I spoke about this purity fetish to Nigella Lawson, whose guilt-free approach to eating helped to reconfigure my attitude to food when I was at my most vulnerable. "I despair of the term 'clean eating,'" she said, "though I actually like the food that comes under that banner. ['Clean eating'] necessarily implies that any other form of eating—and consequently the eater of it—is dirty or impure and thus bad, and it's not simply a way of shaming and persecuting others, but leads to that self-shaming and self-persecution that is forcibly detrimental to true healthy eating."Our diets become a moral issue when this is the food culture we foster, and gluten is just the start of it. "I wish people would recognize [this] before saying, 'Hey, try this cool elimination diet—you've got nothing to lose,'" lamented Alan Levinovitz when I asked him about this modern cult of elimination dieting. "Nothing to lose? No, there's a lot to lose."§Before my turn to "wellness," my eating disorder had looked very different. If wellness is about loving food, caring for your body, and nourishing yourself, eating disorders supposedly stand at the other end of the spectrum—they're about volatility, deprivation, and fearfulness. My bulimia was just that kind of textbook eating disorder. I've always loved math and the challenge of making sense of a chaotic world through the clarity of numbers. When depression came to me in my teens, this passion found an outlet in diet. My mind was a mess of numbers: How many calories had I eaten and how many purged; how much running equalled a Mars bar; my weight, twice a day; the number of days and weeks that it would take for me to become the person I wanted to be.
"I despair of the term 'clean eating'… it necessarily implies that any other form of eating —and consequently the eater of it—is dirty or impure and thus bad."—Nigella Lawson
It seems clear-cut: Eating disorders are messy and unhappy, and wellness is a way out of that anxiety and disorder. But between the lines of the wellness cookbooks, I read a different story, and it's not just gluten in the firing line. In Madeleine Shaw's first cookbook alone, the vocabulary used to describe countless foods, and the way they make us feel, suggests a less accepting view of health: "junk," "sluggish," "bad," "foe," "cheat," and "fat" are all words she uses. She also reminds us that our friends might try to sabotage our diets, but that we must learn to ignore them. Ella Mills begs us to treat ourselves when the craving takes us, but that given enough time, those treat foods will begin to seem "kind of gross, actually."
Wellness doesn't cause eating disorders. But when we advocate, and even insist upon, a diet so restrictive, moralizing, and inflexible, and market that diet to young women, and then dress it up as self-care: Just how responsible is that?
Of course, there are some people who can dedicate their lives to good health and still be mentally well, just as there will always be people who suffer from disordered eating, "healthily" or otherwise. But when wellness balloons beyond the individual, swelling from personal lifestyle choice to sweetheart of the diet industry bolstered by supermarkets who see kale, coconut oil, and chia seeds as a great profit opportunity, that's a problem for all of us. When the pursuit of health becomes obsessive and fearful, that's not healthy. Still worse, it's becoming more and more clear that the wellness we chase might not even want us back.§"Until just over four years ago, I was a sugar monster, and I mean a total addict," recounts Ella Mills, Deliciously Ella, in the opening sentence of her first cookbook. The implication is of course that if she—a self-avowed ex-sugar fiend—can find good health, anybody can. This is a wellness for everyone. In her record-breaking book, with its story of goodness, healing, and transformation, it's fitting that she would set the scene with the scapegoating of an unnatural, unhealthy, drug-like "other." White sugar is anathema in wellness circles. We know that eating too much sugar can damage our health, so it'd be understandable for the wellness industry to advocate that we eat less sugar, and less often. What is less understandable is why wellness food writer, and somewhat ironically titled "The Yes Chef," Tess War, steers "clear of anything white" or "refined," putting her trust instead in a kind of benevolent Mother Nature that I'm not sure really exists. She recommends "natural" sugars such as raw honey, blackstrap molasses, and coconut palm sugar, though what makes these so much more natural than the sweetness wrought from sugar canes remains unclear.
The diet industry may just have orchestrated the most successful, and valuable, food rebranding in recent history—as of 2014, the UK gluten-free market was worth $250 million.
If the only "good" food within wellness is the kind that won't make you fat, wellness doesn't look so different to dieting. And with dieting having been proven not only ineffective (an astonishing 97 percent of dieters regain at least as much weight as they lost, within three years, belying the ruthless optimism of the industry), but often also groundless (Health at Every Size is an organization working to fight the claim that all fat people are ill), and even dangerous, maybe the wellness industry isn't quite so magical after all. The diet industry may just have orchestrated the most successful, and valuable, food rebranding in recent history—as of 2014, the UK gluten-free market was worth $250 million, and its popularity continues to boom. The biggest wellness myth might be that it was ever really about wellness at all.
In the very same books that tell us to locate our self-worth not in how we look but in who we are and how we feel—there is a consistent, entrenched fear of fatness.