The recent negative press coverage of the Clean Eating “movement” which culminated in last night’s BBC Horizon program has been a long time coming and should probably be seen as inevitable. But why?
Those Crazy Brits Again!
First the British press love to build people up and then knock them down once they are deemed “too successful”. Sorry my European friends – it’s just what we Brits seem to do. Rather than celebrate that more people are cooking healthy meals from scratch and getting fit and healthy then jealousy starts to kick in and the knives of envy are sharpened. So one way to view this coverage is through the lens of the “British Underdog”. As soon as that underdog has it’s day we start feeling uncomfortable – it is a very peculiar trait!
Second the Clean Eating (which I will from now on refer to as “Real Food”) movement represents an enormous and immediate threat to Big Business. As those of you with whom I have done a health history will know, I used to work for P&G, a huge $200bn+ corporation and so I understand how business thinks. Now whilst I do have some real misgivings about the abuse of corporate power, monopolistic behaviours etc. I will defend good businesses – even good BIG businesses – to the hilt. Because of their scale and reach they can be a real power for the positive and as Joe Cross said in his lecture several modules ago, could even be the key to solving the obesity crisis. However, Real Food, with its shorter shelf life and lack of uniformity is a more complex (and therefore more expensive) beast than processed food. Big Business will therefore, in the early stages of a revolution, see this as a significant threat to their business model. Then if they cannot contain then they will simply buy the threat – because even corporate titans on the scale of Nestlé, Mars, Unilever cannot control market forces. However, they can acquire them! Yet acquisitions cost money so the first stage of defending your business model is to attack competition. I cannot prove and indeed I am not suggesting that they are behind this coverage, only say that this is what I would do if I was still working there and defending my business model.
Dieticians & Nutritionists – qualified but naïve
Allied to Big Business (quite literally in some cases) are the carping Dieticians (RDs) and Nutritionists. In the wake of last night’s program these are the single most vociferous group on my Twitter timeline today. I do have respect for people who have dedicated years of their life to studying a degree in nutrition or dietetics. I also have some sympathy when they see that someone “unqualified” comes along and becomes an overnight star. Sadly for them this is how business works. Deliciously Ella and the Hemsley Sisters have created iconic and compelling brands. Yes they may occasionally veer away from a pure scientific message and occasionally talk twaddle. However, rather than complain or lobby for protecting the title “nutritionist” (as is currently happening in the UK) they need to step up their games because, like corporations, they are facing a market force but in their case are too small to do anything but adapt or wait for it to pass (though I am not sure it will). To a large extent these people have brought it upon themselves; I have lost count of the number of times I have encountered both stories and accounts of Dieticians and Nutritionists being in the pay of junk food businesses; many of you will have seen the story of the nutritionists say that a can of coke is just as good a snack as a bag of almonds (yes she was being paid by Coke). These are people who are supposed to be working for the public good and, frankly, I hold them accountable even more than Big Business. They are, then, like a cornered Tiger and will be more than happy to vilify that threatens their livelihoods.
The worry about eating disorders
My third point is that criticism or at least concern that this can lead to negative body image and possible issues with eating disorders is a valid one. For those following the trend on social media, particularly Instagram, there is a huge amount of virtue signalling and consequently (I imagine) pressure for all girls to look like Ella, Madeleine Shaw and the Hemsley sisters and to “get that glow”. I would argue that genetics as much as diet help these people look as they do. Granted if they ate fast food then they would not look as undeniably fabulous as they do. But it also does not follow that if girls (or boys) eat a great diet then they will look like models. So there is a real watch out on overpromising – this is the effect of professional marketers running the brands that these ladies have become. However, if we think that is what IIN and Health Coaching is about (and I don’t think we do) then we misunderstand what we are trying to achieve. This is about beauty from the inside out and helping people achieve wonderful health outcomes.
Beware Quacks and Pseudoscience
A quick word on Robert O. Young’s Alkaline Diet (see here for a critique: https://goo.gl/RDnQWq) – this is a personal bête noir and I actually hope that even if it is covered in IIN it is not given much credence. The concept has gained a lot of traction in the Clean Eating (Real Food) community and indeed you can see the language spill into some of the Deliciously Ella blog posts and books. I can forgive a level of pseudoscience if the intentions are good, the overall dietary recommendations sound and the outcomes benign. Indeed if the dietary outcome is that people are switching from junk to greens and whole foods then this can be a positive outcome. Yet both the reference above and other stronger criticisms (use Google) should serve as a stark warning on the dangers of pseudoscience. Indeed “Dr.” Young is currently serving 2 years in a federal penitentiary for practising medicine without a license and is due to stand trial later this year for manslaughter – he infused a patient of his with baking soda which he touted as an alternative cure for cancer and it killed her. It has also been reported that none of his patients who went on his cancer cure program outlived their prognosis period. Where people start talking about conspiracy theories on Big Pharma and cures for cancer I get very, very, worried – and if you don’t agree then look up what happened to Steve Jobs and what he had to say about this. Put simply the man appears to be a quack, a shamam and a very dangerous character. He is the poster child of pseudoscientific claptrap that should serve as a warning to us all.
Mainstream Science and its shortcomings in nutrition
That being said all of the mainstream science in the world has not helped stem the global obesity pandemic. And it is a true pandemic; there is not a single country in the world where the obesity rate is not rising and whilst this is, to an extent, the (laudable) result of rising global wealth and increased availability of food this has quite clearly gone beyond stemming the issues of hunger and starvation. I am fortunate enough to be doing the IIN course full time right now. This means I can take lots of time to study the core modules but also do a LOT of research around the topics. There is a massive debate about the merits of Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) vs High Carb Low Fat vs CICO vs several other competing theories. As Joshua suggests the science is far from settled and even amongst true experts i.e. highly qualified biochemists, neurobiologists, professors of nutrition there is enormous contention as to the exact cause of the global decline in health and wellness. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that the availability of highly processed junk foods have very high levels of association (and probably causation) with spikes in obesity and diabetes. So even if there is debate about what to include, there is little debate about what to limit (although there will be debate on limit vs exclude e.g. sugar). This is the heart of what we are learning at IIN.
A threat? No, more an opportunity
So where does this leave us and am I personally worried about this backlash? Well let me first pose a question. Do you all think that in the light of historical sugar or salt documentaries that this affected the food companies? Has it heck! As the controversial next US President would say all publicity is good publicity. There has already been a lot of backlash AGAINST the program (e.g. http://www.zoeharcombe.com/2017/01/clean-eating-horizon/) and I would venture that there is a common consensus that the way we are eating at the moment is not good for us. Perhaps Clean Eating per se has its faults and confusions but it is CERTAINLY an improvement on Fast Food and Eating Junk. I don’t think it will disappear but will evolve and represent an even bigger opportunity for us; Clean Eating will become Clean Eating 2.0 or as I am calling it “Real Food”. The revolution is just starting and we are at its epicentre. I am wary of this but I am certainly not worried. Onwards into battle for real, clean, healthy food!