Diets of Instagram: the myth of clean eating

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The latest food trend isn’t a flashy, fifteen-minutes-of-fame affair: there’s no hint of Atkins-style food group condemning (poor carbs, you’ve had it tough) nor is there the forced starvation of the 5:2 diet. Instead clean eating has come to the fore, and it’s as much a social media phenomenon as a dietary one.

But unlike the strict rules of diets of cookbooks past, clean eating is a slippery term. Browse through the 25 million hashtags on Instagram and you’ll get everything from kale smoothies to hard boiled eggs, through to vegan curries to chicken salads.

The overtones of this new trend are laudable. Compared to the ‘heroin-chic’ look of the 90s, where a generation of girls grew up with the chant ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’ in their ears while they timidly pushed their school dinners around the plate, clean eating seems like a huge victory for health and wellbeing.

But clean eating is open to interpretation and this means that thousands of dietary blueprints are being developed by bloggers, Instagrammers and YouTubers. The way it appears on social feeds suggests it’s much less concerned with lowly dietician fodder like blood pressure and colons and much more about flat stomachs, colourful plates and creating collages of mirror selfies.

One thing that definitely doesn’t seem to be a priority for clean eaters is fact. A recent documentary by Grace Victory on the subject systematically debunked many of the maxims that are being pushed, packaged and sold in the name of clean eating . In a world where anyone (literally, anyone) can call themselves a nutritionist, we’re being overwhelmed with contradictory information. Is fat good or bad? Should I eat sugar? Can I control the PH of my body with vegetables? (Yes, this is supposedly a thing, and no, of course you can’t). Cutting through the noise is not only seemingly impossible, but it seems low on the agenda. Thousands and thousands of Instagram accounts and blogs detail every meal consumed and every calorie burned, but seem to have no real backing other than it works for them.

Another red flag with clean eating is the language used around it. While the dialogue of guilt around food, especially for women, is nothing new, clean eating embraces and presents a moralistic way of approaching food as the norm, which makes us internalize this pattern of feeling good when we are ‘clean’, and bad when we are ‘dirty’. With clean eating, there’s no room for error, and error is decidedly left off of the Instagram feeds. This means there’s either the guilty treat (“look at this burger, I shouldn’t eat it but couldn’t help it”) or the ‘bad’ foods are hidden away from social media documentation. This language of culinary morals is not universal, and it’s not the only way, but by indulging ourselves in this black and white approach to food we play to our anxieties.

This isn’t to say that clean eating is intrinsically bad for our health, but pairing it with a fixation on social media could be a dangerous concoction. Studies are beginning to emerge showing the detrimental effects of 24/7 access to social media to our mental health, and it’s affecting the most vulnerable. Body image is an historic problem in teenage girls and being able to constantly see the curated lives of their peers and celebrities is creating a skewed view of beauty and health.

Grace Victory’s documentary uncovered the hugely shocking stat that a third of the top clean eating bloggers in the UK had been in touch with a leading anorexia clinic. The fact that these people are knowingly passing off their difficulties as not only the norm, but as the ideal to be attained is insidious and a symptom of a larger problem of curating our lives meticulously via social media for the benefit of our self-esteem.

The relentless marketing of clean-eating as an easy fix is a myth that we can only bust by taking our focus away from the screens. Our bodies are complex, unique, and diverse, and a meal or exercise plan that works for one person may not work for others – and the truth behind a photograph may be as fictitious as the science behind the diet. This seemingly obvious fact is barely in public consciousness, although it was briefly explored when Instagram model Esenna O’Neill quit the social site and laid bare the falsity of her pictures. She explained she over-exercised and under-ate, not to mention having a naturally long torso for those flattering flat stomach shots. But Esenna is a drop in the ocean, and every day we’re bombarded with images on social sites claiming to give us the body we’re supposedly dreaming of.  

Your metabolism, exercise routine, general activeness, age, body shape, and a hundreds of other variables will affect the way you process food and will have an effect on what happens when you change your diet. Clean eating promises a quick fix, and social media projects an unattainable reality which is as fictitious as it is photogenic. Food and exercise are wonderful and important parts of life to be enjoyed, not packaged up and obsessed over – let’s not let social media swallow them whole.

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