Clean Eating Is Giving Veganism a Bad Name
"Clean eating" and "wellness" are making vegans look even more ridiculous to everyone else than we already did.
Here is a list of things I have consumed over the past week as a vegan: a carton of ice cream, pizza x 3, fake chicken wings, pasta, a tub of peanut butter, wine, beer, burrito, pancakes x 2, chocolate, packet of oreos, margaritas. That's off the top of my head and there's probably more stuff that is having an accumulatively devastating effect on my body. I know this is not a balanced way to live but sometimes it's the end of the month and you have no overdraft left and you need an excuse to eat everything beige in your freezer.
Personally, weight wasn't a factor when I decided to avoid animal products. I don't like the idea of animals being unhappy or dying for me to eat. Even if I wanted to eat meat, I can't afford meat which hasn't been pressure-hosed off a factory floor and smushed into something resembling a patty. I'm vegan to reduce my greenhouse gas emissions and help in some pathetically infinitesimal way to stop deforestation. I do it because I watched Cowspiracy and felt guilty. When I was advised to mostly avoid eggs and dairy (along with red meat) any way for a long-term health condition, that was sort of the nail in the coffin.
I'm not judging you if you do eat meat or animal products. Everyone has the right to do whatever they want for whatever reasoning and hopefully your food makes you happy because it's one of our few pleasures in this shitty world. But I'm explaining my sorry excuse for a diet because veganism has been lumped in with "clean eating" and "wellness" and those two towers of paranoid bullshit are making vegans look even more ridiculous to everyone else than they already did.
Thankfully, the clean eating sloanies behind the wellness cult are on the receiving end of a deserved backlash. As Ruby Tandoh explained in her recent VICE piece: "If the only "good" food within wellness is the kind that won't make you fat, wellness doesn't look so different to dieting. The biggest wellness myth might be that it was never really about wellness at all." It all began with wealthy white female food bloggers claiming that this new virtuous way of eating had healed them – and could heal you too. However, rather than our collective health profiting from this trend, it's the bloggers, publishers, TV companies and industries, promoting a culture of fear, who are laughing. The rise of orthorexia (eating disorders fixating on eating healthily) has mirrored this trend. As Tandoh tweeted recently: "Always eating "light", avoiding "empty" calories, making small meals as "nutrient dense" as poss – that looks a lot like a fear of being full."
Somewhere along the line, a vegan diet has fallen in with criticism of clean eating. A few vegan friends were concerned when BBC3 documentary Clean Eating's Dirty Secrets blurred its criticism of various diets and only showed veganism in its most bizarre, extreme forms (and trust me, it gets ridiculous). It focused on the dangerous fads out there which, like clean eating, have been fuelled by social media. You've got Raw Til 4, where people just eat raw whole food until 4pm and then are allowed cooked food after that time. There are mono-mealers as promoted by infamous YouTuber Freelee the Banana Girl, who chugs back up to 30 bananas a day, or High Carb Hannah, who touts the "potato cleanse" aka only eating potatoes for a month. There are HCLF (high carb low fat) vegans who eat loads of veg and fruit and hardly any oils, nuts or avocado. Just as with clean eating, there's no doubt that many people do find a vegan diet through their disordered eating and their illness is fuelled by it. But distinctions deserve to be made when the principles of clean eating are classist, elitist and fatphobic.
When you see all those wellness cookbooks with "raw" "sugar-free", "wheat-free", "gluten-free", everything fun-free, they often have a vegan label because of the crossover of restrictions. As a vegan, if you go to a trendy cafe, you'll probably shrug and buy a sweet potato brownie (disgusting) because it's the option you can eat. In reality, the average working class or lower middle class vegan doesn't eat the expensive ingredients your nan's never heard of that clean eating requires – things like chestnut pollen, almond flour, dehydrated kale. They'll rely on beans, lentils, chickpeas, and regular ingredients you can find on the cheap in your local Lidl.
The majority of wellness bloggers avoid the label "vegan" completely, even if their version looks like a highly restrictive version of a vegan diet. They'll use "plant-based" if they largely exclude dairy and eggs. Hilariously, Delicious Ella even hates the word vegan. "You don't have to be healthy if you're a vegan," she says. "It's all about being really exclusive and I think it so often comes with a criticism of other people. While I love and would encourage as many people as possible to try a plant-based diet, I'm not sitting here judging anyone. For me it's about natural food, eating a healthy diet, but also being as accessible as possible." The child of a Sainsbury's heiress and an MP tells us that the most exclusive, classist diet craze in years, built on shaming people's food choices and at the helm of a rise in orthorexia, is nothing on the judgement of veganism. It's an ironic distinction that they themselves make between the two ideals when the language they use reveals themselves to be quite literally another weight-loss fad wrapped up cleverly in the guise of a positive lifestyle.
There's just not that same clean/evil, good/bad dichotomy with the majority of vegans. Food is food and vegans are so excited and besotted with food – partly, of course, as it's harder to source – that if you show a vegan a new chocolate bar, they'll start freaking out and bulk buying and sending pictures of it to their vegan friends. For a lifestyle that restricts a lot of food groups, my experience has been that it's rarely about denying yourself. It doesn't count calories and above all, isn't built on or centered around shame. Vegans love sugar, the horrible, evil white refined kind, fruit, wheat, gluten, carbs. When we don't have much money we eat loads of potatoes, bread, rice.
We're living in a time of obsession over food, for good and bad. It's all anyone can do to drown out all the noise and anxiety and warnings and fear-mongering surrounding what we put in our mouths and figure out what works for our own body, mind and life. The bottom line has to be: Do we really want to take dietary advice from a rich, well-connected skinny 21-year-old in west London who blends kale and a banana for her lunchtime meal? I truly hope we're edging closer to a place where we just listen to our stomachs and eat for pleasure as well as health.
Wellness, dairy-free, gluten-free, low-carb, clean eating, raw, sugar-free: being vegan might be your idea of hell, but it doesn't belong in this hellish list. Next time you overhear some vegan wanker asking a waitress for vegan options, remember that we're mostly well, but we're not about wellness.
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