By KATE LEAVER
Eating clean isn’t about health anymore. It’s about discipline and shame.
Celebrity-endorsed eating plans like Sarah Wilson’s “I Quit Sugar” series and Pete Evans’ “The Paleo Way” are not diets. They’re cult-like groups that thrive on a culture of fear around food rather than realistic wellbeing.
At various times in my life, I’ve tried to cut out foods like Wilson and Evans recommend. I’ve banished dairy, sworn off sugar, and been mortally afraid of carbs. But as a survivor of anorexia, the way these eating plans operate remind me alarmingly of what it’s like to be sick. The strict rules, the obsession with checking ingredients, and the fear of certain foods are eerily reminiscent of starvation.
Look, eating less sugar and fewer processed foods is a positive thing. Reframing your life and every meal around an extreme, restrictive diet is not.
Healthy, happy people do not obsess over the content of their next meal, and they do not naturally balance their self-worth on whether they can resist a cupcake or not. It’s a troubling, dysfunctional way to think about eating. They’re not just flogging recipe books and promises of weight loss; they’re selling a lifestyle.
I’ve watched friends and former colleagues compete in a literal Hunger Games to be the cleanest, purest eaters. Not because it makes them physically healthier, but because it feels like victory.
It makes me incredibly sad that we don’t speak about food with joy. Choosing what to eat is no longer motivated by hunger or your body’s needs. It’s motivated by fear.
I tried to quit sugar last year and I failed.
Did you hear what I just said? I said I failed.
Because we don’t even talk about ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’. We talk about success and failure, and whether we’re good enough people to master a diet. The complex, potentially harmful matrix of shame and insecurity that’s attached to “quitting sugar” and “eating paleo” concerns me. Profoundly.
But it doesn’t just concern me.
Susie Burrell, who spent years studying Psychology and Nutrition and Dietetics, is also concerned. She spends her life trying to educate people about wholesome, nourishing meals, exercise, and being kind to themselves. She, like all good nutritionists, encourages balance and moderation.
The first major concern for Burrell is that these diets are put together by “wellness coaches”. Both Sarah Wilson and Pete Evans did a $5000, 1-year online course at a private clinic called Integrative Nutrition, which is currently operating without scientific regulation.
“If any qualified professional made such claims [as Sarah and Pete], they would be held accountable,” she explains. “But the beauty of not being qualified to write on nutrition or nutritional science is that you are only accountable to yourself – and with the power of social media, can convince yourself and your online followers that what you are doing works.”
In short, Sarah Wilson and Pete Evans are not qualified to provide nutritional advice to people just because they’ve quit sugar or gone paleo themselves.
People with genuine allergies and diseases need to modify their food intake in consultation with a professional – coeliacs need to cut out gluten and lactose-intolerant people should cut back dairy, for example.
But just copying a celebrity’s meal plan is dangerous.
In a recent interview with The Australian, Pete Evans revealed the foods he will not stock in his home. They include grains, soy, sugar (including natural sugars like fruit juice), oil, dairy, and certain types of meat.
Burrell says she cannot comment on the fact that Evan’s children, Indii and Chilli, will grow up thinking of these essential foods as forbidden. “At the end of the day, what we eat, or what we feed our own family is a personal choice,” she says. “The issue is when these decisions are preached and promoted to a wider audience as the ‘ideal’ way we all ‘should’ eat – without the credentials to back it up.
“There are so many factors that influence health, diet and nutrition that taking one factor or eliminating one food group can have significant implications for health long term. I know Pete, I worked with him and in general his recipes are promoting a positive nutritional message, but no, he is not qualified to be giving specific, or population based advice on what the average family should be eating.”
As a nutritionist, Burrell sees ordinary people fail at extreme diets every day: “I see clients who have tried all of these plans – cutting sugar, eating Paleo – but in general they are not sustainable. It is not normal to have severe limitations on what you can and cannot eat or to change your entire lifestyle for your diet. Sure, some people like Sarah or Pete may choose to do that; indeed it may work for them but just because they choose to do it, does not mean everybody should be doing it.”
In particular, Burrell sees women who constantly restrict their diet because they want to be ‘good’ and eating ‘clean’ foods is their way of managing anxiety about their bodies. “The issue with this is that carb intake can be low; calcium can be low; and chronic calories can be low. Long term this leads to bone issues, low food, reduction in metabolic rate, hormonal disruption and gut issues.”
Obviously, Burrell is not giving us all permission to guzzle saturated fats and processed foods. She knows how real a problem obesity is in this country. “One thing all professionals will agree on is that all Australians need to eat better – less processed foods; more fruit and vegetables but it does not have to be all or nothing. You do not have to eliminate all sugar to improve your health; nor do you need to eliminate grains or dairy. Rather it is an approach of balance with each individual with their lifestyle and personal preferences.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to fail at eating anymore.
If this post brings up any issues for you, please – go to The Butterfly Foundation for support, help and further information about eating disorders. Please contact The Butterfly Foundation on 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or visit their website at.