shouldn’t be a problem. This is, however, much more difficult than it seems, invariably requiring dietetic input, and it becomes more problematic the greater the number of excluded foods. Oh, and, by the way, milk is pasteurised to eliminate pathogens in raw milk, such as such as E. coli, Campylobacter, Listeria and Salmonella. No amount of food substitution will help you there, I’m afraid.

There is another, even more disturbing side to food trends such as #cleaneating: the potential adverse psychological effects on its followers. Food writer, Bee Wilson, recently blogged about the link between clean eating and the rise in eating disorders. She quoted Dr Berelowitz from a London hospital saying that 80-90% of his patients with eating disorders were following clean eating diets, cutting out ‘unclean’ foods such as dairy, gluten and even all carbohydrates. Orthorexia nervosa is the term given for those suffering with a ‘fixation on righteous eating’. With the association of certain foods (or, pretty much every food, depending on how far you take it) with nutritional ‘dirtiness’, it’s easy to see why people with a susceptibility to eating disorders may be drawn to clean eating. What’s more, gorgeous young ladies, such as Deliciously Ella, Clean Eating Alice and the Hemsley sisters, who advocate this style of eating, are appealing role models. While there may be nothing wrong with their general ‘healthy eating’ mantra, often recommendations to exclude certain food groups (of late, gluten has been made the devil incarnate) are unfounded. Vulnerable followers may start out with a well-intentioned effort to eat healthily, but there is a danger that it can lead to an all-consuming obsession with food purity that adversely affects their nutritional intake, self-esteem and relationships with others.

Bringing us back to our original scenario… chances are, this courgetti-eating young professional is simply making a conscious effort to introduce a little more pizzazz into her working day. I applaud her efforts, I really do. But, just remember, you’re not going to be all that productive come 3pm when all you can think about is your growling hungry belly. Spiralising vegetables will not guarantee sealing that contract, or a pay rise, nor will it magically expel years of ‘toxins’ from your body. It may spark culinary envy from a few co-workers. It may even inspire them to reject their usual packet of crisps and chomp on an apple. But, please, Miss Courgetti, just take the #cleaneating claims with a pinch of salt. Maybe bring a (shock horror) cheese sarnie into work tomorrow and make us all feel a little better about ourselves.

Natasha Schoeler RD PhD

Natasha is a postgraduate student at KCL. She completed her PhD on the genetics of response to the ketogenic diet and is keen to follow a career combining clinical paediatric dietetics and ketogenic diet research.

Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.