Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The cult of clean eating

On the surface it would seem like I’m a shoo-in to be singing the praises of clean eating. As I write this I’m sitting here sipping on a kale, pear, apple, coconut and chia seed smoothie I whipped up in my beloved blender. I plan to have a rocket, chard, carrot, cherry tomato and roast capsicum salad for lunch (with greens I grew in my own garden for extra bragging rights). But still this is one movement I can’t really get on board with, simply because while I love fruit and vegies, I also equally love to sometimes treat myself to Nutella (spooned straight from the jar, of course), Vietnamese coffees and scoops upon scoops of ice-cream. You will drag those goodies from my sugar encrusted clutches at roughly quarter past never.

For the uninitiated “clean eating” is simply avoiding all processed and refined foods, and instead eating food in its most natural state. In Australia the patron saint of the lifestyle is Pete Evans with his much derided love of sprouted millet, sorghum, chia and buckwheat bread, alkalised water, organic spirulina, carob and, not to forget, the infamous activated almond. Now, there’s a lot to admire about clean eating in a world where it’s hard to look on the grocery shelf and find foods that aren’t full of additives, preservatives and ingredients that have a string of numbers in them.  Nutritionist Kristen Beck from Beck Health & Nutrition says of the diet, “Nutritionally speaking, clean eating is great as the focus is on the foods that should make up the vast bulk of our diets – fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes as well as, hopefully, depending on the diet, dairy and wholegrain cereals.  These are the foods that are rich in different nutrients and as a nutritionist, I am thrilled when people eat more of these foods, but am certainly wary when people become fanatical about cutting foods or even worse, whole food groups from their diet.”

And a quick look at the hashtag #eatclean on Tumblr shows this much darker picture of its acolytes and their eating habits. Whole food groups are wiped clean off the plate with nary a scrap of dairy to be seen. Even more worryingly the glut of thinspo-aping flat stomach shots that are tagged makes it seem that for many followers eating clean isn’t about being healthy so much as simply being skinny, but with #eatclean it’s all wrapped up in the facade of being “healthy”. Rather than preaching moderation, there’s a very all-or-nothing vibe to the movement that rings major alarm bells for me, especially given that on the Instagram and Tumblr evidence many of its proponents are young women, a group who are already at high risk for developing disordered eating. Food and guilt are an extremely dangerous combination.

“The concept of clean eating certainly can bring about some very obsessive, tending towards distorted, realities of nutrition and health,” says Beck. “Of course it's great to have a focus on a healthy diet and exercise, but when that focus becomes obsessive, to the point of interrupting other aspects of your life, such as not being able to eat with others or spending a large part of your day ensuring that the food you are eating is just right, this is indeed disordered eating.  This is also very difficult to address because people who are obsessive about clean eating will always respond along the lines that they are just trying to be as healthy as they can, which is indeed a noble pursuit, but like everything in life, too much can also be problematic.  As outlined in the Tumblr posts, another issue is that many obsessively ‘clean eaters’ make their health focus as an important part of their psyche and personality, and can even alienate friends, families and colleagues with their obsession.”      

Clean eating is also expensive. To do it properly requires a full arsenal of fancy and expensive kitchen equipment that is out reach for many on a budget. A hardcore blender (BPA-free of course) to make your own juices, smoothies, soups and nut butters, a dehydrator to mimic the texture of cooked foods while keeping enzymes intact, a spiraliser for raw pasta, and so on. And that’s before you even purchase the ingredients which of course have to be organic and local.

While Australia and indeed most of the developed world is in a health crisis due to our consumption of processed foods should we really be making healthy eating only the domain of those who have enough in their bank account to cover it? As Daily Life writer Annie Stevens put it to me, “There needs to be more education about healthy foods and eating, but you shouldn't need a guide book, a credit card and a weird food processor to do it.” Beck agrees that healthy eating doesn’t need to break the bank. “Frozen vegetables for example are a great option for later in the week when you haven't been to the shops, yet many health nuts would say that frozen veggies are ‘not healthy enough’.”  Healthy eating should be inclusive to anyone on any income bracket and I think that’s part of what spurred the mockery towards Evans’ Day on a Plate column. If you’ve been making the effort to do the right thing and suddenly you’re told that two litres of water you drank should’ve been alkalised and that brown rice is out and quinoa is in, you tend to get a little testy at the exclusiveness and faddishness of it all.

Another area where clean eating gets it dreadfully, dreadfully wrong is desserts. Here are a few names of clean eating desserts: Black Bean Fudge Cakes, Chocolate Avocado Mousse, Protein Cookie Balls, Almond Buckwheat Goji Raw Bars. Is your mouth watering yet? No? That’s because Mother Nature already provided us with a perfectly healthy, fuss-free dessert – it’s called fruit. And for all other occasions just eat the damn brownie already. So long as you’re eating healthily 90 per cent of the time do you really think a freshly baked sweet is going to ruin your entire body and future health? I’d argue that the continual denial of treats just leads you to want them more and in larger quantities than if you’d just had a good quality, freshly made version of what you’d actually wanted. When I ask Beck if it’s okay to ever just have a dessert made with plain old butter she replies, “Of course it is, and it should be enjoyed.”

So next time you’re on Instagram or Tumblr and come across a peanut butter smeared banana sprinkled with coconut smugly masquerading as “dessert” don’t let it make you feel guilty for eating in moderation but not abstinence – instead do what overzealous clean eaters can’t and simply take it with a grain of salt.


We all need 'nature’s Prozac’

Britain's  recent run of sunless summers and long, grey winters may be the cause of widespread vitamin D deficiency and a host of symptoms from lethargy to depression and poor immune health

For most of my adult life I have avoided doctors. They have been figures of fear for me since the day, aged eight, that I managed to convince my gentle and indulgent mother that I had such a bad stomach ache that I couldn’t go to school. It wasn’t the first occasion I had managed to pull off the “sick trick” – I was highly accomplished at faking symptoms that were not quite serious enough for a visit to the doctor’s surgery but allowed me a precious day at home.

But on this particular occasion I was so convincing that my alarmed mother called the doctor and, worried I would be found out, I so overdid the moans of agony when he examined me that an ambulance was called and I was rushed into hospital for an emergency – but quite unnecessary – appendectomy. As a result of that traumatic experience I have only ever gone near a doctor in the intervening years when I was pregnant or one of my three children was ill (or had pulled a “sick trick” on me).

Ironically it was severe stomach pain (real, not imagined) that forced me, for the first time in nearly 10 years, to see a doctor in late January. There were other symptoms: lethargy, loss of appetite and – something I had never suffered from before – depression. The doctor, a locum, diagnosed a possible kidney infection, and put me on antibiotics. But in the following weeks I developed unrelated infections, took two more courses of antibiotics and even underwent hospital X-rays as the locum sought to find the cause of what he called my “symptoms of a low immune system”.

When I Googled “causes of a low immune system”, I found a number of frightening results, such as TB, Aids, cancer and hepatitis. Finally, a simple blood test taken from me by the practice nurse identified a far less serious but increasingly common problem.

I had a severe vitamin D deficiency that had suppressed my immune system and was the likely cause of my depression. The cure was a capsule of pharmaceutical strength vitamin D (20,000 IU) to be taken once a week for three months.

One day, about six weeks into my course, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of wellbeing and I understood that I was not just cured, I was transformed.

But I was also angry. Why had I not known about the importance of vitamin D – which is essential for regulating the phosphate and calcium in our body so that our bones and teeth remain healthy?

Worse, why didn’t I know that the chief source of vitamin D (only a small number of foods contain the vitamin) comes from our skin’s exposure to sunlight?

Why hadn’t the Department of Health instituted a programme to educate an increasingly vulnerable nation – that has gone through two long, long cold winters and a predominantly sunless couple of summers – about the dangers of becoming vitamin-D-deficient?

Had the public been better informed, I would have recognised my own symptoms and self-treated my deficiency with a high-strength vitamin D supplement (which can be bought over the counter for around £35 for 30 once-a-week capsules) and would have saved myself from debilitating infections. That way too, rather like that appendectomy when I was eight, the three courses of antibiotics, the tests and the X-rays would have been entirely unnecessary.

At the end of the three months, I had a final appointment at my local surgery and instead of the locum I saw one of the permanent partners in the GP practice. The doctor, who had also suffered the effects of low vitamin D, told me that she thought there might be a link between a deficiency and the “epidemic” of women patients suffering from depression. Instead of prescribing anti-depressants, she was beginning to think, women should be given vitamin D supplements. Vitamin D could be “nature’s Prozac”, she said.

Scientist and award-winning medical journalist Oliver Gillie, who has long campaigned on this subject, believes that more testing could prove that in Britain – a country he describes as being “on the edge of the habitable world as far as sunshine is concerned and where it is not possible to get enough vitamin D from food” – everyone should be taking vitamin D supplements during the long winter months.

But there are other reasons why more and more women are suffering from low vitamin D counts. For a time, government-sponsored campaigns drummed into us that exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun (or sun beds) can cause skin cancer. As a result, we stopped going out in the midday sun and started to smother our bodies (and our children’s bodies) in high-factor sun lotion, unaware that in doing so we are blocking the vital production of vitamin D through our skin.

Women have also been subjected to anti-sunshine propaganda in the beauty pages of glossy magazines, warning of the danger of sun damage – the speeding up of the ageing process.

Sunbathing is now regarded as a habit almost as harmful as smoking 50 cigarettes a day or mainlining heroin. Even the cast of The Only Way is Essex are rejecting sun lounging and sun beds in favour of factor-60 spray tans.

But staying out of the sun – unless you are fortified with vitamin D supplements – could be almost as damaging as ultraviolet radiation. Several A-list celebrities have recently revealed that they have been diagnosed with a vitamin D deficiency. Gwyneth Paltrow now lets the sun on her skin for a few minutes a day, because her very low vitamin D level prevented her from absorbing calcium and has made her vulnerable to osteopenia, a thinning of the bones. And last year Kylie Minogue told me that she too had a problem.

“I was the person in the shade with sunscreen, but then I discovered I was vitamin-D-deficient so I actually get a little sun on my body, not on my face, and I am taking vitamin D supplements,” she said.

Department of Health and cancer charities’ advice now puts the emphasis on avoiding sunburn and very strong sun rather than staying out of the sun altogether.

However, Gillie is worried that vital research into the long-term effects of a vitamin D deficiency – particularly the possible link to depression – will never be carried out because it is not in the interest of the drug companies. He says: “No one can put a patent on vitamin D and sell it.”

But now at least I – and you, dear readers – know the truth.


They used to put Vitamin D in the butter.  I wonder what has become of that?


Anonymous said...

Vitamin D pills are small, as are baby aspirins, so a quick mashing in a mortar allows their mixing into delicious frozen blueberry (doubled in volume with cold tap water prior to quick stick blending) smoothies, and you can also add a teaspoon of bulk-purchased xylitol powder as a sweetener that kills cavity bacteria.


Olaf Koenders said...

"But there are other reasons why more and more women are suffering from low vitamin D counts. For a time, government-sponsored campaigns drummed into us that exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun (or sun beds) can cause skin cancer. As a result, we stopped going out in the midday sun and started to smother our bodies (and our children’s bodies) in high-factor sun lotion, unaware that in doing so we are blocking the vital production of vitamin D through our skin.

Exactly. I saw this coming when the fad topic of sunscreens and skin cancer were all the rage. There were even some schools then (still today) that won't allow a child outside without long sleeves, a massive hat and latherings of hydrogen bomb-proof sunscreen (sunblock 2000 from RoboCop anyone?).

My doctor recently confirmed that theory when I asked him offhand that if he'd seen more cases of D deficiency in children.

Then we have to remember, that certain people are more susceptible to sunburn and skin cancer.

The main problem appears to be when pale skinners go out in the sun for too long too frequently. That naturally increases the risk, not forgetting skin ageing over years of abuse.

There's a reason people from the Mediterranean have olive skin and tan easily, but people forget that and complain when they burn the first time in 10 minutes.

A gradual approach is best, the gubberments approach of panic factor without education is rubbish.