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Why so-called ‘clean eating’ is a food fad too far

PUBLISHED: 11:53 25 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:51 25 May 2017

Cutting out dairy products because of the so-called 'clean eating' fad (rather than for genuine medical reasons) risks creating long-term health problems for young people, the National Osteoporosis Society has warned.

Cutting out dairy products because of the so-called 'clean eating' fad (rather than for genuine medical reasons) risks creating long-term health problems for young people, the National Osteoporosis Society has warned.

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The fad for so-called ‘clean eating’ is damaging our relationship with food - and risks affecting our long-term health too, says Andy Newman

Like so many things, food has always had its fashions. No 1970s dinner party was complete without a prawn cocktail and black forest gateau, and then the nonsense that was nouvelle cuisine saw tiny portions and odd food combinations on the plate.

We may laugh at some of these trends in retrospect, but while they may have involved some dodgy flavours, none were really dangerous. But I’m pretty sure that future generations will look back at some of today’s food fads and cringe. Why, they will ask, did our generation seem determined to remove the joy from eating?

Take a trip to the supermarket and you can’t fail to notice the growing range of ‘free from’ foods. Gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free, carb-free; we seem obsessed with making our meals flavour-free and enjoyment-free.

Now, I know that there are some people who have serious medical reasons for avoiding certain food groups. Those living with coeliac disease, for example, suffer real intestinal damage if they eat food containing gluten. For them, avoiding gluten is not a fashion statement, but a necessity for their health.

But only a tiny proportion of the population have genuine food intolerances such as this (less than one percent of the UK population is coeliac, for example). So why the explosion in such faddy eating?

Much of the blame lies with proponents of ‘clean eating’, a food mantra which at its extreme involves removing complete food groups from your diet. The name ‘clean eating’ is utterly misleading: it implies that if you don’t follow this craze, you are somehow eating ‘dirty’ – whether that’s dairy products, sugar, gluten or meat-based protein.

Often what is substituted for these foods is actually no better for you: coconut oil is still mostly saturated fat, agave is still a sugar, and that healthy cold-pressed fruit juice is also swimming in sugar.

Far from improving our health, cutting out major food groups from our diet is actually doing us serious harm. The National Osteoporosis Society recently called the cult of clean eating a ‘ticking time bomb’ that could leave young people with weak bones.

The charity conducted a survey which found that 70 per cent of those aged between 18 and 35 are on, or have been on, a diet, with 20 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 cutting or severely restricting dairy products.

The charity’s clinical advisor, and professor of nutrition at the University of Surrey, Susan Lanham-New, said, “Diet in early adulthood is so important, because by the time we get into our late twenties it is too late to reverse the damage caused by poor diet and nutrient deficiencies.

“Without urgent action being taken to encourage young adults to incorporate all food groups into their diets and avoid particular ‘clean eating’ regimes, we are facing a future where broken bones will become just the ‘norm’.”

Frankly, I am rather more inclined to listen to a professor of nutrition on this subject than a trendy, unqualified, macrobiotic idiot on YouTube.

There is a fundamental issue here about our relationship with food. Too many of these fads seem to regard food as the enemy, something to be fought against, an evil. Is it any wonder that eating disorders amongst young people continue to spread when messages such as these are propagated and presented in pseudo-scientific terms, with few challenging the evidence – or rather, lack of evidence – behind them?

Food is of course necessary for our survival. But enjoyment of food, and building a healthy, happy relationship with it, should be a major part of our wellbeing, physical and emotional. Any tenuous so-called ‘benefits’ of clean eating are far outweighed by the undoubted mental and physical health benefits provided by finding joy in eating, in sharing meals with people we love, and in indulging guilt-free in the pleasures of the table.

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