Wash Your Hands of 'Clean Eating'

BBC Two’s Horizon recently released their documentary “Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth,” which examines fashionable dietary placebos that have arisen with the popularity of health and glamorous lifestyle bloggers.

In our post-gluten world, presenter Dr. Giles Yeo scrutinizes the overly popularized ‘fad diets,’ which have been celebrated by the faces of social media to physically alter, improve and defend the body from degenerative diseases, even cancer. Exploring the ‘confirmation bias’ within the claims of cookery writers, he frames various assertions by the ‘professionals’ through the lens of science.


(Photo Credit: www.google.co.uk) Ella Mills and Dr. Yeo 

For each diet, he tracked down the source of their popularity. After interviewing the infamous Deliciously Ella, inspired by Dr. Colin Campbell’s “The China Study,” Yeo is shown to travel to America to nail him on his generalizing claims that eradicating animal protein can seriously prevent the likelihood of contracting cancer.

With an acquiescent smile and buttoned lip, he politely pressured each guru to explain their exploitation of contemporary food anxieties, their potentially unnecessary provocation of disordered eating across the world.

For instance, Dr. Yeo meets Dr. William Davis, ex-cardiologist, in the traditional all-American diner. Ordering a hamburger with neither bun nor fry, Davis protests mid-chew of his greasy patty that all grains stimulate human disease.

With a dropped jaw and blatant skepticism, Yeo carries his investigation to “Dr” Robert Young’s wellness ranch in California.

Receiving his PHD online, Young slinks through his ostentatious home to describe the metaphor of his fishbowl which rests at the centre of his living room. Arguing a ‘change in environment’ can ‘heal’ one of disease, Young does not believe in germs; they are “nothing more than a biological transformation of matter” that can be prevented by ‘alkalizing’ the pH of the body.

In Robert Young’s case, such provocative claims exploited the most vulnerable members of society. A British woman dying of terminal cancer raised over seventy-thousand dollars to attend the ranch as a last resort. Given over 30 IV drips of ‘sodium chloride,’ in addition to massages and colonics, she died pursuing the last scrap of hope at survival.

Young was unrepentant about his claims that he could heal cancer, a word he describes as an adjective or ‘state,’ not a noun. The spattering of sweat that coated his brow complemented his quivering voice and vacant, unblinking eyes; facing a prison sentence for fraud and an unlicensed practicing of medicine, far from clean, I felt the imminent need to shower having learned about Young’s corporeal theories.

Significantly, the cookery authors who based their books on Young’s work, refused to comment for the documentary. The only celebrity writer to appear was Ella Mills, who based her book ‘Deliciously Ella’ off her healing experience having transitioned to a plant-based diet. Suffering from Postural Tachycardia Syndrome, she renounced all animal bi-products, but admitted that while food can be a ‘powerful thing,’ it is not a miracle worker.

The Hemsley Sisters, inspired by the 'Grain-Free' theory (www.cooksacademy.co.uk)

Mills argued that, for her, the definition of ‘clean’ has morphed from connotations of home-cooking and unprocessed to a “fad” - something entirely different. Aware of the dangers of social media for inducing a warped perception of diet and body image, she pointed to the responsibility of bloggers to produce informed, accurate information about food.

The programme was grounded in a focus on objectivity, but also a degree of condescension towards social media, making it less impactful than it could have been. Yeo concluded, not emotively enough, that “the world of clean [is] driven by belief, where truth is personal and food can do what medicine cannot.”

But he equally failed to consider both the positives and the public's motivation behind the attraction towards dietary trends and changes. Is there something wrong with considering where our food comes from, how it is prepared, what it is doing (or not doing) for us? What if, as consumers, we crave transparency, a greater education, to become experts of our own health and well-being?

I find the correlation between health, sense of self and food completely fascinating, But, like anything, when it is taken literally or as a religion, it becomes obsessive and dangerous. We won't die from eating one piece of bread, and we won't be miraculously cured of all ailments through one shot of wheatgrass. A critical eye and sense of moderation is necessary, especially in a world where we are bombarded by content which could be produced by anyone.

However, the creative circulation of information, the progressive movement towards health, the stepping away from factory farming and an overall consciousness of what we put into our mouths, doesn’t sound poisonous, cultish or pseudo-scientific to me.


It just seems like common sense.