The Problem with Modern Diets
Brain Dust, cordyceps, reishi, maca — when did food get so scary?
When LA juice bar owner Amanda Bacon’s food diary for US Elle went viral there was much hilarity, both at how detached from reality she seemed and at the lack of anything recognisable as food in it. Instead there’s “Brain Dust, cordyceps, reishi, maca, and Shilajit resin”, and bee pollen, and activated almonds. Somebody broke down what it would cost Bacon to stock her kitchen with everything she ate in a day – the $48 reishi, the $35 vanilla mushroom protein – and the total came to over $1200.
Food diaries populate our internet and lifestyle magazines and act as guidebooks for disordered eating – the advice sticks with you, like a burr that hooks to your tights. Off the top of my head, from the magazines of my teens: a handful of almonds at midday, a cup of hot water in the morning, a spoonful of peanut butter on a celery stick as an afternoon treat. All to quiet the sound of your supperless body.
And on one hand, good for Amanda Bacon. Consume, Amanda – ferment your coconut milk, go wild on your pollen, do what you have to do to stay alive and feel sane. But on the other hand, and this is the hand that is wringing itself to the bone, isn’t the real reason this food diary struck such a chord with us that, despite it sounding like a foreign language, it feels so oddly… familiar? No, most of us don’t splurge on bee pollen, but we understand what it stands for – something precious, an ancient solution to a modern ill. Because this diet – one that screams of paranoia, of a never-ending quest for purity and, of course, of hunger – is one that many people recognise. Whether it’s BuzzFeed’s “clean eating challenge ” or the Deliciously Ella cookbook selling over a quarter of a million copies, there is clearly a mainstream movement towards the pursuit of dizzying virtue.
People are no longer buying diet foods. Of the 2,000 people market researchers Mintel surveyed, 94 per cent said they no longer saw themselves as dieters. Which doesn’t mean they have stopped trying to lose weight – while the concept of dieting may not be popular, thinness shows no sign of going out of fashion.
Enter, then, “clean food” – it’s similar to “food”, but it won’t make you fat. It is things like courgette in the shape of spaghetti – half the fun is in pretending. It is “detoxing”. It is a cookbook called The Naked Diet, with chapter headings “Pure”, “Raw” and “Stripped”. It is “natural”, even if it’s not entirely sure what that means. It is restrictive. It is dairy free, sugar free, gluten free (the UK market for gluten-free food is forecast to grow 46 per cent, to $1.16b, by 2017). It is aimed at people who do not have families to feed. It is not about losing weight, officially, but if, after cutting an entire food group out of your diet, you happen to find you take up less space in the world, all the better.
However innocent its intentions (and here I’m being kind – does that come across?), this new market, of which Amanda Bacon’s diet is an example of the sharpest edge, is based on fear. For vulnerable people, often mirrored in the young women promoting these recipes, their bright eyes and thriving relationships a testament to the power of buckwheat, “clean” eating can lead to and support a horribly dysfunctional relationship with food. There is no reason to cut gluten from your diet unless you suffer from coeliac disease – a gluten-free diet is no healthier than any other. There is no reason to do a juice fast – detoxing is a myth, largely because that’s what our livers are for, and also because nobody has yet identified which toxins need to be de-ed. Of people who class themselves as dairy intolerant, 44 per cent have not been diagnosed as such by a doctor; only 5 per cent of Brits are lactose intolerant – there is no reason for the rest of us to give up dairy.
But the main problem, it seems to me, with the idea of cutting something out of your diet (even sugar – widely seen as a poison, spoken of today as if a Poirot weapon) is how that affects the way you feel about food altogether. To class something as clean is to imply something else is dirty. To talk about health foods is to incriminate other foods as unhealthy. Bread is not evil, sugar is not hell – in moderation, almost everything, be it bee pollen or a Snickers sandwich (copyright) is good for you. There’s nothing on our plate we should be scared of.