The Fad-creating in the Media and the Internet: The Case of Clean Eating

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE SKEPTIC'S GUIDE TO HEALTH, MEDICINE, AND THE MEDIA

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

Words are a powerful means of conveying feelings and messages. The power of words can change over time as their meanings do, especially in the media. One such phrase that has gained popularity over recent years and has become the theme of many bestselling cookbooks, and its own magazine, is ‘clean eating’.

Concept diet - healthy food with muesli, honey, kiwi, and cereals
The modern diet is said to be associated with many health conditions (Image: JoyStudio/Shutterstock)

How Clean Eating Turned into a Fad

In 2017, The Guardian ran a story titled “Why We Fell for Clean Eating.” It pointed out that the modern diet caused anxiety among many people in developed countries because it is associated with many health problems. Obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease are among the most common health conditions caused by the modern diet.

According to the article, science does not help to understand the situation better. It adds to the uncertainty by telling people to stay away from fat and sugar, but people’s health doesn’t improve. In addition to the scientists and experts, there were guru-like personalities who promised that following a particular diet would end all health troubles.

In 2007, a book called The Eat Clean Diet: Fast Fat-Loss That Lasts Forever!  was published, which was the first, more moderate form of clean eating. The author, Tosca Reno, described how she lost weight and improved her health by cutting out processed foods, especially refined flour and sugar. The book mostly emphasized a diet rich with vegetables, small portions, and home-cooked food, which was not different from what other books had said. What was new in the book was introducing a new holistic way of living intertwined with dietary advice.  

Learn more about the media and weight loss.

What did Clean Eating Involve?

The clean eating diet did not exclude any foods. As long as it was healthy and included fruits, vegetables, zero-fat dairy, and whole grains, the diet was followed. The clean eaters had the permission of occasional ‘cheating,’ like a glass of red wine or a piece of dark chocolate.

a tablet with the text clean eating written in it and a bowl with oatmeal cereal, a glass with a green smoothie and an apple on the kitchen table
The clean eating diet promised to improve health and help lose weight. (Image: nito/Shutterstock)

However, this seemingly straightforward idea of healthful food had its own problems. Clean eating was supposed to be composed of pure and unadulterated ingredients, but what is ‘pure’ exactly? It is one of those words that doesn’t have a clear explanation, which led to various interpretations of the concept.

The same concept was presented in a book called Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body’s Natural Ability to Heal Itself. The author, Alejandro Junger, claimed that our body functions slowly due to the presence of toxins, which can be removed by following a strict regimen. He provided a long list of foods that are full of toxins, and he believes that they have to be avoided to detox the body. The diet is to be supplemented by dietary breaks, which is a diet consisting of liquid shakes, juices, and soups. These dietary restrictions work like what scrubbing does to a dirty house.

The list of banned foods was long and consisted of such foods as dairy, sugar, red meat, alcohol, caffeine, wheat, and soy. Even some vegetables were banned, including potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. So, according to The Guardian article, this clean diet was not merely a diet; it was a belief system suggesting the typical diet was both fattening and impure.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Social Media Developed Clean Eating into a Popular Phenomenon

The idea put forth by these books was further developed by social media, turning it into a worldwide phenomenon. Interestingly, it wasn’t scientists or dieticians who made clean eating a widespread sensation. Instead, clean eating was celebrated by a series of internet celebrities who were passionate in talking about how the diet was a life-changer and not a mere dietary regimen. Traditional media and mainstream nutritional advice then adopted this internet sensation.

Healthy eating plan. Diet and meal planning. Top view. Flat lay
Many Internet stars promoted clean eating as a lifestyle, not just a diet. (Image: Tatjana Baibakova/Shutterstock)

The clean eating diet that advised avoiding chemicals, refined sugar, artificial ingredients, and preservatives was soon debunked. Chemicals are present in all foods, and refined sugar is no different from raw honey or organic evaporated cane juice. Besides, preservatives are essential for keeping food for longer and avoiding food waste.

It also received criticism because it led to an eating disorder called orthorexia, making the person obsessed with eating merely healthy foods. Many proponents of the diet rejected it due to the cult-like faddish nature it had developed, which had also led to eating disorders.

Despite these backlashes, the clean eating diet continues to live in most cookbooks, healthy foods recipes, and nutritional advice. It has been so influential that we unconsciously try to “eat clean” even if we don’t believe in following a fad.

Learn more about the media and the Internet.

Common Questions about The Fad-creating Power of Media and the Internet: the Case of Clean Eating

Q: What is orthorexia?

Orthorexia is an eating disorder that makes the person obsessed with eating healthy foods. It is one of the eating disorders associated with clean eating.

Q: What is clean eating?

Clean eating is a diet that encourages the consumption of pure and unadulterated food. Different versions of the diet discourage eating different kinds of food like refined sugar, preservatives, and artificial ingredients.

Q: What are the criticisms about clean eating?

There have been many criticisms about clean eating. For example, it causes an eating disorder called orthorexia. Also, the word ‘pure’ does not have a specific meaning and can have different interpretations by different people.

Q: What is banned in clean eating?

Different sources ban different categories of food in clean eating. Chemicals, refined sugar, artificial ingredients, and preservatives in addition to caffeine, dairy, alcohol, and even vegetables like eggplants and tomatoes are mainly banned according to different sources.

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