Coming down for my hotel breakfast on Sunday morning I couldn’t help but notice the cover of the Sunday Times magazine on the neighbouring table. “THE CLEAN EATING MYTH – Why a “healthy” diet is bad for you” was the shocking headline. Shocking irresponsible some might say. I feel the article demands a response because a lot of “health food myths” are called into question by the use of carefully chosen words or simply by ignoring plain facts. At a time where many people could do with a better diet, I think it is wrong to the point of even being immoral for a national newspaper such as The Times to claim that healthy eating is bad for you.
The main objective of the article is to tackle the very real problem of orthorexia nervosa, an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, derived from the Greek orthos (correct) and orexis (appetite). The author Katie Glass interviews several women who have become anorexic following orthorexia, including a woman who ended up living exclusively on organic melons and weighing only 38 kilos.
Orthorexia is of course a real problem. Being overly concerned with what you eat to the point of counting grams of carbohydrates and protein per meal is more the realm of elite athletes. In fact, obsessive behaviour in general is unhealthy, but this does not mean that aiming to eat better is bad for you.
One of the dangers of “clean eating”, according to the article, is that it is apparently impossible to get enough protein, iron and calcium if your diet does not include animal products.
A graph headed The Protein Problem aims to highlight the advantages of animal over vegetal protein. To do this it shows how an average British woman between 19 and 24 has to drink no less than 14.5 litres of almond milk per day to get her recommended 54 grams of protein, compared to consuming only 251 grams of chicken breast.
There are obvious problems with this graph! We all know that there are many vegan sources of protein, only one of which is almond milk. If you eat a balanced diet that includes many different plant sources you will sample protein from different meals as you go through the day. No-one aims for one protein “hit” per day! It is also worth noting that the graph did not list high protein pulses such as chick peas and black beans which are the staple ingredients in any vegan diet.
Furthermore, getting your protein from animal sources alone would make for an unbalanced amino acid intake. Varied plant based protein sources ensure that you get a range of amino acids to choose from as well as additional benefits from a plant based protein intake such as a variety of minerals and vitamins.
Of course protein is important, but studies show(*) that eating too much of it may be just as dangerous as not getting enough as it may lead to weight gain, dehydration and stress on the kidneys which have to work overtime to remove excess nitrogen waste from the bloodstream that is created when protein is processed in the body. Excess protein in the body is converted to sugar and fat and the increased blood sugar levels can lead to yeast overgrowth (such as candida albicans) and tumour growth.
People who have an especially meat heavy diet are likely get too much protein every day so I think it’s no bad thing that the people are becoming more open to reduced meat, or meat-free diets these days.
Another problem with the “clean eating fad” according to Glass and nutritionist Jo Travers is that without animal protein, vegans are most likely to be deficient in minerals such as calcium and iron. “You have to concentrate a lot harder to achieve and maintain a good bone density” on a vegan diet states Travers and herein lies the key. Concentrate. This does not have to mean “obsess over”, but simply “be mindful of”. Eating a little bit better does of course take some thinking, but it is neither dangerous nor rocket science.
Glass even has a go at organic foods in her article: “(…) we’re accustomed to ricocheting between fad diets, eschewing toxins and going gluten-free as we eat organic and order soya lattes”.
If you eat a diet that focuses on plants and that is organic, many beneficial minerals will be waiting for you in your food. Organic food is key here as commercially farmed soil is depleted of minerals and produces foods that are much less nutritious and mineral heavy than produce from organically farmed soil.
Calcium is found in greens (and more so in organic greens) such as broccoli, collards, kale, beetroot greens as well as in chia seeds, a food attacked in the article as being just another fad, but it is full of both calcium and Omega 3 – both nutrients that “clean eaters” are sure to be lacking in, according to Travers. Iron is found in almost any dark leafy green vegetable as well as in many grains (quinoa, oats, brown rice), soy products, seeds and nuts – all foods that are found in a common vegan diet. Again it is important to note that produce from organic soil is likely to contain much more iron than its non-organic counterparts.
Add to the equation that animal proteins, especially meat, are very acidic foods and a too acidic environment forces the body to alkalise by drawing minerals out of the bones to reach a neutral PH. This means that the consumption of excessive animal protein too can lead to mineral deficiencies.
Another part of the article launches an attack of so called superfoods like for instance quinoa: “Since the beginning of time, people have been seeking out single foods that can save us, and this can lead to dangerous misconceptions. Take quinoa – often hailed as a protein-rich, calorie-light superfood. You’d actually have to eat more than 1.3 kg to hit your daily protein intake.”
Well, in my diet, I make sure I get enough protein from varied sources throughout the day including from quinoa.
But quinoa, alongside many other “superfoods” such as for instance spirulina, wheatgrass, maca and chia seeds, contains many important minerals that are crucial for the body and, as Glass herself states, that are particularly important for vegans to get enough of.
Spirulina is an algae very high in accessible protein and iron, wheatgrass contains 92 of the 102 minerals found in the body including plenty of iron, maca boasts 20 amino acids and a variety of minerals, chia is high in calcium and omega 3. Quinoa, too, contains iron.
The article contradicts itself by expressing a concern over nutrient deficiencies in vegans while at the same time advising against foods that may prevent said deficiencies.
While I do not believe that individually any of these foods will “save us” I do believe that supplementing ones diet with these foods, in particular a plant based diet, helps ensure optimum health.
Another fad that angers Glass is the gluten-free trend. Yes, it is a trend and yes it can become a little bit much, even for me.
The reason that we should continue to happily eat gluten, according to Glass, is that only 1-5% of the population suffers from coeliac disease or gluten sensitivity, so it can’t be that bad.
I don’t disagree with this, but the reason I personally avoid gluten is more complex.
My biggest issue with gluten products is that they are often made from flour and in particular wheat flour.
The problem with flour in general is that this is a food that is harvested and processed into flour while exposing the food to heat and oxygen which depletes the flour of nutrients. Then the flour is left in storage for some time before again being processed into a flour based product such as pasta or bread, again using heat. Finally, the finished product is often heated up again at home, leaving us with a “dead” food empty of nutrients.
Over-consumption of one thing, whether it is wheat or kale, is no good – did you know that kale is deadly in large amounts? – and most people eat wheat in one form or another several times per day, every day. There are many nutrient dense alternatives to plain old wheat flour such as buckwheat flour (easy to mill in a blender at home), coconut flour and ground nuts and these flours are tastier, too!
I would not recommend avoiding gluten at all costs. For instance, I would rather eat a gluten-containing three day aged sourdough from my local bakery than a processed long-shelf-life gluten-free bread containing rice flour, potato flour and tapioca starch, all empty carbohydrates much like wheat flour. Again, healthy eating just requires a little bit of thinking instead of blind faith. It also requires you to spend more money.
Glass interviews food blogger Bisma Whayeh, a whistleblower on the clean eating myth, and addresses how expensive it can be to eat “clean” This is something I agree with as I spend a lot of my money on food. However, while spirulina is expensive by the pound, a tablespoon every now and then will get you a long way. Wheatgrass can be bought expensively in powdered form, but is easy and inexpensive to grown at home (as outlined here) and brewing kombucha, a health boosting fermented tea, at home is great value.
I use my local farmer’s market every week, ensuring that I get the freshest and most nutrient dense produce available. Farmer’s markets are also a much cheaper alternative for organic vegetable shopping than for instance Whole Foods or other health food shops and the money I save I use to buy more pricey foods such as chia seeds and coconut oil.
I will admit that I spend a substantial percentage of my income on food, but this only seems strange because we live in a time where a regular household will spend less than 10% of their monthly income on food, because today processed food and meat is cheaper than fresh vegetable ingredients. I choose to eat well rather than saving up for a flat screen TV or purchasing a new pair of jeans and to me this is the logical order of things.
I can absolutely see how the clean eating trend can feel unattainable and alienating and perhaps this is why Katie Glass has decided to attack the health food trend so ferociously. I understand that not everybody has the time or money to make wheatgrass juice and ferment kimchi at home and I don’t think this is necessary for being a successful human being – I am lucky to be able to do this and while I am in a period of my life when have the extra time on my hands to eat like this, I choose to lead by example.
I also think it is okay to go “off-piste” sometimes and I am also a big fan of the 80/20 rule that the Hemsley and Hemsley sisters promote: if you eat very well 80 percent of the time, you can afford to eat whatever you wish for the remaining 20 as your body will be strong enough to handle a bit of deep fried food every now and again (did anybody say courgette fritters?).
What I do believe is that in a time when diseases such as cancer, allergies, arthritis, diabetes and osteoporosis to mention a few, are on the rise and affecting a huge part of the population, there can’t be anything wrong with trying to manage one’s own health by eating better.
Health is a complex problem that does not have just one solution and today most people walk the thin line between being healthy and sick and often falter. Being “not sick” isn’t good enough: in order to avoid one of these new plagues we need to be much further onto the healthy side of that line and promoting a healthier lifestyle to the public is one way of doing this.
*One of many, but this article is my favourite as it clearly outlines the problem