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Clean Eating and Veganism | a refined look

Updated: Jan 30

We’re back in January already, a well-rehearsed time for resolutions, diet culture, cleanses and detoxes. More recently, it has also become the month of Veganuary – an increasingly popular campaign that empowers and supports people to try going vegan for the month. Veganuary has grown almost exponentially since its introduction in 2014 and they have seen incredible success rates (perhaps unlike most new years resolutions!), with 59% of 2020 participants managing to stay fully vegan for the whole month and an amazing 72% saying they intended to stay vegan even after the 31 day pledge (Veganuary.com).

Veganuary themselves definitely campaign as an ethical organisation and for a holistic vegan lifestyle, but as a campaign that has become adopted into corporate vocabulary, parts of the message have inevitably become dirtied amongst January’s onslaught of restrictions, cleanses and diets.

Veganuary’s report from 2020 showed motivations to sign up varying from environmental concerns, to animal welfare, to personal health – all very valid reasons to go vegan with proven impacts. This diversity is becoming reflected in the growing response to Veganuary, with an increasing variety of products now offered by fast food chains such as McDonalds and Gregg’s besides the push on more stereotypical 'natural', ‘healthy’ choices such as Rude Health and Nakd bars.

Nonetheless, health reasons including ‘to see a desired change in body weight’ were still among the highest share of motivations to go vegan at 38% of total sign ups (alongside animal welfare at 37%), exemplifying the extent to which diet culture and health concerns still intersect with veganism.

It is a tricky line to navigate, as I definitely believe choosing veganism to be a process of constant evolution. Our initial motivations are truthful and valid whether they are personal, holistic or purely for fun and I would certainly not want to exclude that 38% from the party!

Many who would now consider ethical concerns as their primary motivation for being vegan started with reasons such as improving their personal health, which steadily became a wider philosophy the more they engaged. For a lot of us, it is only once animals are no longer being consumed that we can relate to them as more than products. The problem for me is when veganism as a movement gets confused and overwhelmed by its dietary aspects at the cost of its core values as a social justice movement, especially when food is corroborated with such a toxic aspect of diet as clean eating.




Clean Eating | a pure look

The term 'clean eating' refers to a diet that focuses on eating only pure, unprocessed and ‘clean’ foods; rejecting refined foods, any that contain additives or are thought of as more complicated to digest. It typically involves cutting out multiple food groups and/or ingredients such as gluten, red meat, dairy and refined sugar, though frequently expands to also exclude refined oils, wheat or even grains and soy. It is particularly popular among middle-class, White women and is definitely not known for its portfolio of affordable foods!

Though seemingly founded upon basic dietary principles of an abundant and diverse basis of whole foods, fruit and vegetables; the term ‘eating clean’, along with the spiralling restrictions it comes with, have made it a dangerous path for many to take, particularly those susceptible to disordered eating. The backlash against clean eating is therefore growing, almost always throwing the terms plant-based and vegan interchangeably. Well known names such as Nigella Lawson and Ruby Tandoh are among those who have spoken out against the 'wellness industry'. If some foods are 'clean', then where does that leave the rest of them? Dirty? Unnatural? Unsafe? It sets up another very binary relationship with food of good/bad, include/avoid, pure/impure and completely ignores the fact that nutrition occurs on a scale and is bound to be different for every body.

I touched upon this idea in a thought about our relationship with nature, exploring how food intersects with corporate capitalism to sell us the idea of ‘nature' and 'the natural’ as an object - pure and unthreatening. Products aimed at ‘clean eaters’ often shout about being ‘all-natural’, refined sugar free (despite often still being pretty high in sugar) and a whole load of other pseudonyms for ‘good’. It is no surprise then that the clean-eating movement is another arena of white-washing, of able-bodied, slim and beautiful young women from the middle and upper classes.


The clean eating trend does undoubtedly have its positives. I like that it at least moves away from ideas of caloric restriction and reducing body weight, that it is founded upon basic nutritional guidance of an abundance of fruit, veg and whole foods, and of course that it supports and promotes a plant-based lifestyle. It has certainly been very useful in expanding the availability of alternatives to mainstream products, such as gluten-free options, which must be great for coeliacs and those who genuinely need them.

Dairy-free and vegan alternatives are also in this category - we can't know what the trajectory of plant-based alternatives would have been without the surge in popularity of plant-based eating. However, its foundations as a trend based purely in personal health mean that it is in no means dedicated to a plant-based diet. It is clear how quickly that can go out of vogue to be replaced with renewed claims of the health benefits of fish, butter, bone broths or whatever next year decides upon. Increasing plant-based options (for those who can access them!) at the cost of our mental health and the health of the movement is not my idea of sustainable and ethical veganism.


It doesn’t take a deep look to realise that clean eating is just another permutation of diet culture, selling us the idea that we need to improve ourselves by controlling our food. It is still rife with restriction, a focus on bodies, physical health and how to change them. It ignores the fact that not everyone can do this, making it another means of division along lines of privilege.

It means that the types of plant-based product introduced have been very skewed towards ‘healthy’, ‘all-natural’ options, which are often low in calories, expensive and from an unrepresentative cultural background. They represent just a small sector of the potential of plant-based eating and are unsuitable for many of us, whether due to a lack of cultural relevance, a lack of full, balanced and satisfying meals - dangerous in particular for those in recovery from disordered eating - or purely a lack of diversity to allow for personal preference.

Clean eating is an incredibly exclusive arena and so its corroboration with veganism undoubtedly contributes to an exclusive, privileged veganism for the middle class. It normalises restriction, both directly skewing the offer of plant-based foods and also via association. Confusion between veganism and plant-based lifestyles contributes strongly to a one-dimensional version of veganism. Failing to distinguish veganism from the clean eating trend makes both the damaging effects of diet culture and the backlash against it a risk to veganism as a whole.


Plant-Based vs Vegan | the risks of cross-contamination

The focus 'clean eating' places upon isolated ingredients and our isolated bodies diverts away from the concept of veganism in its fullness and so has given rise to the distinction between ‘plant-based’ products or lifestyles and veganism. A plant-based product contains no ingredients derived from another animal, whilst the term 'vegan’ includes avoiding the use of other animals or their bodies throughout production processes and our daily lives. For example this often means that products are not tested on other animals, and vegans will avoid using other animals for entertainment or service.

There are many crossovers, so it is unsurprising that the terms are so often used interchangeably. Someone may consume plant-based foods for many reasons apart from ‘eating clean’, and of course vegans will consume plant-based foods. Particularly now that both terms are so much more part of the general public’s vocabulary, I can see why products, cookbooks and chefs would choose whichever felt the most popular fit. However, it is using the term vegan to reflect values that it doesn't stand for that I take issue with and is exactly why I think we must always bear in mind what we mean by each term. As a social justice movement with an incredibly large task to achieve, it is crucial that veganism is not constrained to a trend.



From fickle to stable

The strife to dismantle speciesism and the subsequent ways we treat other animals makes it crucial that any behavioural changes we make to work towards this are considered, steady and sustainable. However we begin our ‘vegan journey’, it must become something that exists far beyond a whim that comes and goes depending upon the branding.

Nutritional science is an infamously conflicting area of research, which is also massively dominated by the power of diet culture. I believe the health argument for veganism to be a dangerous path to focus upon, easily at risk to changing popular advice (regardless of whether research-supported advice changes) as well as a very ableist argument that excludes anyone whose health looks different from the pre-determined societal look. Whether that is due to dismissing chronic physical health conditions, a fear of fatness that distorts our idea of health, or overlooking mental health; it means the community of people who can access veganism is once again reduced.

As one example, the overemphasis on one aspect of health and the resultant skewed offer of vegan food make veganism an additionally complicated path for anyone struggling with an eating disorder. For many, the complicated messaging and crossovers become a genuine barrier to full veganism. For others, the confusion becomes a popular argument against veganism as it becomes collated with disordered dieting. The current, narrow narrative of the health argument, as well as the ableism rife within it, are destabilising to veganism, risking it becoming unsustainable.

From individual to collective

Veganism is crucial for our collective self rather than purely our bounded individual self - our body and/or mind. Whilst the physical health of our bodies and the nutrition we give them is undoubtedly one aspect of health, it is by no means the be all and end all, the one marker we have available to choose. By having a hyper-focus on our body, even to the point of focusing purely on the size of that body, we forget the importance of so many other aspects of health - sleep, stress levels, social connectedness, support circles, our health as part of a wider, interconnected web.

Whereas a plant-based lifestyle is adopted with the purpose of improving our bounded, personal health, any improvements in personal health through a vegan lifestyle are a happy aspect of improving the health of our collective self and overall planetary health. Framing the health argument for veganism in terms of reduced risk of disease to one's body is not only toeing (and often crossing) the line of pseudo-science and exaggeration, but it completely forgets to value the argument for veganism as healthier for our interconnected lives. As we are seeing with this zoonotic pandemic, we cannot achieve wellness in our own body whilst the balance of the planet and the health of other animals is so sick.

Therefore not only does an individualistic view of health divert the conversation away from the ethical considerations made on behalf of our collective health, but it risks being an unstable approach even for ourself as an individual.


From restriction to rejection

Clean eating frequently becomes about restriction for the self, whereas veganism rejects certain products and practices within society. I have always found the wordings of ”Can you eat this?” or “Oh, you can’t have one” odd in respect to non-vegan products. Once I understand the implications of a product, it has never felt like a restriction to avoid them.

I believe in veganism as a non-violent relationship with other animals so, similarly to the way most of Western society would not see avoiding consuming golden labradors as restriction; pork, milk chocolate and buttery pastries are also products of violence and injustice to me and therefore are something I reject, rather than restrict.

It is a society built on the principles of carnism that veganism rejects and redefines, rather than particular food groups due to their impact on our body. It therefore includes the rejection of many products and practices that may have little impact on our own body, but a massive impact on others, such as owning pets or using other animals to make clothing or for entertainment.

Whilst the externalised behaviour may look the same, I think it is important we spend the time to really look within ourselves to find where the motivations for our choices are coming from. Are they coming from a place of fear, avoidance, denial or even self-punishment related to our individual self, or are they part of a reaction to the wider picture and a positive action to expand an alternative.

It is a complicated distinction to find but I really think it is a crucial aspect of each of our journeys with veganism. A choice to follow veganism as a rejection based on ethics may well come along with lashings of restriction, whether they are part of diet culture or because we have not yet accessed our own way to make veganism expansive rather than restrictive. But without doing the work of extracting and separating the two, I think the power of veganism as a positive creation of an alternative future is massively compromised.


From internalised to externalised

We need to understand the nature and role of diet culture in associating food with internalised emotions such as guilt and shame, rather than an externalised feeling of empowered connection. This is a much more nuanced distinction to make, as I think it actually highlights one of the muddiest areas between veganism and clean eating. Both veganism and eating for health hold the opportunity to be practiced from a place of internalised guilt and shame, or from a place of societal liberation and empowered choice.

Whatever our motivators for behavioural change, whether to achieve improved health or to fight the oppressive system of speciesism, I don't see guilt and shame as successful places to make a sustainable and positive change. In order to follow a vegan lifestyle sustainably it needs to focus its negative emotions upon what it rejects - ie the success/failure of carnism as an ideology - and not upon our own success or failure to reject it.

In practice, this means extracting plant-based eating from the concepts of clean/dirty and the shaming of diet culture. Extracting it from the focus upon purifying our body and obsessing over its composition. Extracting it from the divisive and isolating emotions of guilt and shame that are so much more conducive to a society of poor mental health and disorder than of wellness and health to instead look at our behaviours and lifestyles as part of the wider picture.

The role of the clean eating movement is then reframed away from its physical components, rules and ingredients towards its rejection of a food system that no longer serves our collective health. Only by separating the impacts of our behaviour from the guilt of making 'naughty food choices' or the shame of having 'poor skin health' can we stop focussing on our reactions to the food system and see the system itself.

If we try to leave aside for a moment any ideas about nutrient components and 'good' or 'bad' foods, we can think about the origin of clean eating as a rejection of a capitalist food system that overproduces and oversells cheap, addictive and unsustainable food products. We can then realise that the answer is probably not a range of overly expensive products, addictive rules and unsustainable messaging. It seems like that is just another hard sell from diet culture.


I therefore think we need to reject the term and concept of 'clean eating' as a product of the diet industry, sold to us under lashings of guilt, shame and fatphobia. An industry operating alongside the well-practised partners to capitalism of patriarchy, White supremacy, ableism and classism.

In reframing plant-based lifestyles, we move from a restrictive reaction in fear or shame to an empowered rejection of a food system based upon White supremacy, classism, ableism and speciesism. It then becomes a decision to eat plant-based not because all other foods are scary and unclean, but because speciesm is scary and unsustainable. I think that is where a plant-based diet becomes vegan.

Conclusions

This topic is something that has concerned me since I first became suspicious of the clean eating trend and I am glad to see that, even with a growing resistance towards clean eating, we do seem to have space for veganism outside of the grips of the diet industry. There is an ever increasing diversity within veganism, which is reflected by an increasing diversity in the products being offered. Whilst I am sure that Veganuary probably still instigates an increased interest in ‘all-natural’, pure plant-based foods, it also brings signs outside Greggs promoting their vegan sausage roll, Veganuary offers on Deliveroo and new plant-based options in all the supermarkets.


It is of course only natural and absolutely ok that we are most in touch with our bounded individual self; that our health is still the ‘way in’ to veganism for many of us. I would just ask us to all question whether the concept we hold of health is the whole picture, or whether we could be getting much further.

Vegan nutrition should be just like nutrition under carnism – it is about ensuring all our nutritional needs are met adequately, then refocusing on the wider picture. It is not about ‘perfecting’ or optimising health - there is no ‘perfect diet’, especially not on a societal level! So whilst clean eating tends towards an ever narrowing picture of nutrition as the pursuit of optimum health, ‘you are what you eat’ and nutritional purity; vegan nutrition should address how to provide our bodies with the nutritional tools it needs, acknowledging the particular attention this needs in reaction to a food system saturated by speciesism. The aim of nutrition is just as the WHO definition of health is - "a resource for everyday life, not the object of living".


Veganism should not be a binary, or a rules-based lifestyle of restriction, but an inclusive, accessible rejection of the status quo and a path towards a new, abundant lifestyle. It must avoid enmeshment with clean-eating, dieting and fatphobia to avoid the dangers already within veganism of becoming exclusive to White, middle-class and able-bodied people. It must be centred upon a rejection of a toxic and oppressive food system, not become distracted in the idea of 'toxic foods'.



So with these clarifications in mind, how do we advocate for veganism?

Fundamentally, I believe that for veganism to remain a social justice issue and to grow as a positive movement of creation, building new ways to live, it must be a practice of our ethics - envisioning our ideology and working back from there to build a world as close to that as possible. It means advocating for liberation for all, other species, other humans, and our own health both individual and collective.

It is important that we practice our own veganism and pratice our activism in a way that avoids guilt and shame to ourself or others, encouraging a behavioural change that is productive, sustainable and collective. That we avoid an imbalanced tip towards ourselves as bounded individuals and we ensure veganism and health are founded upon a wide, diverse, positive movement towards liberation for us all.

It means distinguishing veganism from diets and running away from the diet industry. Extracting it from the divisions of clean/dirty, middle-class/working-class, White/Black and ensuring it can be as diverse a spectrum of options and people as possible. It certainly means relooking at the way the health argument is being sold, to ensure we are not advocating via pseudo-scientific claims or wild curative promises that exaggerate and exclude. We must get to the place where we understand health in a full enough way that we are celebrating the health argument as a route in because health is inclusive.

It means each of us doing the work within ourselves to find how our veganism is expansive, positive and extracted from restriction. How it is healthful in the full meaning of the concept and how it is sustainable and enriching for the long-term.

I do think Veganuary are already doing pretty great at divorcing veganism from diet culture. They support a diversity of corporations to participate and it is undoubted that Veganuary is a highly effective route to veganism. Their success clearly shows that the commitment people make when signing up bears more thought than pure whimsical trend, a new years resolution doomed to fail.

Veganuary offers an opportunity beyond a resolution to restrict and change the self, to include and change the world. There are so many options to embrace and enjoy in a vegan diet that it does not have to be for the elite, for the young, for women or for White people. It is not about what people ‘should’ do with their own bodies, but with the bodies of others, those who don’t have a choice.

Plant-based options are fucking great, so long as they are an expansive, diverse and satisfying whole picture. So I hope that here is to a successful January of resolving for a fuller 2021 that includes positive, sustainable changes for our health as a whole! Thanks for the contemplation time, but see ya 2020!

For more:

https://veganuary.com - Veganuary is honestly such a great initiative, with loads of information, support and a community for change. Well worth giving it a try (It is active all year round so don't feel constrained to the arbitrary 01/01 to make a change!)

DabbaDrop - https://dabbadrop.co.uk/menus - @dabbadrop - a fantastic London-based small business delivering 'conscious curries' by bike. All vegan, in reusable tiffin boxes and look like really tasty authentic recipes

https://www.vice.com/en/article/jm5nvp/ruby-tandoh-eat-clean-wellness - Ruby Tandoh's article for VICE is a great look at the issues of 'wellness' culture and 'clean eating'

Health at Every Size (HAES) - https://haescommunity.com - campaigning and raising awareness to challenge fatphobic assumptions around health and support people in all types of body to achieve health

https://www.livescience.com/dangers-of-zoonoses-pandemics.html - on zoonotic diseases with regard to Covid-19 - an aspect we are not talking about enough!


For anti-diet culture goodness, follow:

The Anti Diet Riot Club - @antidietriotclub

The Body is Not an Apology - @thebodyisnotanapology

Sofie Hagen - @sofiehagendk

Jameela Jamil - @jameelajamilofficial and @i_weigh

The Encouraging Dietician - @encouragingdietician

Helena Rose - @helenarosecope


For more on veganism beyond from the health argument, look into:

A Privileged Vegan - a great YouTube channel with lots of videos diving into the relationship of veganism with capitalism and other oppressive systems

Cowspiracy - https://www.cowspiracy.com/facts - available on Netflix and Amazon Prime, highly recommend for the clarity with which it sets out the environmental argument. I'd be careful about the connections with What the Health though as a heads up!

@cornonthecob - is vegan and regularly posts a mixture of great recipes from a very balanced approach, alongside some thoughts on intersectional veganism


For vegan nutrition:

The Vegan Society - https://www.vegansociety.com/resources/nutrition-and-health/nutrition-overview - a great approach to vegan nutritional health as a basis for living our life! Important as a counter to the hegemony of dietetics under carnism

Liz Cook - https://www.lizcookcharts.co.uk/nutrition-chart.html - I still love the classic illustrated chart of vegan nutrition by Liz Cook - it sums up the idea of nutrition as abundant not restrictive


For veganism outside of Whiteness:

Vegan Nigerian - @vegannigerian - she is also doing a Veganuary offer for 50% off her Plantain Cookbook ebook which looks great!

Black Vegans Rock - http://www.blackvegansrock.com

Veganism of Colour - http://www.veganismofcolor.com


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