Water with lemon

The last week or so has seen lots of discussion on Giles Yeo’s BBC2 Horizon programme Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth. Yeo basically, and correctly, clarified that diets such as the alkaline diet are snake oil or pseudoscientific nonsense. What was more subtle in the programme was that the media love (and now love to hate) the label ‘clean eating’ but the ‘clean eating’ label is as meaningless as it is popular.

‘Clean eating’ is a wide ranging tag that encompasses lots of theories, diets, styles and fads. There is no fundamental or consistent approach to what ‘clean eating’ is. It is a label created with good intentions (I assume) that is now a convenient label for some bandwagon jumping and the media to hawk stories.

Yeo was quite right to challenge the nonsense presented regarding many of the approaches he identified under the ‘clean eating’ banner. Many diets (regardless of the label: thinking much wider than the current fashion for ‘clean eating’) are unhelpful at best – and dangerous at worst. By dangerous I mean those diets who often have ‘gurus’ who promise vulnerable and/ or sick people hope. However the constant churn of fashionable diets is nothing new. Diets over the centuries tend to fall in to three main categories (and there is an overlap): authoritative personality driven e.g. perfect specimens such as Rosemary Conley, Joe Wicks telling you how to eat well etc., ‘copy me to lose weight’ personality driven e.g. various and numerous reality/ TV stars – any DVD where you lose lots of weight just like the TV personality did – and then put it all back on again just like the TV personality did… and the most damaging of all pseudoscience e.g. food combining, blood group, alkaline. Some diets have a sound basis, some do not. Diets are usually ineffective in the long term because diets are often altered in isolation from the rest of life such as physical activity, psychological health and medical health. They are looked at as a fix when it is usually papering over cracks.

These fad diets are nothing new. Fad diets follow the same cycle: they are promoted by the media, they become more mainstream, they are then attacked by the same media that promoted them. Build them up to knock them down – this approach is taken without openly evaluating the diet in the first place (because then the story could never be built up!). Fundamentally the main driver for the media is sales/ revenue. The media want stories that will get people talking, looking at the story and sharing the story. Anything that hooks in to health, appearance and other insecurities will sell well. Diets sell well. They hook in to the very insecurities pressed upon us by the media: appearance, health, exercise, death etc. We, as consumers, underestimate the power of the media. We also do not learn from history.

There are fundamentals to health and diet. Energy in should equal energy out. If it doesn’t you will lose or gain weight. Exercise is essential. Smoking is really, really bad for you. A varied and balanced diet (vitamins, minerals, fruits and vegetables etc.) is essential. The spanner in the works to the fundamentals are illnesses and diseases such as coeliac disease, allergies and genetic conditions that means some people simply cannot eat some foods. There are also ethical, moral and sustainability choices people make such as being vegan or only eating local food. These choices do fit the fundamentals above but more care and caution needs to be taken to ensure a healthy, balanced diet. Though there would be a huge amount of discussion on what healthy and balanced actually mean. There is no correct answer to what we should eat, when or how.

There is room both scientifically and gastronomically, for lots of very different approaches to food and nutrition. There are thousands and thousands of different approaches to diet around the world: some good, some not so good. With the world at our fingertips we can learns about different recipes and ideas and build on them to develop a healthy and nutritious lifestyle whilst retaining a sceptical view of the media and snake oil sales around the world.

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