How clean eating devoured the diet

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “How clean eating devoured the diet” was written by Arwa Mahdawi, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 3rd August 2016 17.09 UTC

A moment of silence for the diet, please. It has died. Out of its withered ashes has sprung a new era of conspicuously clean consumption, driven by social media.

Evidence of dieting’s demise can be found on Chrissy Teigen’s Twitter account. Teigen is a supermodel and the author of a bestselling cookbook called Cravings. Once upon a time supermodels didn’t write cookbooks, there being only so many ways you can combine cocaine and cigarettes in a quick and easy recipe. But the internet has brought us closer to celebrities’ daily lives, which has given them more influence over ours. Teigen has used social media to build a personal brand around being a hilarious, approachable supermodel who likes food. She tweets things like “god I fucking LOVE BAGELS”, and you actually believe her.

All of which is to say that Teigen’s views on healthy eating matter; particularly to her 2.2 million Twitter followers and the 7.8 million on Instagram. She is not a dietician but she is an #influencer, which is basically the same thing. And Teigen does not like diets. “I’ve always had an issue with the word ‘diet’,” she recently tweeted. “I like ‘eating light’ or ‘clean eating’ … I dunno why.”

Chrissy Teigen: doesn’t like diets.
Chrissy Teigen: doesn’t like diets. Photograph: ddp USA/Rex/Shutterstock

I’ve got an idea why. Diets are no longer good for your personal brand. They mark you out as flawed, shallow and probably poor. Traditionally, diets have been a very formulaic means to an end: buy the latest diet bestseller, follow a highly prescriptive regime designed to maximize self-loathing and minimize calories, and lose weight. All in the hope that the new you will be deemed worthy by the thin crowd.

However, the price of entry to that club has now changed thanks to the advent of something called “wellness”. Wellness isn’t a matter of simply eating healthy food or exercising; it’s a matter of eating the right sort of food and exercising at the right sort of places.

The wellness trend is a product of a broader shift from conspicuous consumption to conspicuously considered consumption. The 80s and 90s were characterized by “bling”; you signaled wealth through flashy labels and big brands. In the 2000s, people started looking down their noses at ostentatious wealth and ushered in an era of “stealth wealth”, which became even more pronounced after the 2008 recession. Real luxury wasn’t just understated; it took on a moral dimension. Materialism was bad, spending money on expensive experiences was good. “If five years ago it was a Céline bag, today’s ultimate status symbol might just be a SoulCycle hoodie and a green juice,” wrote Vogue last year.

SoulCycle: ‘today’s ultimate status symbol’, said Vogue.
SoulCycle: ‘today’s ultimate status symbol’, said Vogue. Photograph: Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

The moral dimension of wellness has grown as mindfulness has become more popular. Today, wealth-signaling is inextricably tied up with virtue-signaling. Sipping a green juice on the way to SoulCycle is not just a sign you have money, it’s a sign you’re spending that money on the “right” things. Modern wellness is all about nourishing your body and mind in Instagrammable, expensive ways. It is asceticism disguised as aestheticism, and a traditional diet – focused on simply losing weight, available to anyone – doesn’t fit with this context. The rise of wellness also also ushered us into the era of “clean eating”, which eschews the prescriptive diet of old in favor of … well, no one is exactly sure, to be honest.

While clean eating has become a buzzword, very few people seem to be able to clearly define it. For example, nutritionist Tosca Reno, author of the Eat Clean Diet, says: “Eating clean is about choosing fresh, whole foods with all of their nutrients intact.” Meanwhile nutritionist Mikaela Reuben explains: “Clean eating is a diet where you understand what you’re putting in your body.” And Eating Clean for Dummies says: “Clean foods are natural.” As for Teigen’s definition of clean eating, she went on to tweet: “By clean, I mean not Velveeta.”

The juice is loose.
The juice is loose. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

What constitutes a clean meal is similarly vague. The BBC’s clean eating recipes include everything from “coconut quinoa and chia porridge” to “roast chicken with sweet potato gremolata salad”. Basically, anything and everything can be clean if you frame it the right way.

The nebulous nature of clean eating has sparked a recent backlash. Is clean eating, people are beginning to wonder, simply dieting by another name? Indeed, some people have used the guise of clean eating to excuse dangerously restrictive eating habits; it has become associated with orthorexia, an obsession with healthy food. One of the UK’s most prominent wellness bloggers, Deliciously Ella, for example, has recently distanced herself from the concept. In her blog she wrote: “For me health eating is absolutely not a diet, it never has been and it never will be … I also don’t subscribe to the concept of healthy eating being about ‘clean eating’.”

While the vagueness of clean eating may seem like a drawback, it is what has made the trend so popular. Anyone, you see, can pick up a diet book and follow a diet. But clean eating is less about the food itself and more about the people eating it. Eating clean requires that you yourself are “clean”. That you’re someone who shops at Whole Foods and goes to the right exercise classes and wears the right things. Clean eating is a club for those who are in the know. It is a not a meal plan.

The backlash against clean eating means it may well fade out as a buzzword soon. However, the cultural shift it represents is here to stay. Instead of measuring food in terms of calories, we’ve started to measure it in units of social currency. You’re not supposed to watch what you eat any more, you’re supposed to photograph it and let the rest of the world admire your effortlessly superior #healthychoices. The cliche that “you are what you eat” has never been so true.

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