The Unhealthy Truth Behind 'Wellness' and 'Clean Eating'
My eating disorder had once looked very different, and then I found wellness—but I was not well.
Illustration by Marta Parszeniew.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
A few years ago, I found wellness. My body felt like a burden, and the food I ate didn't seem to energize me or push me on: It dulled my edges, and it left me foggy, soft, and slow. So I made a change. I got rid of the chocolate bars, microwave meals, and cakes. I read about plant-based diets, and I stopped eating meat, fish, dairy, eggs, and anything too processed. I heard tales about soy milk and hormones and toxicity, so I tried to cut that out, too. Every dinnertime, I sat back in my seat and watched everyone else tuck into their meals, content in the knowledge that I couldn't eat, so wouldn't eat. I thought about food all day; I woke up at night thinking about sausage rolls, pizza, and roast chicken with crisp, lemon-rubbed skin. Food friends and foes drew into two distinct camps in my mind, and I saw ill health at every turn and in every mouthful. I became fearful and thin. I had found wellness, and I was not well.
At the end of January 2015, while most of us were still barely roused from the post-Christmas stupor, Ella Mills (née Woodward) was breaking records. Her cookbook, Deliciously Ella (after her recipe blog of the same name), sold more than 32,000 copies in the first week of sale alone to become the fastest-selling debut cookbook of all time. Since then, she's gone on to release a second book, Deliciously Ella Every Day, open a Notting Hill deli, and capitalize on her credentials with a paid-for online service [$50] where you can find health tips and weekly food plans.
Ella Mills is at the crest of a wave. Over the last few years, health has become a national pastime. From bone broth to spiralizing, gluten-free, and raw food, to the ubiquity of Magic Bullets, juice cleanses, and avocado toast, this is a food culture centered now on what it claims to be nutrition. It's over a decade since the publication of Nigella Lawson's game-changing cookbook How To Be A Domestic Goddess, which topped the book charts with her brand of warm, homely indulgence. The food books that top the charts now couldn't be further from that. Of the bestsellers in Amazon's Food & Drink category, 18 out of the 20 are cookbooks with a focus on healthy eating and dieting. The language of some of our most beloved food writers has gone from flavor and feasting to cleanness and lightness.
It's "wellness" that's on the menu in this new generation of cookbooks—a term so happily imprecise that it's perhaps easier to frame in terms of what it isn't than what it is. It's not a cold, clinical, kind of health—nothing like big pharma, drugs, and unsympathetic GPs. Nor is it brash workout videos, all messy and sweaty and hot. The diet books of our parents' generation were all tacky evangelism and shouty miracle claims. But our health is more muddled now—we live in an age of "obesity epidemics," horse-meat scandals, and fears over hidden food nasties and carcinogenic additives. "Wellness" lifts us above this food chaos. Why not un-clutter our diets and go back to basics? This is the salvation that wellness promises: no new science, no cutting-edge technology, no fads, but a look backward to a simpler time. In this quest to return to simplicity, the first thing to be cast out is gluten.
As early as 1968, alarm began to spread about a potentially toxic ingredient smuggled into the food we love. It was declared responsible for symptoms ranging from migraine to upset stomachs, burning sensations, palpitations, numbness, and weakness. Some began to avoid it personally, steering clear of restaurants where it might be lurking in the ingredients list, while others went further, pushing for it to be declared unsafe by food-regulatory authorities. The panic came accompanied with medical studies, research by esteemed scientific journals, and lobbying from high-profile lawyers. The ingredient was connected by scientists, of varying levels of repute, with ADHD, diarrhea, depression, acid reflux, and obesity. It was an epiphany: finally an explanation for the cocktails of unsavory symptoms that doctors had left undiagnosed in so many for so long.
So far, so familiar. The symptoms are just like those laid at the doorstep of gluten today: the bloating, sluggishness, weight gain, and general ill health, the hyperbolic claims made for its toxicity, the money invested in (and profited from) the elimination of it from our diets. But this mystery Trojan horse wasn't gluten at all. Forty years prior to the gluten panic, it was MSG at the heart of a looming public-health disaster. The thing is, the myth of MSG sickness has since been thoroughly debunked. There was no illness. There was no need to overhaul health legislation or remove MSG from baby food. It was the power of panic.
Celiac disease, in which individuals may suffer diarrhea, bloating, and acute abdominal pain, is a real and serious condition that affects roughly 1 percent of people in the US. A less severe manifestation of gluten intolerance called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is said to exist in roughly 5 percent of the population. For people who suffer from either of these or allied conditions, avoiding gluten is not just a lifestyle choice but a health imperative. But where does that leave the remaining majority? If you read any of the most popular wellness books or blogs, you could be forgiven for thinking that the case against gluten was clear-cut. In her debut cookbook, Get the Glow, nutritionist-to-the-stars Madeleine Shaw calls it "sandpaper for the gut"; Amelia Freer, author of Eat Nourish Glow, lays the blame for everything from "head fog" to joint pain at the feet of gluten. There is at no point in either of Deliciously Ella's cookbooks any explanation for why we should ditch gluten if we're not sufferers of celiac disease or NCGS. Yet her entire diet centers on the elimination of it.
And then there are the Hemsley sisters, who found fame, a café in Selfridges, and a televised cooking show through their wellness credentials, and who have boasted that the GAPS diet is a huge inspiration for their gluten-free brand of health. The GAPS, or gut and psychology syndrome, diet is a pro-"detox," highly restrictive, gluten-free regime, popularized by a Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. The diet purports to treat everything from autism to bipolar disorder, while advocating the ingestion of hydrogen peroxide in order to "cleanse" the gut, encouraging the feeding of raw eggs to infants and inspiring a distrust of medical professionals. The Hemsleys have wisely never endorsed the specifics of the GAPS diet, but I'm left wondering why they'd ever consider the claims of this highly contentious (and largely unsubstantiated) diet a good basis for their philosophy of healthy eating. We deserve facts, figures and thorough research not just from the Hemsley sisters, but from all of the wellness authors and bloggers who promise health transformations in the wake of a gluten-free diet. Good research into health and nutrition is slow, rigorous, and far from the evangelism of things like the GAPS diet, and wellness writing should reflect that. And yet all we're ever really told is that, if we do cut gluten out, we'll lose weight, have better skin, and shinier hair. It seems like a miracle.
The problem is, as Alan Levinovitz explains in his book The Gluten Lie, there is not necessarily any benefit to cutting out gluten unless it's medically required. If gluten is not a personal health risk—and that's for a medical professional to assess—a gluten-free diet won't necessarily help you at all. And this crusade against gluten might not just be fruitless (and expensive—according to Levinovitz, gluten-free products average at 242 percent more expensive than their gluten-containing versions), but actually harmful. Nutrition is an impossibly complicated and contested field, and rarely do we agree on what is and is not good for us. In the absence of certainty, the safest and arguably most healthy approach to nutrition falls back on variety—of food groups, macronutrients, ingredients. When cure-all good health is promised via the exclusion of whole food groups, that might be to go against the grain of one of the few nutritional sureties we have.
So what if a few people needlessly spend a bit more and get nourished a bit less, chasing after a gluten-free miracle that may never come? That needn't affect the rest of us. Except it does. The language used in wellness circles doesn't just point to the ostensible effects of gluten on our health—it soars clear of dietary science and straight into another realm altogether. On popular wellness blogs, the gluten I've heard about is "evil," "poison," "contaminating," and "toxic." There's even a leading Australian gluten-free site called glutenisthedevil.com. This isn't just about nutrition, it's about morality, and when food becomes imbued with this kind of scandalizing language, the dinner table becomes a minefield.
"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
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.
When I found "wellness," I thought I'd found a way out of the storm. What I was looking for was someone to say that there were things that weren't just OK to eat, but that they would actually be good for me. At the same time, I wasn't ready to float untethered from my world of food neuroses. Wellness was alluring precisely because of the restriction it promised. There's nothing left to be fearful of when the bad food is labeled "bad food," and when what's left is a miracle cure. I was looking for something like Deliciously Ella's books, which boast "counting goodness, not calories" in one breath, and deride "gross" convenience foods in the next, to weave a precarious path between diet regimes and a love of food. Clearly I wasn't the only one drawn to the comfort of a prescriptive diet: In the introduction of her cookbook, "wellness" expert Madeleine Shaw describes teenage years spent calorie-counting, anxiety, disordered eating, and binging, all of which she left behind on England's dismal shores when she jetted off to Australia and there, in the sun and surf, discovered wellness—via restrictive diet and exercise—and was cured.
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?
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."
It gives rise to a kind of all-or-nothing approach to nutrition where all the delicious nuance of cooking, eating, and pleasure is brusquely swept aside. When I asked dietitian and advocate of the Health at Every Size campaign, Michelle Allison, about this dichotomy, she explained: "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." Nobody sums up the totalitarianism of wellness better than Deliciously Ella herself, though. "It's not a diet—it's a lifestyle." And that's just the catch.
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? When I subscribed to wellness, it gave me the means to rationalize my food insecurities, while glossing over my fear of food with the respectable veneer of health-consciousness. My illness was hidden in plain sight, and what's more—it became some thing to be proud of.
Orthorexia is a preoccupation with "right" and "wrong" foods. Although it doesn't yet have an agreed upon diagnosis among clinicians, a spokesperson at beat, the UK's leading eating disorder charity, told me that there has been an anecdotal increase in the number of people who suffer from the disorder in the recent years, and explained that "this may be exacerbated by the emphasis on what is termed 'healthy eating,' which may prompt people to go beyond taking care and moving into fixation or obsession." Some consider orthorexia an eating disorder, while others place it closer to OCD, but regardless of its diagnosis, its symptoms—anxiety around "bad foods," dietary inflexibility, a concern with physical health at social and emotional expense—seem to be on the rise.
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.
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.
We can't take it as gospel when Madeleine Shaw derides the "empty calories" in sugar—the very calories that keep us moving, breathing, and surviving. It's also not clear why, just because maple syrup contains some valuable nutrients, we must omit cane sugar from our diets altogether (least of all considering that the former costs over five times as much per gram). If the end goal really is just good health, why does the focus seem to be less on reducing sugar intake and more about promoting expensive, less accessible forms of it? As Alan Levinovitz confirms, "the biggest difference between forms of sugar is their price and the foods they appear in." If health food advocates take us down only the most expensive and exclusionary paths to health, we ought to question their integrity. When wellness guru Amelia Freer says that sugar is "a drug that makes us fat," she says it all. Because, as so often happens in a world that reveres thinness, a conversation ostensibly about sugar, and wellness, has become one about fat.
Fat is as the heart of wellness, though you'd never guess it by the way the industry brands itself. Tess Ward is quick to point out that her "Naked Diet" isn't a diet diet, but a lifestyle diet, just like how that Madeleine Shaw separates her calorie-counting past and her gluten-free present. Again and again, Deliciously Ella shuns any claim that her diet is about "deprivation." Wellness isn't a diet, we're told, but something clean and sustainable, far from the baseness of "diet talk," weight loss, and bodies.
And yet throughout these books—the very same ones 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. When Deliciously Ella allays our fears that "things like avocados and almonds will make you fat," she leaves that foundational anxiety around fatness intact as a valid concern. When Madeleine Shaw boasts that her lifestyle tips can create a "leaner, healthier physique," you could be forgiven for wondering where her "be your own cheerleader" pep went.
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.
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.
Where do we go from here? A clue might lie in a study conducted in the mid 60s. In this study, a group of women—some Thai, the rest Swedish—ate a spicy rice dish, made with flavors and ingredients familiar within Thai cuisine. Scientists found that the Thai women—who hadn't been as thrown by the spiciness of the food as the Swedish women—absorbed nearly 50 percent more iron than the others. When participants were fed puréed meals (comprised of the kinds of foods they knew and enjoyed), they absorbed on average 70 percent less iron than they did when fed those same meals in their more appetizing, un-puréed, format. The pleasure that these women anticipated, and then relished, in their food actually helped them to be more nourished than when they received the same nutrients in a less palatable package. It was a startling result, and highlights what wellness so often overlooks: that when we separate pleasure from nutrition in our diets, we end up less nourished—physically and emotionally—than ever. Enjoying your food, it turns out, is good for you.
In grounding health in rules and restriction, rather than pleasure and intuition, wellness misses a trick. And it's not even clear that the perfect idea of health the movement strives for is a worthy end in itself. The World Health Organization advises that health is "a resource for everyday life, not the object of living," a crucial caveat that the wellness industry routinely ignores. Even if we do choose to prioritize health in our lives, that health doesn't need to be complicated.
There are infinite routes to good health outside of the dogmatism of wellness and clean eating. Reacquaint yourself with the sweet, heady scent of onions caramelizing in butter. When your birthday rolls around, make your own cake, and hold tight to your right to treat yourself with that same kindness as often as you need it. Feel buoyed by the knowledge that food is on average safer, more plentiful, and more nutritious than ever before in human history. Trust that your body knows what it needs, and when you get a hankering for chips, chocolate or courgette, look to that craving: The rumble of your belly is not a saboteur. Remember above all that you will be nourished not only by the food you eat, but by the pleasure you take in it.
If you don't trust me, take it from dietitian Michelle Allison: "Eating a wide variety of foods, trying new things, and taking pleasure in food is good for you. Combine that with the structure of regular meals and snacks, and make an effort to include most food groups at your meals, and you are covered." Eating well really is that simple. The key to good health isn't hiding in a fad diet or an elimination regime. You won't find it, as if by magic, at the bottom of a pack of chia seeds or as a prize for weight loss, gym time or a detox. Eating well is eating intuitively, with pleasure and without shame. Whatever the wellness industry may tell you, you have the secret to wellness already. You've had it all along.
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Some resources for eating well without "wellness":
Health At Every Size – "supporting people of all sizes in finding compassionate ways to take care of themselves."
The Ellyn Satter Institute – resources for a model of healthy eating based on pleasure and "eating competence."
The Fat Nutritionist, a.k.a. Michelle Allison, is a registered dietician and HAES advocate supporting a holistic, empowering approach to food and feeding .
The Gluten Lie, by Alan Levinovitz – debunking some of our most stubbornly popular food myths .
Glenys O – a registered dietitian enabling health within a framework of competent eating and, crucially, without dieting.
Ruby's next cookbook, Flavour, will be released in July. Special preorder book packages will be available from late June, with profits from these sales going to UK eating disorder charity beat.