If you’ve spent virtually any time on the internet in recent years, you’ve likely heard the term “clean eating”. It pops up in hashtags, in articles, and offers itself up as an alternative to dieting: “I’m not on a diet; I’m just trying to eat really clean right now.”
Whether you subscribe to the idea or not, you probably have some notion of what clean eating entails. To some, it means choosing organic food. To others, it means cutting out specific foods or entire food groups. And to others still, it involves cleanses and detoxes and fasts and a whole lot of other practices that look an awful lot like, at best, a diet. At worst: an eating disorder.
The Truth About Clean Eating
You may be wondering why there are so many different definitions of what clean eating is. Well, there’s a very simple reason: clean eating isn’t a real thing. There is no real, universal definition of “clean”, no magical list of foods that are ideal for everyone. And the pursuit of that magical list of safe foods is just another diet in disguise.
Why are so many people “eating clean”, then?
Well, it’s a tricky thing to take apart. As with anything, reasons will vary from person to person. Sometimes, it’s because we, as humans, crave structure. We want to organize everything into a binary: good and bad, left and right, male and female, when in reality there’s a whole spectrum in between. But that doesn’t feel safe. We, as a species, want clear, defined answers.
It’s a lot like religion: here are your commandments to follow. You can measure your worth on how well you stick to them, and you’d better be ready to repent if you step out of line! We listen to prophets in the form of wellness gurus, and make dubiously-researched food documentaries our holy books.
But more than that, it promises that unattainable goal: a return to purity.
How it Targets Trauma Survivors
Listen to the words people use when they talk about clean eating: clean, for one. Detox. Cleanse. Junk, toxins, reset, elimination, whole. These words are carefully crafted to convince us that we’re dirty, and need purification. And that idea hits a very sore spot for a lot of people.
Again, if you’ve been keeping up with the news lately, you’ve seen the hashtag #metoo pop up on a lot of people’s social media profiles, a lot more than many of us expected. People of all ages, races, genders, and sexual identities have survived a whole lot of sexual trauma. And – have you noticed? – the language of clean eating sounds a whole lot like the aftermath of assault.
A lot of survivors, especially of sexual trauma, talk about feeling dirty, violated, invaded. There have been many times when I’ve wanted to scrub all traces of my abuser out of my body – both inside and out. But no matter what we do, we will always be marked by the trauma, in some way or another.
Is it any wonder, then, that a diet promising cleanliness, detoxification, and wholeness is attractive to that already vulnerable population? Without even necessarily knowing why, we’re drawn in. It looks like a road map back to, if not purity, than something empty of toxic substances.
But it doesn’t work. It doesn’t fix what we’re really trying to accomplish. We’ll never find peace if it all hangs on whether or not that apple is organic. And while, yes, there are benefits to eating vegetables and whole grains, clean eating is just restriction in sheep’s clothing. It adds the unnecessary stress of having to eat perfectly into our already stressful lives. If your self-worth depends on what you ate today, well, it’s not worth much.
Finally, clean eating takes those who already feel “othered” and isolates them even further. “Sorry, there’s nothing I can eat at that restaurant.” “Oh, don’t worry about me, I’ll bring my own food.” “No, that’s okay, you go ahead. I don’t want any birthday cake.”
Whether we like it or not, food is a community-building substance. It gathers people together and helps them find connection. Putting the barricade of clean eating between us and the world is the exact opposite of what we need to heal. We need connection. We need safety. And, perhaps most of all, we need freedom.