The clean eating fad is ugly and damaging, says eating disorder specialist
Blindly following health fads is doing irreparable damage to your body
If you subscribe to the belief that all processed food is evil then Dr. Max Pemberton has some news for you. The British eating disorder specialist wrote an open letter for The Daily Mail, where he outlined the reasons behind the rising number of young women developing eating disorders as a result of following a series of ‘healthy’ diets.
“For those of us who work in treating eating disorders, ‘clean eating’- a trend that focuses on avoiding processed foods and consuming raw and unrefined produce- is a phrase we’ve come to dread,” he wrote. According to him, an “emaciated” 20- something woman, probably still studying in university, is the typical victim of the fad. Her interest in wellness has led her to demonise certain food groups, leaving her with a predominantly plant-based diet that’s deficient in nutrients.
Pemberton notes that many of his patients are unable to even walk up the stairs on their own as their severe lack of energy forces the body to cannibalise its own muscles. He also claims that many of these women will develop reproductive issues while others exhibit signs of osteoporosis and fractures because of weak bones.
It’s not limited to physical damages only. He writes that this also has an adverse effect on his patients’ mental health, “Many are depressed. They complain of being tired all the time, perishingly cold, and struggle to concentrate because the brain, which needs a steady supply of glucose to function properly, has been deprived for some time.”
He concludes by saying that the idea of seeing certain foods as clean and some as dirty is an “inherently disordered way of viewing the world” and that “the whole irony of the clean eating fad is that despite what it purports to be, it’s fundamentally toxic.”
While binge-eating processed food is a terrible idea, it’s unrealistic to completely remove it from your diet. Here are all the important things you should look out for on a processed food label.
Decoding food labels
A nutritionist expert from Harvard perfectly summarized what trans fats really are, “the biggest food-processing disaster in history”. They are twice as dangerous for your heart as saturated fats and have been known to boost cholesterol levels. They also raise levels of artery-clogging lipoprotein (an important marker in the risk of developing heart disease) and triglycerides (fat in blood that is stored as sources of energy, but increased amounts are hazardous for your heart). Lard, margarine and fats that have gone through shortening are bad for you.
While they are clearly specified on most labels, sometimes they are sneakily referred to as ‘partially hydrogenated’, ‘fractionated’ or ‘hydrogenated’. Fully hydrogenated fats are usually not a threat, but sometimes trans fats are mislabeled as hydrogenated and that can be a problem. “What we want is pure oil,” says Tripti. Opt for groundnut, mustard or olive oil to reduce health risk.
The liberal amount of salt used in processed foods is another villain. "After oil and sugar, it’s salt that you should look out for,” warns Tripti. Most of the salt in our diet doesn’t really come from saltshakers. Processed foods that come in cans, or items like soy sauce and cured meat, have added sodium in them that can be harmful to your health. Naturally occurring sodium in unprocessed food is good for your health. Salt can help regulate your blood pressure, make muscles contract and keep your sense of taste, smell and touch in working order. But increased levels of sodium can result in your muscles— including heart—working overtime and thus increasing blood pressure.
Always check the ‘Nutrition Facts’ panel at the back, the sodium levels in the food item will be mentioned there (1,500 mg of sodium per day is the prescribed amount). Don’t fall for the ‘sodium free’ label on the package (it still means that there’s roughly 5 mg sodium per serving), or ‘reduced sodium’ (it’s just 25% less than the usual amount) or ‘light in sodium’ (half the usual amount).
“Most processed foods have been fortified by nutrients. But it’s important to see what the nutrient is,” says Tripti.
According to her, when it says that it’s been fortified by extra iron or fibre, that makes a lot of difference. “Fortification of iron, as per the Indian standards, has not been the best; it’s never been proven healthy,” she says, “For a lot of people, it tends to cause IBD or constipation. It’s preferable to avoid any food that says that it’s been fortified with iron, like breakfast cereal.” If you want iron in your diet, supplement it with other iron-rich foods like spinach, sardines, raisins or dark chocolate. “If the processed food is fortified with vitamins that you don’t usually consume regularly, it’s not a problem,” says Tripti.
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) has made it mandatory for manufacturers to mention the nutrient the food has been fortified with on the package, so all you need to know is which nutrients work best for you and which ones should you avoid.
Added sweeteners increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Some researchers also suggest that fructose can cause overeating. High fructose corn syrup is one of the most popular additives and can be found in most processed foods, including muffins, soft drinks, ketchup and peanut butter. Aside from encouraging overeating, it also forces your liver to produce heart-threatening triglycerides into your blood stream.
“Any ingredient that ends with ‘ose’ or ‘tol’, indicates that it’s a form of added sugar,” says Tripti. So look out for sucralose, maltose and fructose on the label. Also, if it says ‘corn sweetener’ or ‘corn syrup’, then it usually means the same thing.