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15th Sep 2022

Why we need to challenge the term ‘clean-eating’

*Content note – this article contains reference to eating disorders.

Clean-eating has become a euphemism for restrictive dieting.

Earlier this week, Kourtney Kardashian made headlines for comments she made about so-called ‘clean-eating’ and the diet her family follows.

In an interview with WSJ Magazine, the reality star recounted an anecdote in which her son Mason asked for French fries from McDonald’s, but Kourtney denied his request, telling him “Today’s not the day”. She also shared that she encourages her children to think of some foods as “bad”.

This is not the first time Kourtney has discussed her penchant for ‘clean-eating’. As documented on The Kardashians, Kourtney explained that she was undertaking a ‘Panchakarma cleanse’, which she claimed would rid her body of toxins, and potentially increase the success rate of her IVF. The cleanse, which has been debunked by medical professionals, saw Kourtney abstain from sugar, caffeine, exercise and sex.

Kourtney Kardashian is far from the only person to equate restrictive eating with the notion of cleanliness. Much of the wellness industry hinges on the idea that processed foods are, in some way, damaging for the body. Wellness companies refrain from using the word diet, and instead call their restrictive food plans cleanses or detoxes. It’s worthwhile here to note that Kourtney made her latest comments about clean-eating while promoting Lemme, her new line of gummy vitamins.

Indeed, clean-eating has become a euphemism for restrictive eating, thanks to some heavy-duty propagation by the wellness industry and A-list celebrities. On the surface, this tendency might seem like a harmless piece of copy-writing, but it actually legitimises the underpinnings of disordered eating.

According to Bodywhys, an Irish eating disorders organisation, orthorexia involves a “compulsive preoccupation or obsession with dietary purity”. Those who suffer from orthorexia are concerned with the quality of food that they eat, and this obsession causes them to withdraw from life.

Orthorexia was first identified in 1997 but since then it has become worryingly prevalent. For instance, a study published in the National Library of Medicine offered an estimate that suggested that somewhere between 21% and 57.6% of the population exhibit behaviours that are characteristic of orthorexia. This stat, while alarming, is hardly surprising when you consider the extent to which the wellness and diet industry reinforce the notion that some foods are inherently good, or inherently bad.

“Messaging that puts a moral value on food or suggests that food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be unhelpful in developing a positive relationship with food,” says Ellen Jennings, the communications officer with Bodywhys. “It is an example of black and white thinking, which is often part of an eating disorder.”

However, it is necessary to point out, as Ellen does, that there is “no one cause” for eating disorders.

“There are a combination of factors both internal and external to a person that can influence our relationship with food and our body,” Ellen says. Some of the risk-factors, though, can emerge from the messaging that we internalise.

In order to change the messaging surrounding food, it’s necessary to challenge the notion that food can have a moral value, or a state of cleanness. However, if wellness brands continue to rely on the idea of clean-eating in order to promote their wares, then it will be a long time before the notion is truly removed from the vernacular.

If you have been affected by any of the details in this story you can contact Bodywhys on 01-2107906 or email [email protected].