The #CleanEating movement has reached fever pitch — but how healthy is a diet of spinach smoothies, goji berries and almond milk?
It started, ironically, with a desire to get healthy. Laura Wilson was 28, 5ft 6in and, at 15st, the heaviest she had been in her life. So she embarked on a high-protein diet. Within a year she lost 4st. She was hooked. To keep herself motivated, she began reading blogs, entering a world of “clean eating” that, back in 2009, had just begun. There are trends in the health-food world, and veganism was “in” at the time, Laura tells me. By 2011, Kris Karr’s “plant-based” Crazy Sexy Diet was a bestseller. Alicia Silverstone’s Kind Diet was out. “I became really passionate about eating healthily,” Laura says. “I was obsessed.”
She was already watching her carbohydrate intake. She avoided refined sugar and gluten where she could. Next, she began a vegetarian diet. Soon, she turned vegan: no meat, no fish, no dairy. Then raw vegan, avoiding too much fruit — “Too much sugar,” she explains. Laura insists that she wasn’t undereating; she was downing giant smoothies stuffed with spinach for breakfast, huge lettuce, chickpea, avocado and pepper salads for lunch, courgetti (courgette noodles) smothered in raw tomato sauce for dinner. “I always loved food,” she says. She stocked up on superfoods, ordering niche ingredients online: maca root powder, cacao nibs, spirulina, chia seeds … things that, at the time, were unusual to eat and difficult to find.
Laura started exercising six days a week. As the weight dropped off and she was showered with “praise and compliments”, her focus changed. “At first it was about being healthy and weight loss, but it turned into being about having the perfect diet,” she says. “Quickly, my behaviour became really unhealthy. It was all-consuming.” She says she became “controlling” about what she ate, planning meals and avoiding friends out of “a fear that if I socialised I would be peer-pressured into eating things I shouldn’t”. She avoided one friend’s birthday party because she was afraid she might end up eating cake. Soon, if Laura missed even one gym session she panicked about gaining weight.
Physically, she noticed other changes. She was constantly cold. Her periods stopped. As she rapidly lost another 2st, people began commenting not on how good she looked, but how thin she’d become.
When Laura first heard the term “orthorexia”, she thought: “Oh, that’s not me.” She justified her diet to herself, saying: “‘It’s not me that’s wrong; the rest of society has an obesity problem.’ If anyone asked, I would say I was just being really healthy. When you say that, people can’t argue back.” Now, she admits, she was unhealthily obsessed with healthy eating. She believes she was orthorexic.
The term orthorexia entered the lexicon about a year ago, cited in news stories and written about in blogs. Orthorexia nervosa, it was dutifully reported, was an obsession with healthy eating, derived from the Greek orthos (correct) and orexis (appetite). A new eating disorder had arrived.
Dr Steven Bratman, an American physician, had coined the phrase in 1997 in an article for Yoga Journal magazine, deliberately modifying the term anorexia nervosa. Half-joking about nutritional-medicine zealots in the US, he described “lacto-ovo-vegetarians” who are afraid of milk, raw foodists who worried that chopping vegetables would destroy their “etheric field”, and a “non-garlic non-onion Hindu-influenced crowd” who believed that “onion-family foods provoked sexual desire”. Bratman admitted that he, too, had once been so “seduced by righteous eating” that he wouldn’t eat vegetables more than 15 minutes after they’d been plucked from the ground.
When Bratman conceived of orthorexia nervosa, he was referring to the eating habits of a rarefied Jesus-sandal-wearing set. Almost two decades later, the health-food obsession has gone mainstream and #CleanEating is trending on Twitter.
In Britain, there are now 542,000 vegans — a 350% increase over the past 10 years, according to research from the Vegan Society; 63% of them are female, nearly half of them are aged 15-34 and 88% of them live in urban areas. According to Public Health England, young women are also particularly likely to be deficient in both iron and calcium, both of which can be in short supply on a vegan diet if poorly planned.
Meanwhile, sales of “free-from” foods are one of the fastest growing parts of the retail sector. Sales of foods marketed directly at consumers following avoidance diets are forecast to grow by 13% from an estimated £470m in 2015 to £531m in 2016. A third of Brits have bought or eaten free-from foods in the past six months. This, despite the fact that gluten-free products are, on average, 242% more expensive than their gluten-containing counterparts.
By now we’re accustomed to ricocheting between fad diets, eschewing toxins and going gluten-free as we eat organic and order soya lattes. We buy Waitrose LoveLife quinoa and stock up on the Sainsbury’s Freefrom range. In a quest to Eat Awesome (as one popular vegan recipe book urges us), we flood Instagram with images of our kale smoothies and avo toast.
Our efforts are inspired by a coterie of meat-free, gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free or sugar-free social-media goddesses with names like those of 18th-century courtesans: Deliciously Ella, Naturally Hannah, Hemsley+Hemsley, Madeleine Shaw, the Gracious Pantry — clean-eating sirens calling from the rocks of Instagram. Deliciously Ella’s website alone commands 5m hits a month.