My grandmother died at 98. In all her 98 years, she never counted a calorie or step. She ate bread and butter and she baked using white flour and sugar, and never tracked her nutrients with the vigilance of a lab technician. She wasn’t a slave to the health and wellness ideals surrounding our attitude to food and eating today. Yet my grandmother never had any major health problems.
She also fed my grandfather—who also lived well into his nineties—and kept him fit and able to run their dairy farm in Northern Tasmania into his eighties. Everyday my grandparents had fresh, full-fat milk in their tea and the deserts my grandmother made for her husband and boys. It was most notable in her self-saucing chocolate pudding, the only recipe my dad has ever been successful in mastering and one he makes when we visit their old farmhouse every summer. That chocolate sauce pud is a connection to my grandparents, the same way the apple strudel my mother’s mother bakes is a connection to their old home in Croatia. Such is the cultural power of food.
Despite all the milk, white flour and sugar, the food my grandparents ate was always #guiltfree, because eating was never something to feel guilty about. They understood that food is much more than the sum of its parts—more than just nutrients and compounds; it is a celebration of culture, family and identity.
But that was before the days of #fitspo, NutriBullets and bone broth. It was before the days of clean eating. Since its first appearance in the New York Times in the nineties, clean eating has cropped up often in magazines and on our screens. Back then it referred to organically grown fruits and vegetables, free of pesticides.
These days, ‘clean eating is about eating whole foods, or “real foods”’ says Fitness Magazine. The Fit Foodie blogger Derval O’Rourke tells us ‘I love to stay active, but I’m not about to jump on a ‘diet’ for a good physique,’ before listing the diet and exercise plans visitors to her blog can purchase. Somewhere along the way, dieting became tacky and passé. Rather than breaking away from the ideal entirely, we’ve come up with a new language to articulate the same superficial ideals. We say ‘no’ to diets and ‘yes’ to eating clean. ‘No’ to skinny and ‘yes’ to fit and lean. But in saying ‘yes’ to clean eating, what else are we saying ‘no’ to?
When the French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote ‘tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,’ he wasn’t talking about vitamins and nutrients. He was talking about the cultural connection we take from food. We are also who we eat with, what we eat to celebrate and where we eat.
In 2016, I was visiting my family’s village in Slavonia, Croatia. The winter months were closing in, which meant I was there in time for kolinje, a tradition where the entire village gathers in someone’s backyard to slaughter a pig. The pig would provide food for the winter months and give everyone the chance to come together for a meal. It was during this time that my fourteen-year-old cousin decided she wanted to become a vegan. In this region of Croatia meat is a big deal; the heart and soul of the region’s cuisine. Food and rituals like kolinje are the glue that binds people together, rooted through hundreds of years of tradition.
None of this occurred to my cousin as she told me about FreeleetheBananaGirl, an advocate of the RawTill4 vegan diet, and her inspiration for turning to veganism. RawTill4 advocates eating nothing but raw fruits and vegetables during the day, and cooked ‘good carbs’ at night. But, as the wellness bloggers frequently remind us, this restrictive, isolating way of eating isn’t a diet, it’s a lifestyle. The language may have changed but the meaning is still the same; clean eating is a lifestyle governed by meal plans that restrict entire food groups along with suppressing culture, history and identity. It was the cultural deficiency that scared my aunt and uncle most. When we take away culture from food, what are we left with?
In her essay for Vice, Ruby Tandoh explores what is left behind. ‘I had found wellness, and I was not well,’ she writes. Lured by promises of glowing health, Tandoh wandered onto the path of clean eating after years of battling with bulimia and anorexia. She saw it as an escape from her eating disorders, a way to be ‘well’, by avoiding the bad, the fake, the dirty. Eggs, gluten, dairy, red meat, ‘processed foods’ were forbidden, white potatoes and white rice were swapped for yellow and brown. What remains, Tandoh found, when food and the act of eating is stripped of its sentimental and cultural values, is the calorie count. Nutrient values are a lonely form of what is essentially another eating disorder.
I discovered clean eating when I returned home from travelling Europe and South America, where I contracted a stomach flu that stayed with me for weeks and made me so weak that getting out of bed was enough to make me faint. This, and the non-stop, exhausting nature of travel made my weight plummet and ravaged my digestive system. I came home a sliver of myself, with no appetite and various digestive issues that made eating painful and unpleasant. I will never forget the look on my parents’ faces as they watched their shrunken daughter emerge through the arrival gates, barely heavier than the luggage she pushed before her.
Before my sickness, the most exciting thing about travel was exploring the cuisines of new countries. Before each new country, I referred to Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and Parts Unknown, creating lists of must-try dishes. How did the locals eat in Morocco? What did the breakfast table of a Bavarian look like? By no means clean, but one I was keen to sit at. I collected recipes from favourite places like souvenirs and visited supermarkets like they were tourist attractions, discovering each country through what it stocked on its shelves. Clean eating put an end to all that.
In an attempt to heal my travel-weary gut I began systematically eliminating the ‘dirty’ foods from my diet. I stopped seeing food as something to be celebrated and began seeing it as something harmful. Family gatherings, once an excuse for celebration and connectivity, were now stressful and though surrounded by my family, I had never felt more alone. Of course, my new rules and restrictions around food made it impossible for me to gain back any weight I had lost while away. While waiting for the glowing skin and lush hair I was promised, I grew smaller and sicker. I realised my mistake when my hair started falling out. My own search for wellness had hurled me from slightly underweight to completely malnourished.
In the two years between then and now, I have learned that healthy eating isn’t just about nourishing our bodies, it’s cultivating a healthy mental attitude towards food and having the ability to recognise the enriching power it can have in our lives. The ancient Egyptians believed the art of making bread was an act of magic—something to be revered. To the modern-day clean eater, bread is something to be feared and demonised.
Healthy eating isn’t being afraid of food—the thing that we depend upon to survive. It’s not eating clean, but eating with pleasure, without guilt and with savour. A plate of pork between family during the frigid winter months won’t kill you, no more than a bowlful of zoodles will make you live any longer. Eating chocolate pudding after dinner doesn’t make you ‘naughty’. It makes you fucking human.
Alice Wilson is a Melbourne-based writer and editor. She is currently completing a Master’s in Writing and Publishing at RMIT.