Think back to 10 years ago; Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith. Think back to 5 years ago; Mary Berry, Paul Hollywood, Lorraine Pascale. Today; Ella Woodward, Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley, Madeleine Shaw, Joe Wicks.
These names are the hottest people in the cookbook industry. Their books will teach you “The Art of Eating Well”, how to be “Lean in 15” and how to “Get The Glow”. But these names have come under a lot of criticism recently: The Great British Bake Off finalist Ruby Tandoh wrote about “The Unhealthy Truth Behind Wellness and Clean Eating” in which she revealed the problems that the clean eating trend can (and will) cause. Grace Victory recently filmed a BBC Three documentary entitled ‘Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets’. I myself have been fairly outspoken on Twitter on just how annoying clean eating is and how it has affected me as a blogger.
With clean eating being shoved so clearly into the public eye, the Hemsley Sisters were given their own 6-episode show on Channel 4. And just 3 episodes in, viewing figures diminished by over 60% down to around 350,000. It is clear that the British public were not fans of the clean eating trend. Why did the British public switch off, just why weren’t we responding to the Hemsley Sisters?
To begin our investigation, let’s take a look at the foot of their website. They say that
“We are not qualified nutritionists, or dieticians. The information on this website has been developed following years of personal research, case studies and our own experiences with nutrition”
This should immediately be ringing alarm bells. Jasmine and Melissa aren’t in the correct position to be telling their readers the nutritional benefits of bone broths and eliminating grains from their diets when their words are their own experiences; no one person will react the same to removing gluten from their diet. And despite their personal research – of which I see no scientific backing, no quoted research from higher institutes of education or direct from the mouth of a doctor – it’s wrong.
The Hemsley Sisters say that “gluten breaks down the microvilli in your small intestine, eventually letting particles of your food leach into your bloodstream, which is referred to as ‘leaky gut syndrome’”. For someone who came across this article intrigued about clean eating or wanted to start a clean eating lifestyle, this would certainly create fear over gluten and they would actively seek to eliminate it from their diet. Yet they wouldn’t know that it is only coeliacs for which leaky gut syndrome is true.
In the same page, they discuss why they chose to go gluten-free and address the topic of grains, stating that they “lack in nutritional value [and] basing a meal on these foods can lead to weight gain”. Now the thing is carbohydrates, which grains will provide nutritionally, are essential to survival as they are our greatest source of energy and whether this is long-term energy release from wholemeal carbohydrates or short-term energy release from white carbohydrates. According to the government-introduced Eatwell Plate, carbohydrates forms 33% of our diet and so eliminating them from our diet could have detrimental effects.
Certainly wholemeal is a lot better for us than white, with wholemeal having the entire grain whereas white has the fibre-dense bran and nutrient-rich germ removed but there is the overwhelming sense that they believe carbohydrates are bad for us and intrinsically they are not; an excess of carbohydrate in the diet will be converted into fat and this is not necessarily weight gain in its entirety. The fact is everything on the Eatwell Plate has a purpose in our body; carbohydrates provide energy, fruits and vegetables provide us with much needed vitamins and minerals, proteins are needed for muscle growth and repair, dairy provides us with calcium and fat helps to maintain the core body temperature, they are all there for a reason.
This is why their lack of nutritional qualification is dangerous. They are promoting false truths about food and this has the potential to cause dangerous relationships with food (more on that later). People can so easily follow the advice to avoid gluten because of something that doesn’t affect them yet I haven’t seen a public comment or apology from the Hemsley Sisters on something which is a major concern for most health professionals. The Hemsley Sisters aren’t the only ones guilty of this; Madeleine Shaw calls gluten ‘sandpaper for the gut’.
There is a growing concern from the scientific community about clean eating. Not only is there no scientific backing for going gluten-free or removing food groups from our diets, orthorexia is becoming an ever increasing problem. Orthorexia is the obsession with eating foods that one considers to be healthy but of course the tragic irony is that the complete restriction of their diet does more damage to their health than it does benefit.
If the Hemsley Sisters can show me a scientific journal that says grass-fed butter, biodynamic apples, biodynamic eggs and going grain and gluten-free will increase life expectancy, prevent certain forms of cancer or reduce the effects of anxiety (which they claim in the Grains page) I will follow their clean eating lifestyle (not!).
Even so, I am not alone in believing food can act as medicine; why is it when we are all ill, we immediately ask for chicken soup (here lies the possible truth and origins of the bone broth thing)? But eliminating a food group from our diet is not scientifically advised. The Hemsley Sisters encourage us to eliminate grains from our diets and introduce pseudocereals such as amaranth and buckwheat. I don’t know about you but I have not heard of amaranth before reading their site.
Just how can anyone trust the Hemsley Sisters when they don’t have scientific backing or qualifications to tell us that pseudocereals are better than grains? I wouldn’t follow a diet where I have no idea what I’m actually eating even if it’s supposed to be good for me. To quote Miranda Hart, “I will not eat anything that sounds like a character from Coronation Street!” Furthermore, just who can afford to spend four times as much money sourcing biodynamic fruit and eggs and buying organic coconut oil? Why are they promoting this lifestyle which supposedly is better for us (remember there is no scientific evidence proving this) but is exclusive to only those with enough money to afford it as well as have unlimited access to a set of 3 overused Instagram filters to post your avocado on toast breakfast?
In the real world, you don’t see your average Joe or plain Jane heading off to their local farmer’s market to buy a dozen biodynamic eggs to make a ‘Full Monty Breakfast’ for four. In the real world, you will see some families who are struggling to make ends meet having to depend on food banks, families buying everything from discount stores and supermarkets and families buying basic ranges just to have enough money to maintain a quality lifestyle. The clean eating lifestyle feels unachievable and unattainable to me and available only to those with enough money.
Imagine you have £10 in your pocket and that’s all you had. Let’s compare how much it would cost to make 1 batch of their Gingernut Biscuits, the recipe for which is on their site, with a typical family shop. I have used, where applicable, the source that they recommend on their site such as the ground almonds which are bought on Amazon and the date syrup from Biona, and calculated it using the prices given.
- 2 ½ cups of ground almonds – £8.15
- 2 ½ tbsp organic ground ginger – £0.23
- Zest of an unwaxed lemon – £0.37 for the lemon from Waitrose
- 1/3 cup of date syrup – £1.23
It would take £9.98 to make a batch of the Hemsley Sisters’ ginger nut biscuits. BUT for just two pence less, I could spend £9.96 (prices correct on 1st June 2016) on the following from Aldi:
- 500g bag of spaghetti – 49p
- 907g pack of frozen peas – 69p
- 4 x 420g tins of baked beans – 92p
- 500g carton of tomato passata – 35p
- 681g pack of 12 pork sausages – 95p
- 2 x 560g tins of small new potatoes – 30p
- 1 x 800g loaf of soft white toastie bread – 45p
- 8 funsize apples – 79p
- 1kg of long grain rice – 40p
- 1L of vegetable oil – 95p
- 400g packet of digestive biscuits – 31p
- 2 x 300g packets of ginger nuts – 50p
- 6 bananas – 78p
- 10 large British eggs – 75p
- 2 x 100g bars dark chocolate – 60p
- 100g bar white chocolate – 30p
I know this comparison isn’t exactly fair but you can just see how extreme and polarised these two lifestyles are. And if I was to compare the £9.96 from Aldi with how much it would cost to buy the exact same items if everything was organic, biodynamic or whatever for the Hemsley Sisters, I think I would definitely struggle to get under £20.
I am under the belief that if you can afford the biodynamic foods, the chia seeds and the coconut oil, you can afford the same fruit and vegetables that everyone else eats. If the Hemsley Sisters weren’t such advocates of going gluten-free and using biodynamic eggs and coconut oil, I think more people would actively follow their lifestyle. The fact is that going gluten-free out of choice is not an easy commitment to make and apart from the ethics, I don’t think there is much difference between a caged egg compared to an egg which is biodynamic.
Also we are being sold a gluten-free lifestyle through free-from products when there are a huge number of naturally gluten-free products on our supermarket shelves; manufacturers are preying on people’s desire to follow trends and be healthy by creating gluten-free alternatives to naturally gluten-free products. But in a money-strapped society, it’s very hard for normal 9 to 5 working people to achieve this lifestyle. There is a sense that you can’t live the life of a Hemsley Sister unless you live in London near a farmer’s market with a lot of money to spare, a spiraliser as well as an Instagram account.
Let’s be honest, courgette made into noodles is dreary, it’s boring, it’s soggy and I don’t see how anyone can say that it tastes better than pasta. I tried this courgetti ready meal from Marks and Spencer (it was reduced, mind you; does that say anything about courgetti?) and it was horrible. It was soggy, floppy and blander than bland. It was a waste of 70p let me tell you. I’m sure I will get thousands of clean eating fanatics attack me for saying this but courgetti is pointless and I don’t see its place. It looks fun and could probably get your kids to eat more vegetables but it’s not being made in my kitchen any time soon. And why are we encouraging people to use courgetti as their main source of energy? It’s certainly dangerous as it is effectively glorifying the malnourishment of people who are seeking to live a healthy life.
The term ‘clean eating’ itself creates this sense of cleanliness and dirtiness. This binary dualist classification of food has the power to forge terrible relationships with food; we tend to describe food as good and bad, healthy and unhealthy or clean and dirty. This polarising distinguishing of different foods has the potential to cause disordered eating such as orthorexia nervosa, anoxeria nervosa or bulimia nervosa by such restrictive eating.
Issues such as these trouble many during adolescence and the growth of social media certainly has a role to play in this; #cleaneating has over 23 million (at the time of writing) posts on Instagram. Pictures of young people in gyms, avocados, transformation photos, what someone ate for breakfast, salads and green juice dominate the hashtag so it’s no wonder why so many modern teenagers – both boys and girls, mind – feel the pressure to conform to this lifestyle. The Hemsley Sisters, Ella Woodward, Madeleine Shaw among others capture and prey on human fears of gaining weight and use it to promote false truths.
This is why clean eating can be dangerous; it’s so easy to get sucked into this fantasy of getting “the glow” by going gluten-free, eliminating grains and replacing refined sugar with twice as much more natural sugar with a few more nutrients when you can end up leaving yourself malnourished and in a worse state than before. Most of the sweet recipes under the clean eating umbrella call for natural replacements to refined sugar; sounds great in theory! But when you consume even more maple syrup, date syrup or agave nectar than refined sugar, just where are the benefits of that? It’s still sugar but it’s just in a different form! This naivety is worrying to say the least.
Why are we also kidding ourselves that cauliflower is a good replacement for rice and potatoes? I don’t want to drink a bone broth before I go to sleep at night, I don’t want to have chia seeds in my green juice and I don’t like avocados and I don’t want them in my brownies. I am under the belief that eating happily and eating for pleasure is healthier than clean eating. I love the food I eat, whether that ranges from a cheese toastie to a chicken curry or from a roasted vegetable pizza to a simple bourbon biscuit. I couldn’t live a life where I was eating cauliflower rice or courgetti to replace white rice and pasta because it would make me so unhappy.
And there is this feeling that clean eaters make non-conformists feel incredible amounts of guilt for not following their lifestyles – we are made to feel guilty about dunking our gluten, dairy, refined sugar custard cream into our dairy teas and coffees with refined sugar that doesn’t contain coconut oil or grass-fed butter and we are made to feel guilty not eating a cake that isn’t gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and contains avocado, ground almonds and biodynamic eggs. Just how far will clean eating go?
The Hemsley Sisters are in no way directly to blame for the explosion in clean eating. The healthy lifestyle that they do promote is dangerous however, especially since there is not yet any scientific publication from an institute that advocates going gluten-free or eliminating grains from their diet. But perhaps more worryingly, this is part of the GAPS diet.
Taken from www.gapsdiet.com, it says that
“Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) establishes a connection between the functions of the digestive system and the brain. The purpose of the treatment is to detoxify the person, to lift off the toxic fog off the brain to allow it to develop and function properly”
Popularised by one Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride, the GAPS diet promote detoxing, going gluten-free and in infants, ingesting raw eggs. Not only are all 3 of these ill-advised by almost all medical practitioners, the diet that Campbell-McBride advises we follow is, quite frankly, one of the miserable things I’ve ever read. Starting the day off with a glass of warm water is nothing out of the ordinary; in fact I do this myself sometimes. However it goes on to explain that the diet’s staples are homemade meat and fish stocks and that fruit is kept out of the diet for a few weeks. Raw organic egg yolks are to then be incorporated such that you have 1 egg yolk per bowl of soup as it “provides the most wonderful and much needed nutrition”.
I don’t exactly know how to describe how GAPS makes me feel but sad, worried and horrified is a start. Why has this diet been endorsed and produced? The language that is used on the site, ‘healing’, ‘the most wonderful and much needed’ and ‘detoxify’ is incredibly dangerous. I don’t want to touch on GAPS too much as I’m not particularly on top of the details but the incredibly restrictive diet, the language and the idealism is, to quote Ruby Tandoh, quite evangelistic. There’s no scientific evidence that backs this up apart from McBride’s doctorate and that makes this worrying.
I understand, and see, that the Hemsley Sisters do receive a lot of hate; all you have to do is look under #EatingWell or #HemsleyHemsley on Twitter and you will find many people tweeting their hate for them. But I can see the good that they have done: they’ve raised awareness of naturally gluten-free foods and recipes which are gluten-free for coeliacs and that can only be a good thing. And you cannot deny their passion for food. Some of the food they produce also looks amazing.
But what is worrying is that this supposedly positive lifestyle they live is pretty much inaccessible to the average person. I would much rather they show you how you can live a grain-free and gluten-free lifestyle without needing to resort to buying biodynamic products or grass-fed butter; the Hairy Bikers have managed to do such a fantastic job making recipes low in fat and calories in their Hairy Dieters books without using fancy products. Whilst I don’t agree with their choice to go grain-free and gluten-free, because there is no real scientific backing that going gluten-free is beneficial unless you are a coeliac, it is clear that the Hemsley Sisters are sparking conversations about healthy living which can only be a good thing in the long term.
Their lack of qualifications has the potential to be a problem but even those people with qualifications, such as Campbell-McBride who advocates the GAPS diet, can be dangerous. Clean eating itself breaches treacherous territory and may be doing more harm than good. Using courgette and cauliflower as your main energy source might leave you feeling malnourished. Clean eating itself conjures up this world of obsessing over the right foods and may lead to forms of eating disorder.
My Honest Opinion on Clean Eating:
The large majority of people who follow the clean eating lifestyle seem to be young 20-something girls obsessing over their avocado on toast breakfasts on Instagram. That sounds incredibly stereotypical, and maybe it is, but I honestly believe this is true. As you scroll through #cleaneating on Instagram, you see photos of smoothie bowls, acai (pronounced ass-i-ee) bowls, avocado on toast, gym selfies, young girls taking pictures of their green juices. Many girls, and some boys, would definitely feel their self-esteem being lowered as they believe that they are imperfect and need to change. This leads them down to the road of investigating clean eating, eliminating refined sugars, replacing all carbohydrates with courgetti and then potentially a full blown eating disorder. It’s no wonder why we are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of people with eating disorders. And while I am not criticising those with eating disorders, it’s clear to see that clean eating is dangerous and becomes an obsession.
You might find this opinion very controversial but you cannot deny that there is truth behind this and I am not apologetic either. Whether you agree or disagree, clean eating is not what I define as healthy; healthy lies in a sustainable balance. Clean eating causes an extreme form of restricted eating in the same way that obesity is derived from an extreme overconsumption. I don’t believe clean eating can be a healthy lifestyle because of all of the potential problems it can cause like malnourishment, orthorexia, anoxeria and body dysmorphia.
Whilst it’s great that people are talking more about their health, the damage that clean eating could cause might just nullify all the supposed benefits.
Note: I know there are people who eat clean and feel so much better for it, well done to you! I also know that there are people who have also eaten healthily without resorting to acai, goji berries and smoothie bowls. I understand the market for gluten-free products for coeliacs. This is just an opinion on something that does get on my nerves, there is a lot of scientific evidence which supports many of the points I make in this post. I also don’t believe that the Hemsley Sisters are active promoters of the clean eating lifestyle, rather the media has shaped them into that.