Judith Woods: 'Clean eating' was invented so dull people can feel special

By Judith Woods

"Raw" is not always better than "cooked", sugar is not always a sin. Hunger is not the enemy. Photo / Pexels
"Raw" is not always better than "cooked", sugar is not always a sin. Hunger is not the enemy. Photo / Pexels

What is happening with our relationship to food? This week alone, we've read damning reports about chronic overeating and obsessional undereating, clean eating (which is bad), protein shakes (which are worse), and how children should be denied second helpings and bribed with cash to get them to eat vegetables.

If it's true that we are what we eat, then dysfunctional doesn't begin to describe it; we're collectively suffering from some sort of over-hydrogenated, multi-personality disorder.

On Thursday, BBC's Horizon programme pretty much busted the myth that clean eating is a virtue. Turns out it can be a vice, and not just because there's a courgette shortage thanks to the spiraliser brigade having descended on them like a swarm of gluten-free locusts.

The sexed-up name for spiralised courgette is courgetti, because it's served instead of pasta. I've made it myself and it's great. Occasionally.

But therein lies the nub; we don't do "occasionally" any more. If we did, there would be no need for a sugar tax on soft drinks, traffic-light labels on chocolate bars or moral outrage over middle-class mummies' drinking.

And, speaking of whom, this week we saw historical accusations blame our mothers for our 40-something tendency to eat an entire packet of Chocolate Fingers in one go.

Apparently, women of a certain age who overeat are not just a bit greedy and stressed, we are emotionally damaged by our loveless upbringing. Crikey: there's a fresh topic for debate when you next visit the care home.

Given how my generation liberally lavishes affection on our children, the little blighters ought, by that logic, to be built like whippets. Aha, but it's not so simple. The downside of too much maternal love is that we're expressing it through carbs.

According to research from University College London, obesity boils down to the scourge of seconds. Those little Oliver Twists asking for 12 more calories per meal are eating themselves into an early grave.

I say 12 more calories because behavioural obesity lecturer Dr Clare Llewellyn has pinpointed that's how much extra those children with weight issues eat at mealtimes.

It doesn't sound much, or look much, but it adds up to 2,500 calories each month and translates into a third of children leaving primary school being classed as overweight or obese.

I'm with the geneticists who believe some of us carry a "fat gene" (geneticists aren't much given to euphemism) and put on weight more easily when they eat processed food filled with fats and sugar.

But there's evolutionary biology at play, too, and the atavistic impulse to feast now because there may be famine later takes no account of the plenty in the 21st-century Western world. Even back in the Seventies, we ate far less because we were given smaller portions. I vividly remember my cut of the Sunday chicken was a wing until my elder sisters left home. And yes, children, nobody had to pay me to eat my veg because otherwise I'd have gone hungry.

Which brings me to the "cash for kale" controversy sparked by National Obesity Forum campaigner Tam Fry, who has suggested bribing our bairns to eat their greens. I'm not sure how monetising vegetable consumption helps anyone in the long run, although it would encourage a distinctly mercenary streak, which might be helpful if you're banking on rearing a future master of the universe.

In my house, it would have to be a fiver per carrot stick (a whole carrot would have to come with a donkey) for the younger one. Yet her elder sister would pay me to cook her swede, and her Christmas dinner plate was a Brussel sprout bonanza.

I know the habits I set up now will shape their attitudes to food later, but it's all a bit of a minefield because there are so many mixed messages floating about. Food is now as much of a status symbol as it was in Georgian England, when society hostesses would rent a pineapple as a centrepiece for their table. It was to be admired rather than eaten, and as the fruit's freshness diminished, so would the cost of hiring it for an evening.

Fast-forward three centuries and the kudos comes from being one of the no-wheat, no-sugar, no-nuthin' proselytisers. The medical term for people who obsess about what sort of food they put in their bodies is "orthorexic", and, boy, are they a smug, self-congratulatory lot. One psychiatrist confided in me that it usually begins as an affectation adopted by dull people who want to feel special.

Even the term "clean" eating riles me no end because it overtly lays claim to moral superiority - although I like the Woody Allen quote: "Is sex dirty? Only when it's being done right."

When I politely shun bread because I have a gluten intolerance, I am always asked if I have been diagnosed, if I'm a coeliac, if I have tried gluten-free wheat. The answer is no times three. It just doesn't agree with me. Or I with it. No need to medicalise it or make a fuss or start comparing esoteric food allergies and preferences for natural "purity".

This week, it was reported that a total of 65 people fell ill after drinking a contaminated batch of raw unpasteurised milk from a specialist farm in Cumbria. The Food Standards Authority has long warned that the elderly and children should not drink milk that hasn't been heat-treated, and yet the youngest person to fall ill was a one-year-old baby, the oldest 86.

I'm not sure what point anyone was trying to prove, and I wish everyone - including the farmer's milk business - a speedy recovery, but it's just yet another example of extreme eating.

"Raw" is not always better than "cooked", sugar is not always a sin. Hunger is not the enemy. Courgettes are jolly nice fried as well as spiralised.

And as my own mother would tell me: "Always get up from table feeling you could still eat a penny bun more."

I'm not sure what a penny bun is, but I bet it contains 12 calories.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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