Dissecting the Clean-Eating Meme

Why 'clean eating' is as seductive as it is suspect

Posted Aug 29, 2016

You know the diet industry is getting desperate when the only way it can think of to sell the next big thing in diets is to pretend it isn’t a diet. ‘The industry’ – or rather, the collection of individuals who see fit to try to enrich themselves under its umbrella – have been doing this for a while, but ‘clean eating’ is one of the more pathetic yet worrying attempts.

My discussion of it here is lengthy – arguably lengthier than something this flimsy deserves. But I think it’s worth dealing with systematically, because practicing critical appraisal of it will hone a skill that can be applied to many other varieties of food-related discourse. This will be useful, I hope, because the ‘clean-eating’ model is increasingly the way diet advice is going: like everything else in our ever more joined-up world, and certainly like everything designed to make us spend more money, its edges are growing fuzzier, its appeal more insidious.

Fittingly for an idea that rejects the diet pigeonhole, ‘clean eating’ doesn’t have a single originator or definition; it’s been picked up on by communities as contrasting as ultra-feminized lifestyle cookery and Paleo-inspired bodybuilding. Indeed, I first came across it in the powerlifting world, where it’s long been a part of the linguistic furniture. Because it is so slippery and centerless, it’s hard to pinpoint and pin down the core characteristics of ‘clean eating’ – but it’s also worth trying, because if we don’t, those features might well become part of our cognitive scaffolding without us even realizing it.

The non-diet as meme and metaphor

‘The soul of eating clean is consuming food the way nature delivered it, or as close to it as possible. It is not a diet; it’s a lifestyle approach to food and its preparation, leading to an improved life – one meal at a time.’ ('What is clean eating?')

Clean-eating advocates proclaim their non-diet status in appealing terms like this, and then go on to give the details that make it disappointingly – or reassuringly – clear that what they’re selling is just a diet after all:

‘Steer clear of anything high in trans fats, anything fried or anything high in sugar. Avoid preservatives, color additives and toxic binders, stabilizers, emulsifiers and fat replacers.’

Like all diets, especially those that pretend not to be, this one has an easy job to do. We’re all worried about the increase in rates of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity in the industrialized world. We’re all well-primed consumers – from infancy implanted with millions of seeds that whisper make yourself less miserable/fat/ugly by buying (into) this. So all it has to do is find one mildly novel little hook to pull us in. And with clean eating, of course, it’s the metaphor.

It’s a good choice. One way of adopting a distanced, critical perspective on human culture is to view it through the lens of memetics. A meme is any piece of information that is copied from person to person: a song, a story, a skill, a fashion, a phrase. Only some variants survive to be recopied, and so culture evolves. If we think about it this way, culture is transformed from a mysterious mixture of a million acts of individual human ingenuity to a snapshot of a continuous evolutionary process. The fateful simplicity of the three ingredients of the evolutionary algorithm – replication with variation and selection – acts on the meme, and through it the whole world of ideas, just as it does on the genes that make up our biology (see e.g. Blackmore 2010, or her 2008 TED talk). The crucial difference in seeing things this way is that the human mind is demoted from omnipotent creator to mere host organism for the memes that are as selfish as genes are. Some memes succeed because they are actually useful to us; others because their tricks successfully conned us into copying them. So we can still criticize those who fall for their tricks, or exploit others through symbiosis with them, but we can also appreciate, dispassionately, the tricks by which the memes get themselves propagated, not necessarily to anyone’s benefit.

One of the classic memetic structures is a copy-me instruction backed up with threats and promises. This is just what clean eating does: if you do what we say, and repeat our wisdoms to everyone you know, you’ll be clean; if not, you’ll be dirty. Sometimes the cleanliness and the dirtiness are made more explicit (being slim, looking younger, having more energy, versus being tired, fat, mentally foggy, etc.), but more often they don’t need to be. The metaphorical associations are automatic enough that they can remain implicit.

Marine Photobank, Creative Commons 2.0
Source: Marine Photobank, Creative Commons 2.0

It’s not a subtle metaphor, but it’s a potent one. Take a moment to pause and savor the phrase eat clean. See what it does when set loose in your mind. Like it? Of course you do. #eatclean taps into a shining array of equally seductive fields of association: good, pure, light, simple, natural, raw, bare. It also brings to mind their unwelcome alter egos: bad, contaminated, heavy, complicated, unnatural, processed, clothed. Even the look and sound of these opposites is off-putting, let alone their meanings. Predictably, ‘clean eaters’ dislike capital letters: the naked diet couldn’t seduce us nearly so well in title case. They go for monosyllables: Amelia Freer’s book is Eat. Nourish. Glow. – quite a clever title if you ignore the tediously explicit subtitle: 10 easy steps for losing weight, looking younger & feeling healthier.) And when polysyllabic words are neither intoxicatingly exotic (blackstrap molasses, spirulina) nor avoidable, they shorten them into cosily familiar forms: vegetables are not vegetables, they’re the always cringe-inducing veggies.

In all its still-evolving variations, the ‘clean-eating’ non-diet taps into the easy inclination to feel distaste for the biological messiness of eating, digesting, and excreting. These processes are broadly equivalent whatever the precise composition of the foods we ingest, but ‘clean eating’ suggests otherwise: if you eat the way we tell you to, you’ll sidestep all that and keep yourself immaculate. An integral part of the cleanliness metaphor is its associations of simplicity: things that are clean tend to be more uniform in appearance and texture than things that are dirty, and the impression this non-diet wants to give is that it’s so simple you hardly need to be told what to do (though you should still buy the books and click through all the ad-laden webpages). The sense we’re meant to have is as of being reminded of something we’ve always known, being invited in a gentle whisper to come back to the old pure ways of doing things, the ways you’d know for yourself if only you listened to your heart and put your trust back in nature.

‘Clean eating is a deceptively simple concept. Rather than yet another spin on the idea of eating more or less of specific food groups such as carbs or protein, the idea is to avoid processed foods and only eat “real” foods.’ ('Clean eating - the diet that's not a diet and could help you lose a stone')

The dietary details

The simplicity is indeed deeply deceptive. The list of ‘clean eating foes’ is as long as the forbidden list on any other diet, and – since it has no guiding principle other than a metaphor – it’s a good deal less coherent than most. In general, ‘refined’ or ‘processed’ is discouraged, saturated fats are out, raw is in, and – in an ironic twist, given how neatly white would fit their metaphorical color scheme – white (bread, sugar, rice, etc.) is suspect (though some avoid dissing white, and call it beige instead). Once you start to ask why, you run quickly into trouble. The instruction, after all, is copy-me, not think. There are so many exceptions that the logic gives out before it ever began: processed and packaged are bad (questionable enough in itself, as journalist Jay Rayner and farmer Blake Hurst argue), but drink skimmed milk ('Seven principles of clean eating'); don’t go near cane sugar but maple syrup and honey are great (assuming that glycaemic index is the only dimension on which sugar is problematic, and ignoring the fructose content); fats are so good for you, but remember grass-fed beef is naturally leaner than grain-fed beef (Shaw, Ready, Steady, Glow, p. 15). Because all the nutritionally sensible things that can be said already have been – sugar causes problems, all dietary fat is good except trans fats, dietary cholesterol bears minimal relationship to blood cholesterol – the attempt to sell a ‘way of life’ on the foundations of the word ‘clean’ embraces inconsistency with a patronizing zeal reliant on others’ intuitions being as incoherent as their own message.

It’s a deeply dispiriting business, reading what passes as wisdom in these circles. Not least because at least part of the basic idea actually isn’t that bad: pay attention to where your food comes from, eat foods that keep you connected to the way they grew and to your modest place in the circle of life we so often feel disconnected from. But mainly reading about ‘clean eating’ is miserable (I have to keep forcing myself back to it for this post) because the hooks that make it easy for their words to stick are precisely those that make it so dangerous. There are two main ones, and both centre on exclusion.

The black and the white

bark, on flickr, CC 2.0
Source: bark, on flickr, CC 2.0

One effect of promoting chia seeds, goji berries, quinoa, et al. is that it serves as an oblique promise that ‘clean eating’ will grant us membership to an exclusive club (or, as dietician and Good Housekeeping nutrition director Jaclyn London has it, ‘a diet-driven caste system’): a blessed clique of young toned calm airy beings who use all the right soft-focus lifestyle hashtags and are troubled by no greater worries than whether to sprinkle organic thyme or cracked pink peppercorns on their pomegranate salad. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that endlessly self-performative coterie? The exclusiveness cuts both ways, though. Everyone who isn’t in the clique is outside it, so this kind of thing is by definition socially divisive. In this sense, again, it’s like any other diet scheme, from Weight Watchers onwards. It will encourage you to look down with superiority and pity on those who are still eating dirty. It will make those people your enemies. (I’ll come back to the specifics of this in a minute.) And by the very nature of the cleanliness metaphor, and the ‘dirty’ world we live in, you will never quite feel you’re eating clean enough; there’ll always be another more arcane or indigestible dietary replacement to give you a shot at entry into that glittering inner circle of wellness.

The worst kind of excluding ‘clean eating’ does, though, is of parts of yourself. As I said, cleanliness in the dietary context is meaningless (unless you’re eating roadkill covered in engine oil, maybe). We do not make ourselves dirty by eating something that comes from a takeaway, or in a plastic packet. And though our minds skim so willingly from clean to pure to light to thin, nor are we dirty by being fat.

The metaphorical polarity of clean versus dirty has the consequence, as the dietician and ‘Fat Nutritionist’ Michelle Allison points out (quoted by former Great British Bake Off contestant and food writer Ruby Tandoh), that the middle ground is exploded out from under us:

‘There is no third option presented by diet culture – there is only black or white, good or bad, dieting or off-the-wagon... And many people flip between the two states like a light switch, on or off, for more or less their entire lives.’

‘Eat clean’ claims to be a lifestyle, but actually it sucks out the complex, interesting, space where life should be, and where food is a fuel not a focus. So although the whole point of the thing is to not be a diet, to not be about forbidding particular foods, to not be about denying appetite or idealizing thinness by default – what it does turns out to be all these things. One of clean eating’s favored hashtags is #nourish, but its real philosophy, such as it is, is the opposite of nourishing. In fact, it turns out to be all about avoiding being fat, just like all the other diets that admit to being diets.

‘Forget 5:2 or the Paleo diet – the hot new food trend is for "eating clean" and it could mean you shift those stubborn extra pounds in just six weeks in time for summer. Clean food recipes aren’t about denial. They include ice cream, shepherd’s pie, spaghetti bolognese and even chocolate puddings. But the best news is that evidence suggests this way of eating can help you lose weight – and boost your health and looks into the bargain.’ ('Clean eating...')

The weight-loss non-promise

‘Fat’ is the rarely spoken adjective that underlies the unspoken opposites I mentioned earlier, as well as all the ones that do make it into print: junk, sluggish, bad, foe, cheat, gross, rubbish, mess, enemy, numb, miserable, foggy, etc. etc.. These words describe foods themselves, and how you’ll feel if you eat them. So, again, the rhetoric is kind of clever, in that it speaks to people who feel somewhat ashamed at wanting to be slimmer – to feminists who think they should know better, say – by pretending not to be about fat while actually being all about it. And this, again, is what makes it all the more insidious: you can kid yourself you’re cutting out the foods you used to enjoy in order to nourish your body, when the purpose really is to starve it, somewhere around that elusive just the right amount mark.

The bare/clothed dichotomy is worth a little more attention at this point. At first glance it seems a bit of an odd one out: what’s wrong with being clothed? Well, one thing clothed is doing is standing in for everything that makes modern culture complicated and bewildering and far removed from the mythical natural state we’re meant to want to return to. But, more than that, naked/clothed betrays one of the slightly more subtle things these metaphors try to do. The chapters of Tess Ward’s (sorry, Tess Ward) book The Naked Diet are ‘bare,’ ‘nude,’ and ‘stripped,’ as well as ‘pure,’ ‘raw,’ ‘clean,’ and ‘detox.’ They make the canny move of introducing sexuality by the back door – but a sexuality that, because invoked in the semantic company it has here, prompts us to think of the undressed bodies as, crucially, thin too.

"Cook naked, eat happy and you’ll never have to do the dreaded 'diet' again." (p. 7)

Without ever quite saying it, the book strongly suggests that you’ll lose weight on The Yes Chef’s (!) naked diet of ‘healthy hedonism,’ which is ‘naturally low in carbohydrates, free from processed food and contains no refined sugar’. The start of Ready, Steady, Glow, by Madeleine Shaw, is even more brazen.

"I’m often asked if my programme results in weight loss. The answer is ‘Yes’, you will see results. But I’m not interested in being a weight-loss guru, and neither do I advocate counting calories. I want you to love food, and to love your body. I want to make healthy living simple and easy so you can make it a way of life. So Ready… Steady… Glow! Let’s go…" (p. 7)

The phrase having one’s cake and eating it springs to mind. Weight loss is too mundane an aim for me to engage with – but don’t worry, my non-diet does cover it. Another part of the trick ‘clean eating’ plays on us, then, is to avoid getting its hands dirty with talk of body fat or weighing scales or meal plans. And that’s good, because no one likes thinking about those things. Wouldn’t it be nice if weight loss just took care of itself without even needing to be acknowledged? If we think about it, we know this is nonsense: either there’s a good reason for you to try to reduce your body fat, in which case work out an appropriate strategy for doing so, or there isn’t, in which case base your dietary decisions on other things, and challenge your reasons for wondering about fat loss. But if you never quite get to the point of asking yourself this question, then you can stay vaguely dissatisfied with yourself, take vague but vaguely reassuring action, and never have to do the uncomfortable work of challenging ingrained mental habits. The unstated promise is just as powerful as the unspoken threat.

The cognitive shortcuts

Short-circuiting critical reflection in ways like this is what ‘clean eating’ does best. Encouraging a default mode of thought is the essence of its metaphorical core, and its tentacles spread wide. They are what generate the ‘non-diet’s appeal, and what make it dangerous. We are ever more crippled by the punishment of near-infinite choice, yet we keep demanding yet more choice because the mainstay of memetic proliferation (for which capitalism is an ideal bedfellow) is to keep us hungry for novelty and variation, however pointless. But we also know that having the right to choose between 50 different shampoos or household energy providers does not make us happier; that mainly it makes us tireder. So we’re ready and waiting to be enticed by something that gives us the illusion that food can become again a realm where decisions don’t need making, where our guiding logic is so transparent as to be synonymous with instinct.

Of course, the trouble about instinct is that it’s neither transparent nor infallible, and the particular trouble about ‘clean eating’ is that it distorts our instincts into an unrecognisable version of ‘common sense.’ ‘Clean eating’ offers readymade answers to the eternal questions about how best to eat to make ourselves healthy and happy. But it offers answers that are as restrictive as they pretend to be expansive. And because the logic is nowhere set out in coherent terms (because there is no coherent logic), the meaningless restriction can easily become habit without going through the usual channels of critical appraisal (OK, how much evidence really is there, of what kinds, that a low-carb diet is going to be good for me, in x, y, or z ways?). Unlike low-carb or intermittent fasting, you can’t Google Scholar ‘clean eating’ and get anything useful, because there is no definable evidence base, or even a defined territory where that base might sit. And so you forget what your original reasons were, if any, and find yourself shying away from butter or potato chips because of some vague, emotional sense that they’re unclean.

chefkeem, on Pixabay, CC 2.0
Source: chefkeem, on Pixabay, CC 2.0

What the ‘clean-eating’ prophets have worked out is that most people don’t really care about being healthy. Until you’re seriously ill or at serious risk of ill health, health probably isn’t what drives your lifestyle decisions; you don’t notice it till it’s gone. What people want, really, is more like vitality, or vibrancy, or maybe a feeling of being beyond reproach, of having done all you can be expected to, perhaps of being safe. Whatever it is, this emotional affinity will be hard to pin down. But if invited to, you can quite easily prod it into the translucent mould of cleanliness, lightness, purity, and the rest, and convince yourself that this was the shape it had all along. Nutritional research is practiced with such inconsistent rigor (some great examples are cited in Clean Eating Mag's '10 reasons to eat clean'), and is so subject to the distorting effects of vastly rich lobbying groups and scientifically illiterate (or indifferent) journalists, and every week yields such unhelpfully contradictory findings, that it’s easier to distance yourself from scientifically fraught debates about insulin response or LDL versus HDL cholesterol, and to say: I just eat clean.

The links to disordered eating

Above all, then, #eatclean is an invitation to avoid thinking. It should be clear by now that this invitation is a dangerous one for everyone, but also that if you have a past or present that includes an eating disorder, you should arm yourself particularly carefully against it. The links between dieting structures like ‘clean eating’ and clinical eating disorders have come under scrutiny elsewhere, particularly as mediated by the concept of ‘orthorexia’, or unhealthy preoccupation with food seen as healthy (see an article for The Independent and one for the Oxford student magazine The ISIS. There’s much to be said here, but as I mentioned earlier, one of the scariest things is how this diet-that-isn’t inserts itself into the space between you and other people.

"I’m pretty lucky now that most people try to cook healthily when I come over, but early on I just had to be honest and explain what I was trying to achieve with my food choices. My advice is to give your friends a little warning beforehand, or perhaps offer to take a dish with you. Remember, if you don’t ask, you don’t get: if they’re true friends they’ll support what you’re doing. […] In this situation [if there’s no alternative to eating what others offer you] you’ve just got to relax: one naughty meal won’t hurt. Instead of feeling guilty, why not take inspiration from what you’ve been served and try to recreate a ‘clean’ version of it at home?" (Shaw, Ready, Steady, Glow, p. 10)

The digested version: It is not OK to eat what your friends cook for you. It is naughty. It is dirty. If it happens once, you’ll survive, but make sure it doesn’t again, and re-enact what happened with your friends alone afterwards, but with the dirt removed. Also, anyone who really cares about you will acquiesce in your value system. If they don’t, and you insist on remaining friends with them, make sure you take your own food with you when you visit, to avoid being subjected to theirs.

Then there’s all the all-encompassing aspirations of ‘clean eating.’ Diets can absorb slip-ups. Indeed, everyone knows that diets don’t last. And it’s because they’ve become more a source of Bridget-Jones ridicule than a legitimate aspirational choice, they’ve had to adapt, for example by calling themselves lifestyles. (They’ve long had an element of this, simply because the broader the reach, the more stuff there is to sell: the magazine subscription, the exercise bike, etc.) But the trouble with lifestyles is that they have no borders. And if you’re not careful, this too brings them into the territory of disorder.

'You could cook some quinoa, cut up some veggie crudités, roast a pumpkin and boil a couple of eggs so that you have some snacks in the fridge to grab and go. I always tend to have a batch of Raw Mango and Coconut Bites (pages 104-5) on-hand to keep the sugar monster at bay!' (Ready, Steady, Glow, p. 11)

This advice sounds like any old diet advice: don’t get caught out needing to buy a chocolate bar – take a box of yummy roasted pumpkin cubes with you wherever you go. But the stakes are higher here, because we’re not, after all, aiming at weight loss, we’re trying to be clean. And dirt has a rather different feel from weight. (Even if we’ve long been trained to associate the two.) The sugar monster will not just make you fat, he will sully you. A little later, Shaw declares that ‘Trust me, diets don’t work, so stop depriving yourself and start living.’ However, she also advises us that three meals a day is all anyone should be eating (unless you have an active job or exercise a lot, in which case one extra snack is legitimate); in a brilliant demonstration of faulty reasoning, she suggests that a body working hard to convert quinoa salad into energy needs to be cut some slack, so don’t overload it with more meals than that. She also advises you to chew every mouthful of food between 10 and 15 times: ‘relax while you eat, don’t rush. Watch your bloated belly disappear, your body feel calmer and your desire to grab something sweet diminish’ (p. 15). The juxtaposition of sentences here – relaxing while you eat and watching your belly shrink – is unfortunate to say the least. Cutting up raw carrot the night before, packing it into tupperware and chewing it 10 times at one of your three designated mealtimes, and watching and waiting for your tummy to look smaller – is this what starting living looks like?

There are many little turns of phrase that stick in the throat, too, if you have a sensitivity to the patterns of disordered eating. Take Amelia Freer’s Q&A at Deliciously Ella.

Q: What’s your favourite dessert?

A: Strangely, desserts are not my thing at all but if I were to really indulge it might be something like banoffe pie! I haven’t had that for about 15 years though but I do think about it ;-) Perhaps you can make a healthy version for me Ella? ;-)

Here, what it feels like is fear of food being dressed up as simply not liking it, but the mask slipping and the longing making itself known. The disingenuousness, and the self-deception, sit uneasily with the humblebragging about her book:

Q: What is your biggest achievement so far?

A: My book Eat. Nourish. Glow. I‘ve been overwhelmed with its success and the wonderful emails I have received from readers whose lives have been improved by my principles. I’m constantly humbled by the impact eating well can make to people’s physical and emotional well-being.

Likewise, the overstated passion for food in general is uncomfortable next to the conspicuously narrow list of ingredients Freer mentions:

Q: What are the ingredients you can’t live without?

A: All things coconut! Avocado, lemons, chilli, green veg, eggs, olive oil…. I could go on and on, I love food!

These ways of thinking and talking are well tailored to slipping in under the defences of someone who has a vulnerable relationship with food or their body. Buttressed by the potent metaphorical structures of cleanliness and all its stablemates and enemies, these little offshoots of the ‘clean eating’ discourse will do someone suffering or in recovery from an eating disorder no good at all. But once you’re attuned to them, they’re about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face.

The hazy borderlands

As I noted at the start, and inevitably for such a vague concept, the borders of ‘clean eating’ are not well policed. There are a few celebrity names with trendy matte cookbooks to match. There are lots of diet sites and blogs and mainstream online news sites that jump temporarily on the bandwagon. This means that a criticism leveled at one outcropping of ‘clean eating’ won’t necessarily apply to another; some iterations of it would be harmless were it not for the name.

Ella Mills (née Woodward), or ‘Deliciously Ella,’ falls into the category of writers associated with clean eating, but who reject the metaphor:

"It’s great to go out and enjoy food that you love, and you should never feel guilty about it. We should never shame ourselves or anyone else for eating and enjoying food, no matter what that food is – it doesn’t matter if it’s a deep fried mars bar or a chia pudding with cashew butter. What we eat is our decision and it’s not something we should judge each other on. I also don’t subscribe to the concept of healthy eating being about 'clean eating,' I think it’s a really negative way to look at food, and I feel it’s a real shame that the concept of clean has becoming synonymous with healthy for some people: for me the two have nothing to do with each other. I don’t think we should ever categorize what we eat into 'good' and 'bad' – that’s never going to make anyone happy. All food is good as long as you enjoy it and you feel well." ('Why healthy eating doesn’t mean dieting')

This philosophy sounds great. It’s a shame Mills undermines it by courting the publicity that goes with ‘clean eating,’ for example by hosting the Q&A I quoted above with Amelia Freer. Mills describes Freer as ‘a huge inspiration to so many people,’ ‘sharing such an accessible, positive message to the world’. But this is the same woman who offers ‘10 ways to clean up your diet’ – and not a ‘soft and gentle approach,’ but a ‘thorough spring clean’ to get your body ‘ready for summer’ ('Amelia Freer's eating overhaul: 10 ways to clean up your diet').

The sensible response

As I said at the start, my first introduction to ‘clean eating’ was in the form of Facebook and real-life comments from other powerlifters. In fact, the ones I remember most clearly were the ones where people simultaneously subscribed to and inverted its value system, for instance by referring with a joking pride to their ‘dirty gains’ – strength/muscle built on kebab and cheesy chips, say. I’m not entirely sure whether this does more harm or good; is ‘reclaiming’ dirty ultimately still reinforcing clean? Though I do quite like the ‘dirty burger’ concept (a burger of dubious origin and/or with all the fillings), beautifully promoted by a burping Adele. There are certainly ways of ridding the clean/dirty dichotomy of its sting, though we have to be careful not to get poisoned trying. Irony is not a failsafe protector.

The alternative is to go straight: to dissect ‘clean eating’ and the like as clearly and cogently as we can, and then act accordingly. Others have written excellent assessments and exposés of ‘clean eating’ which helped me get thinking as I planned this piece. Ruby Tandoh’s "The unhealthy truth behind 'clean eating' and 'wellness'" is the most damning of them. In another of them, "Why 'clean eating' is total BS," also quoted above, Jaclyn London makes a proposal with which I will end.

London says she wishes the word ‘transparent’ would take off as a way of assessing food’s value: not slow, not real, not clean, just transparent. Is this thing you’re thinking about buying what it says it is?

‘Is your candy bar a candy bar, or is it pretending to be an energy bar?! If it's the latter, put it back and go for the real thing.’

It’s a nice way of thinking about food. It’s also a good way of thinking about diet advice itself, or indeed any idea or claim you confront online or in a magazine or anywhere else. Ask yourself: Is it pretending to be something it’s not?

A relevant concept from psychology and cognitive linguistics is ‘epistemic vigilance’ (Sperber et al. 2010): the set of evolved mechanisms by which we attentively assess the source, the plausibility, and the general trustworthiness of everything we learn. ‘Clean eating’ should ring our epistemic alarm bells loud and clear enough to treat it with distrust. Like someone who insists ‘It wasn’t me, I didn’t do anything, honest!’ before you’ve done more than look in their direction, ‘clean eating’ betrays its dirtiness with every word. Take a careful pause before you grant this particular meme space in your mind, your body, or any corner of your life. Practice the cognitive hygiene of weighing up its threats and promises, and deciding whether any of them can be trusted. If any use of the cleanliness metaphor is fitting in the weird world of dietary advice, it’s this one.